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O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

It is difficult to comprehend the long anticipation for the coming of the Messiah experienced by the people of Israel. In our twenty-first century instant gratification world, we really have no imaginable category to equate the centuries of frustration and longing endured by generations of God’s people. And although we commemorate the season of Advent in the Christian calendar each year, even the congregations most committed to adhering to this season of waiting only experience it in a performative manner. We can’t fully immerse ourselves in such a posture because in the back of our minds we know that Christ has come. As much as some of our greatest Christian calendar enthusiasts try to commemorate it and we try to convince ourselves, we can never emulate that same kind of longing. 

This may be a contributing factor to the lack of Christian hymns and carols that meaningfully capture the Advent season. Therefore it is important to consider those Advent hymns that have endured. One of the most familiar is “O Come Emmanuel,” with text originating over 1,200 years ago and a chant-like melody that shifts from a minor key in the verses to a major lift in the refrain “Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” 

Aside from these aesthetics, the most compelling reason for its longevity may be the deep sense of longing for the Messiah’s deliverance beautifully woven with rich biblical allusions to Jesus Christ and the expectant hope of his coming. Each verse of the song begins with an invitation that highlights a particular biblical attribute of Christ, then describes a new reality once the Messiah comes. 

Considering the lyrics verse by verse provides a better understanding of their meaning and strong Christological foundations. 

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O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel;
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

 

The first verse begins with an invitation from a waiting, exiled people looking forward to the coming Messiah’s rescue. It also alludes to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that “…the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”


O come, Thou
Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.


The invitation in the second verse references Isaiah 11:1 regarding the lineage of Jesus: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” 


Both of these stanzas focus on the Messiah’s expected liberation of God’s people. In the first, the deliverance is from Israel’s physical reality. When the Messiah comes, the text infers, he will bring deliverance from earthly suffering and oppression. The second verse calls for spiritual and emotional deliverance from the schemes of Satan, the grips of hell, and the sting of death as described in 1 Corinthians 15:56-57. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 


Come, the first two verses say, and set us free!


O come, Thou
Day-Spring, come and cheer,
Our Spirits by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.


Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1 finishes with these words “…the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” This phrase, “sunrise from on high,” is translated as “Dayspring” in the King James Version and refers to the Messiah as one who brings a new dawn (The Christian Standard Bible translates the sunrise as the “dawn from on high”). As the sun ushers in a new day, so the Messiah will bring new life to our spirits, will cover the darkness with light, and push the darkness of death away. 


Come, verse three shouts, and bring new life and light!


O come, Thou
Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.


In Isaiah 22:22 the prophecy refers to the Messiah as the “Key of David”: 
“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” We see this phrase again in Revelation 3:7, when Jesus is referred to as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus, our Messiah, is the one who opens the gates of heaven to those who believe and, in doing so, closes the path that leads to death, providing the way to eternity with him. 


Come, we sing in verse four, and lead us to our eternal home with you!


O come, Thou
Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.


When the fifth verse refers to Christ as “Wisdom from on high,” it not only draws language from Jeremiah 51:15 but also from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he refers to Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). The last two lines of the verse are almost directly lifted from Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” 


Come, verse five calls, and teach us to walk in your ways!


O come,
Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.


The final verse of “O Come Emmanuel” refers to a phrase used in the prophecy found in Haggai 2:7 (KJV) “And I will shake all nations, and
the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.” Christ, Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, “himself is our peace.” He knocks down the dividing walls between us and reconciles us to God in one body through the cross.


As we sing the last verse we invite the Messiah to come and bring peace to the world. 


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


Each verse ends with this refrain. Rejoice. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)  Rejoice because the Deliverer
has come and is coming again to make all things as they ought to be!

Sing!

Sing!

Why do we sing?

A church service can feel like a strange place to those who lack familiarity with the practices that take place in gatherings for worship. One of the practices that sets the church apart  is corporate singing. While it may seem non-negotiable to those of us for whom church attendance is a regular discipline, it can seem a bit odd to someone experiencing it for the first time. Or, for that matter, there may very well be those among us who have attended for years and they are asking the same question!

“Yeah, I’ve always wondered…why DO we sing so much?”

Let’s consider this for a moment. Even if you have taken this as a given in your life, I think it is a subject worth exploring to understand the extraordinary practice of corporate singing. Historically, it has been a part of the Christian church since its inception. Music as part of worship predates Jesus’ life and ministry. The first documented song of worship goes all the way back to the book of Exodus. I mean, if it’s good enough for Moses, I guess we should consider it, right? I think the greater question, however, is ”Why”. More specifically, why has the use of the song and the participation of the congregation in singing been such a primary medium in worship? And why does it continue to be? Why should I sing?

I could probably write about four chapters of a book on this, but I think I will limit myself to two primary reasons why singing plays such an important role in worship.

First, it’s biblical.


OK. I know this sounds like a “Cuz the Bible says so” argument. But for those who take Scripture seriously, this is not an argument to be brushed by or easily disregarded. If one is an earnest student of the Word of God, then there is an understanding that precepts are followed by practice. For those of us who are interested in what God’s Word has to offer on this matter, let’s just say there is a great deal of biblical evidence that suggests this has always been an important aspect of Christian practice. 

