The Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” was published in the United Kingdom in 1871, and for close to one hundred and fifty years, the question found in the title of this carol has become an annual reminder that something significant happened on that night in Bethlehem as someone significant lay wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger.
The title of the carol is intended to be the primary question the shepherds must have asked on the night they visited the baby Jesus. After their angelic encounter and receiving the startling news while they tended their sheep on the outskirts of Bethlehem, their heads must have been spinning as they tried to comprehend all they experienced on that first Christmas night.
Luke’s Gospel records the scene in Luke 2:8-18.
While no nativity scene is complete without the shepherds’ presence, and the answer to this Christmas Carol’s question also would be only partial without the description of “shepherd.”
What child is this? He is a shepherd; Jesus described Himself as the good shepherd in John 10:11.
He is the one who came to lay His life down for all of humanity just as a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. While at times the shepherds in the Christmas story have been labeled as the ones who were a bit rough around the edges and living on the lowest rung of society’s ladder, Jesus describes Himself as being a shepherd who has great responsibility. There is no greater responsibility than holding the life of another in the control of one’s own hands. Protecting the life of others was the responsibility and calling of the shepherd.
The imagery of the shepherd is prominent in Ancient Near Eastern history. Shepherds were equated with righteous government and often appear in contexts where the subject of justice is prominent. Shepherds were expected to be the ones who showed kindness in counseling, protecting, and guiding those whom they were responsible for through every difficulty. Even the shepherd’s crook has been viewed throughout the ages as a symbol of power, authority, and strength.
shepherds are mentioned over one hundred times in the Bible. One of the first careers found in the pages of the Bible is that of the shepherd, Abel, the son of Adam and Eve was a shepherd (Genesis 4:2).
In the Bible, those who possessed flocks of sheep and other animals that needed shepherding, were viewed as wealthy and powerful. Great flocks and herds were seen as blessings from the hand of God. Abraham is an example of such a blessing of this type when he is described in Genesis 24:35. Jesus himself, speaks about having many sheep later in John 10:14-16.
Jesse’s son, David, was given the responsibility to take care of his father’s sheep before he would be called to care for and lead the people of Israel as their king. The place David was found before he was anointed as king by the prophet Samuel was out in the fields tending his father’s sheep in 1 Samuel 16.
Remember, the Lord sent Samuel to Jesse to anoint one of his sons as the future King of Israel. Jesse presents each of his sons before the great prophet and the Lord rejects all of them, finally Samuel asks Jesse in verse 11, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse responds that there is one more, but he is out tending the sheep. He is the little shepherd boy, and the thinking was that he could never be the future king.
Even after this incredibly significant anointing of David as the future king of Israel, he continued to fulfill his duties as a shepherd while King Saul still sat as the King of Israel.
The child that would be born in the manger in Bethlehem would be near the pastures that David grazed his father’s sheep centuries beforehand. The Savior of the world, the good shepherd, would be born in the City of David and a direct descendant of the King who also was a good shepherd.
What child is this? He is a shepherd and king just as his ancestor David.
The principal duty of the shepherd was to make sure that the animals under his care had enough food and water. David’s most famous Psalm speaks to this in Psalm 23, that begins with truth that echoes the answer to the question of the carol: What Child Is this? (see Psalm 23:1-2).
Just as the shepherd was responsible for the food and water provisions of the sheep, protecting the flock also was a priority that continually must be provided. When David was preparing to fight against Goliath, he told king Saul about his encounters with wild animals as he protected the sheep (1 Samuel 17:34-35)
What Child Is This? He is the one who will provide for and protect all who are under His care.
The good shepherd went to great lengths to take care of those under his or her care. He would make sure they were kept intact and would go to great lengths to find one sheep that was missing (see Matthew 18:10-14).
What child is this? He is the one who left all the riches and comfort of heaven to look for the ones who went astray. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one of us—to our own way.” (Isaiah 53:6).
This child in the manger would grow to become the one who came to seek and to save those who were lost, alone, exposed, and astray.
What child is this?
He is the one who came to lay down His life.
He is the one who came to provide for and protect His flock.
He is the one blessed with ones He would call His own and who would come to know His voice.
He is the one who is the good shepherd.