“the heavenly army.” The Greek word translated “army” is stratia (#4756 στρατιά). Robertson (Word Pictures in the New Testament) writes: “A military term for a band of soldiers common in the ancient Greek.” We do not see any good reason to translate stratia as “host” in modern versions. In the times of the King James Version (1611), the word “host” often referred to an army, but that use of “host” has almost completely fallen out of use, and very few modern readers would read “host” and think “army.” Nevertheless, due to tradition, and also due to the theology that “God is in control and the Devil can only do what God allows him to,” many modern versions still use “host.”
This heavenly army of angels would have almost certainly been standing on the ground on the hillsides where the flocks were—the area around Bethlehem is very hilly. Many paintings and Christmas cards depict this army of angels having wings and hovering in the air, but that is not likely. With the exception of Zechariah 5:9, no angel in the Bible has wings, and they almost exclusively appear looking as if they were humans, and standing on the ground. For example, when the heavenly army protected Elisha, “the mountain was covered with horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17 HCSB).
It is worth noting that Luke 2:13 does not say something like “a great company of angels,” were at Jesus’ birth, but instead describes them as “a multitude of the heavenly army.” God and His angels had been waging war against the Devil and his angels (cp. Matt. 25:41) for millennia, and the whole creation had been groaning in pain, waiting for the redemption the Messiah would bring (Rom. 8:19-23). Now the Messiah had been born, and as the future commander and chief of all of God’s armies, it was fitting that the angelic army of God would show up at his birth to pay tribute to the newborn Redeemer.
[For more on the war between God and the Devil, see commentary on Luke 4:6. For more on the Devil being the god of this age, see commentary on 2 Cor. 4:4. For more on the names of the Devil that describe his characteristics, see Appendix 14, “Names of the Devil.” For more on Adam and Eve getting the crafty nature of the Devil, see commentary on Romans 7:17. For more on the future Kingdom of Christ on earth that will not have the Devil present, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.” For more on the future restored earth being called “Paradise,” see commentary on Luke 23:43].