Singing is directed and commanded in Scripture (Deuteronomy 31:19-22, Psalm 5:11, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 47, Psalm 95, Psalm 96, Psalm 149, Psalm 150, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Singing is  something God does (Zephaniah 3:17) and a practice Jesus participated in during His earthly ministry (Matthew 26:30). Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a way of proclaiming who God is and what He has done, as well as a means of communicating with and responding to God (Exodus 15:1-21, Luke 1:46-55, the entire Book of Psalms). And while this certainly doesn’t capture the breadth of the subject, there just doesn’t seem to be any lack of evidence that singing has been, is, and will be an expression of God-worshiping people. 

 You might be thinking, “All right. I figured there had to be some biblical evidence, but why? Why…singing?”

Second, it’s formative.


I am reminded that God has given us a responsibility “…to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13 CEB) So when we gather together, we are seeking to form one another in the unity of our faith and a greater understanding of the person of Jesus. And singing helps us to do that.

“How?” I’m glad you asked.

This reminds me of God’s incredible hand of creation and His intimate understanding of those He has crafted in His own image. Because as He commands, “Sing!” He also understands what singing does for us as a means of spiritual formation. And I think it is vital that we understand that corporate worship and singing as a part of corporate worship are distinctly formational practices for the follower of Christ.  

In an interview in 2015, Keith Getty, co-writer of In Christ Alone, provided this anecdote regarding the role of singing in worship. “My joke with all my preacher friends,” he mused, “Is that if they finish a good sermon, people go out singing the last hymn. And if they do a really bad sermon, they go out singing the last hymn. So it really doesn’t matter what they say.” 

And while that may seem like a lighthearted proposition, scientific research affirms the sentiment. It begins with how music connects with memory. You might understand this more inherently than you realize. For instance, has there ever been a time when you heard a song and it took you back to a particular time and place? Or it stirred up a feeling or a particular emotion? That is the associative power music has in creating memory. And therein lies the power of music and the understanding God has of the human mind He created, the medium of music He created, and the way the two interact.

One of our worship leaders at the Leawood Campus, Amy Wilson, is a highly educated, licensed music therapist. In a lecture she presented in 2011 on Music and Memory, she helps us understand how the glory of God’s creativity, the way the mind stores information, and the human experience interact.

”Long term memory is the relatively permanent and limitless storehouse of the memory system. However, we need cues to recall this information. When we encode memories, neurons form connections called neural networks. When we access one aspect of a network, this leads to other bits of information stored in the same network. Stronger emotions related to these networks create stronger memories.”

So here’s the incredible byproduct of singing in church. Because of the strong emotions intrinsically embedded in a song and the experience surrounding it, you are encoding memories and creating a memory storehouse when you physically participate in it, leading you to inevitably remember what you sing and build meaning around it. It’s how we learned the alphabet and, more than likely, why you have a library of Scripture in your head without really knowing it. Ultimately, that means that when we sing in church, we create a storehouse of the songs we sing. And the words of those songs – the lyrics – serve a valuable role in forming the way we understand and interact with our faith. 

This collection of memories we store shapes our imaginations and reorients us to the story of who GOD is, what GOD says about us and the world, and who GOD says we are. And in response to the incredible story that God is writing in our lives, our singing gives us language to reflect our emotional response to Him – songs of thanksgiving, praise, adoration, devotion, longing, commitment, and love. It is by no means a passive activity. It’s participative. It requires something of you, and it involves our body, mind, and heart. 

Not to be overlooked, there is an incredibly unique characteristic found in singing which is something we desperately need today as the people of God – unity. When we sing together, we sing in agreement. We say the same thing, we pray the same thing. The songs we sing literally put words into one another’s mouths. We sing these words – words of shared expression, belief, devotion, commitment and prayer – for one another, over one another, and with one another as a means of shaping one another. It is a sung covenant to be the people of God together. And we are forming one another into a new creation, a new community. Keith and Kristyn Getty put it this way in their book, Sing!

“As we sing to God and about God together with the people of God, we reflect the truth that we were designed for community, both with God and with each other…and singing together engenders and expresses that we are family. When we sing, we show the community that reflects our Creator, our triune God. When His Church sings together, voice upon voice like arms linked across a room, and indeed across all the gathering places of His followers around the globe, across history, we are doing what we were designed to enjoy-using our God-given voices to sing praises together to the One who gave us those voices. It expresses what unites us, and it reminds us of our interdependence.”

Perhaps you didn’t realize all that was happening and being communicated as you sing! 

So when you come to church again this Sunday, be reminded that your participation in singing is not only a biblical directive but is a meaningful part of your spiritual formation and the formation of those around you. Listen to what you are singing about God, to God, and to one another, because it is quietly forming you (or not so quietly, depending on how loud you sing) into fully grown followers in the fullness of Christ. 

 

Songs of Faith,” CBS This Morning, Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS, New York. 17 Apr. 2015. Television.

Wilson, A. (2011, October 5). The Songs of Our Lives: Music and Memory [Conference Presentation]. Cross Train Your Brain Symposium, Leawood, KS.

Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017), 8.