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.
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!