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“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” is unique among the songs we sing at Christmas because of its musical genre. It is not a “carol” in the traditional sense. It is a “spiritual,” one of a body of songs born of the suffering of African Americans in slavery. This song dates from the American Civil War era, and it is filled with faith and hope. The song reflects on the experience of another group of people who were looked down on in their day. Though the shepherds of the first Christmas were not slaves, they were at the bottom of the social ladder. In first-century Judea, their testimony was not admissible in a court of law. They were also among the very poorest of the land.
This is one of the reasons that the appearance of the angels to the shepherds on that first Christmas was quite remarkable. The angels appeared not in the halls of Caesar or in the temple courts in Jerusalem but to the lowly shepherds outside Bethlehem. The specific interaction between the angels and shepherds is recorded only in Luke’s gospel. This shouldn’t surprise us since Luke’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus focuses on the fact that the coming of Jesus isn’t for people who think they are “somebodies” but is rather for “anybodies” and especially for “nobodies.” Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but the opening verses of “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” focus on the shepherds.
While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens,
There shone a holy light.
The angels told the shepherds to “go and see,” and they “went and saw.” The reward was that the “lowly shepherds” were the first to see “the Savior who is Christ the Lord.” What a sight it must have been. This One who had been described in such glorious terms was found by them “wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The shepherds were told to “go and see,” but they weren’t told to “go and tell.” However, Luke tells us that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” Though their testimony wasn’t allowed in a court of law, nothing could stop them from speaking about what they had seen. Shouldn’t this be the compelling outcome in the lives of all who have “seen” the glory of Jesus with the eyes of faith? And the shepherds did not know that the baby would grow up to heal the leper, to give sight to the blind, and to raise the dead. They also did not know that He would fulfill His mission by dying on the cross and triumphantly rising from the dead. And we have benefited not only from the testimony of the Scriptures but also from the testimony of His grace written on our hearts if we have believed and received this good news. To be honest, because of our sinfulness and rebellion against God, aren’t we also unlikely recipients of this transforming message? The humble and needy are exactly the right candidates for this message. The angels said that it was for “all the people,” and later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).
But aren’t we also unlikely candidates to be entrusted with carrying this good news to others? Why didn’t the Lord just commission the angels to tell everybody about the coming of Jesus? They are certainly more impressive than we are. True, but the angels were not going to experience the salvation the Savior came to secure. He came for fallen humanity. So, it is fallen yet redeemed people who have been told to “go and tell.”
You might wonder why the song says, “Go, tell it on the mountain.” Bethlehem is situated in the Judean mountains. In fact, its elevation is almost identical to that of Jerusalem. When the shepherds returned, their testimony was likely delivered to other shepherds on the Judean hillside. In this lyric, there may also be an echo of the words of Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ ” God has been faithful to keep His Word and to bring salvation to a needy world.
We now have the privilege to go and tell the good news everywhere that Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and rose for all who will believe.