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Come, Desire of Nations, Come: An Advent Reflection

December 12th, 2019 | 5 min read

By Matthew Arbo

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.

-Haggai 2:7

Congregations always enjoy a spirit of levity for Advent hymns. Everyone sings that much louder than usual, in whatever key they can manage. And I wouldn’t call it dancing, per se, but congregations are demonstrably more foot-happy than at any other point in the calendar! This year I’ve been particularly struck by the political imagery of the traditional Advent hymns. The Wesley brothers never shy away from such things, of course. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing has been sung a few times already this Advent, and this year I can’t help contemplating the opening stanza to verse four: “Come, Desire of Nations, Come!” Such an evocative, insistent phrase! A perfect Advent lyric — hopeful and anticipatory. Under the elegant Wesley pen one is perhaps excused for forgetting the scriptural context of the lyric.

And I will shake all the nations, the verse begins. Not ‘stir’ nor ‘awaken.’ Not ‘prod’ nor ‘provoke.’ No. Shake. Among the rarer images in the Hebrew scriptures. Typically it is associated with divine judgement, as it does in 2 Sam 22:8 and Ps. 18:7, where heaven and earth are shaken by his anger. Shaking is what happens when God enacts his righteous judgment. It is why at Jesus’ death the earth shakes and the rocks themselves split open. (Matt 27:51) Upon God’s judgment creation itself shakes and trembles with energy. According to Calvin, “this is the reason why the Prophet says, I will shake all nations, and they shall come; there will be indeed a wonderful conversion, when the nations who previously despised God, and regarded true religion and piety with the utmost hatred, shall habituate themselves to the ruling power of God: and they shall come because they shall be so drawn by his hidden influence, that the obedience they shall render will be voluntary.” Once someone is truly shaken by God reversion to the past state is unthinkable.

The verse proceeds: and the desire of all nations shall come. Every word in that clause matters. The shake of the nations and the desire of the nations are here correlated within the promise. A sign of this Desire’s coming is the shaking of the nations. They cannot remain as they were. They will be moved — shaken. It is how nations are prepared for the coming of the Desire of all nations. And that desire shall come. That word — ‘shall’ — may seem archaic, but is actually rich in meaning. It connotes a sense of future definiteness, but not in some fatalistic or inevitable sense. This future definiteness is moral, so that ‘shall’ includes a sense of moral responsibility or duty. The desire of all nations comes, in other words, because it is in his nature to come — it is who he is.

He is the desire of all nations whether the nations know him or not. He isn’t the desire of just some nations. He is the desire of all nations. The nations desire him irrespective of whether they acknowledge him or not. He is the object of their deepest and highest longing, for the kingdom is the Lord’s, and he rules over the nations (Ps. 22:28). His coming lights the night sky. Kings seek him out. Tyrants are threatened even by his infancy. Angels herald his arrival. And indeed every knee shall bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil.2:10–11).

Is there any question as to Jesus’ desirability? Droves flock to him throughout his earthly ministry, to be near him, to receive what only he offers. He speaks as one with authority. He does and says what they have heard no one else do or say. They are drawn to him like a centripetal force. Even his enemies are captivated with intrigue. Among the more beautiful moments of all the New Testament, in my view, is the moment where John speaks in passing of himself “reclining on Jesus bosom,” as though it were the perfectly natural repose with Jesus (Jn. 13:23). Only the desirable can serve as such a deep source of comfort and consolation.

And what does it mean to desire Jesus? It means wanting contact with him. It means directing inner powers toward an External Power that truly satisfies. It promises completion, since he is the desire of all nations and not merely the desire of isolated individuals. To desire Jesus is, among other things, to desire relationship with him, and that indeed is the definition Jesus offers for eternal life itself: that they may know you, the True God, and your Son whom you’ve sent! (Jn. 17:3)

What are the ‘nations’ that he is the desire of? We moderns tend to conceive of nations as territorial nation-states. ‘Nations’ in the biblical sense, however, are conceived differently, as peoples with an ensemble of attributes that give little priority to territorial sovereignty. A nation is defined by blood or lineage, law or custom, or perhaps rites, history, or religion. Geographic location is simply the collective locus. That locus can become infused with meaning, of course. Just think of Israel’s many references to features of its physical setting — cedars, seas, streams, vineyards, rocks, etc. It is difficult to set a universal taxonomy for what counts as a ‘nation,’ but I tend to agree with Augustine’s memorable formulation, that what brings people together are its common objects of love. Nations are united by what they love. In the context of Haggai’s prophetic word, the Desire of all nations is a metaphysical and political fact.

John Calvin explains the Desire of all Nations in Haggai in two senses. First, “nations shall come and bring with them everything that is precious, in order to consecrate it to the service of God; for the Hebrews call whatever is valuable a desire, so that under this term they include all riches, honors, pleasures, and everything of this kind.” And the second sense, much more straightforwardly Christological: “Christ was the expectation of the whole world, according to what is said by Isaiah, and it may be properly said that when the desire of all nations shall come, that is, when Christ shall be manifested, in whom the wishes of all ought to center, the glory of the second Temple shall then be illustrious; that the nations would come, bringing with them all their riches, that they might offer themselves and all their possessions as a sacrifice to God.

The Desire of all nations comes, the prophet goes on to explain, and God will fill his house with glory. The ‘house’ refers to the temple, and yet we know what happens in the temple at the death of our Lord Christ — the curtain is torn in two. The blood of the lamb has atoned and reconciled. Access to God is no longer restricted behind the veil but now mediated fully and exclusively through the Son himself. Because all desire redemption all desire the One who comes to deliver and set free, even if Christ is for that nation an Unknown God. He makes his home with us, and us with him. We ‘abide’ in him (Jn. 15).

We sing therefore to his universal acclaim. The Desire of all Nations, quite unexpectedly, comes to us. The very Subject and Object of creation comes to set right and to judge. The earth and all its people shake in anticipation and glory. “Final Adam from above, reinstate us in thy Love!”