The Christmas season is here, and that means Christmas music. I can hardly wait every year to begin playing the songs of the season and of our Savior’s coming. One classic Christmas hymn that has always moved me is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Just the first words, “Oh, come, oh, come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” gives me chills.
“O Come, O Come Emanuel” is actually an 8th and 9th century Latin hymn. It takes us back over a thousand years to monastic life, where this hymn was used, much like today, in preparation for the Christmas celebration. It was traditionally sung during the final week of Advent. This hymn is possibly the oldest Christmas carol that is still in use. It was later translated by John Mason Neale from a French draft and made its way into the Church of England’s official hymnal in 1861. It has become a very familiar song for believers worldwide that is sung in anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The hymn serves as a guided tour of the Old Testament prophecy of Christ’s coming and messianic work. Each stanza calls up a major theme of prophecies about the Messiah. Each textual matter is a prayer to Jesus under a variety of prophetic names. The refrain is the answer to the prayer: “Rejoice, Emmanuel will surely come!”
The hymn embodies a dynamic tension between what has already passed and what is yet to come. It expresses anticipation of the birth of Christ, who has already come. It also anticipates the return of Christ, who will come again. The song presents a beautiful musical dance between Israel awaiting her Messiah and that of the Church awaiting His return.
The song actually serves generally as a running commentary of Old Testament prophecy, and its many images of Jesus found in their passages. The very first verse references Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Jesus is God-with-us; God, who comes to Earth to save His people.
In particular, one can see this hymn as specifically being a commentary of Isaiah 11. For instance, the carol in part references Isaiah 11:2-3: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear.” Jesus came and will come with wisdom to judge and to set things right.
This hymn has remained popular, I believe, because it reminds us as Christians how we long for another place, one where the coming Messiah wipes the tears of those in sorrow and those cast down under life’s weightiness. The hymn makes a request for wisdom, salvation, victory, and safety. Of course, these are only ultimately found in Christ.
As we approach Christmas, let’s do so celebrating our Savior and Lord, who has come and will return to reconcile all His people unto Himself. He will bring justice and peace. As we celebrate Christmas, let’s rejoice in Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!