Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Reading thy Hymns Bonus: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

December 24th, 2010 | 8 min read

By Kevin White

Today’s selection is possibly the oldest Christmas carol that is still in use. It is a Victorian translation (by John M. Neale, 1851) of a 12th-century Latin carol, which was in turn adapted from a set of 8th century monastic antiphons.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a guided tour of traditional Christian interpretations of Old Testament prophecy. Each stanza calls up a major theme of Messianic prophecy, drawing upon at least one major verse that Christians have seen as a reference to Christ. I know that this interpretive tradition raises many major, often heated, questions and objections. Let’s bracket those for the sake of this post, so as to focus on unpacking what this hymn is trying to tell us.

Three common notes for all the verses. First, each one is a prayer to Jesus under a variety of prophetic names. The refrain is the answer to the prayer: Rejoice, Emmanuel will surely come!

Second, this hymn is pretty much the embodiment of the tension between already and not yet. It anticipates both the birth and return of Christ. It is at once the song of Israel awaiting her Messiah, and that of the Church awaiting His return.

Third, much of this song is a running commentary on Isaiah 11, and many of its images of Jesus Christ derive from that passage.

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

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

The first verse references Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” Jesus is God-with-us, God come to Earth to save His people.

And make no mistake, Christians as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 1:11) is a New Testament image. It is certainly not the only inference to derive from the declaration of our citizenship in Heaven. For example, citizenship in the first century context also indicated privileges, rights, and protection. But we lose a lot if we abandon the concepts of exile and dispersion.

Exile in particular has important, and broadly similar, implications in both Hebraic and Hellenistic cultures. In the Old Testament, exile from the land is a mark of judgment and a purifying test of God’s people. Return from exile is a major image of redemption, both in the return to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah, and in looking to the coming of the Messiah, when the people will be fully restored and regathered in the land.

In Greek culture, one’s city of citizenship was a major source of standing, of social and legal norms, and of identity. To be exiled from one’s city is almost a fate worse than death. (Look at how Aristotle was held up as brave for accepting exile instead of being executed like Socrates.) To live as an alien or sojourner in another city or kingdom was to have diminished rights, to be one of the workers, tradesmen, or outsiders in the realm. It meant that you were part of the life of your new city, and under its laws, but never were fully a part of it.

So this verse refers to God’s people across all ages as Israel awaiting her vindication. We are aliens and exiles, awaiting a better city while also living loyally in the land of our sojourn. Rejoice, God-with-us will come to us!

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

This is in part a reference to 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, the Branch of Jesse, came and will come with wisdom to judge and to set things right. Here the hymn is not emphasizing the aspect of judgment seen in v. 4b, “And he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Rather, it is on judgment as an act of restoration, when he will “decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (4a) and ensure that wickedness and oppression come to an end.

These are not contradictory aspects of Jesus’ judgment of the world, as we are often prone to think. Still, the emphasis is on the hope that the believer has for the day that Jesus will visibly rule with wisdom and finish the work of teaching us true justice and goodness.

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

Rod of Jesse refers to Isaiah 11:1 & 10, a passage that Paul recalls in Romans 15:8-13. The Isaiah passage reads:

There shall come forth a shoot [some translations, rod] from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. … In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place will be glorious.

This passage refers to a future king who will rise from the long-passed House of David (and thus of David’s father, Jesse.) A king who will not only restore Israel, but who will enlighten the nations. Paul points to this same passage as part of his argument that Jesus came to us as the hope of the Gentiles/nations (the term is the same) as part of his role as the savior of Israel. So this verse of the hymn references both Jesus’ victory over sin, Satan, and death and the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promises to Israel.

Christ as the rod of judgment that shall strike the earth again looms behind this verse. But again, the emphasis is on the hope of the redeemed. The tyranny that is broken is that of Satan. The realm that is spoiled is that of hell, and the last enemy to be defeated shall be death. The Branch of Jesse is the rod that smites the serpent, the Shepherd’s staff that guides God’s people, and the scepter of God’s eternal rule.

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.

“Dayspring” can refer to the dawn, the sunrise, of the Morning Star. It is used to translate the Latin word Oriens. It means, literally, “rising”, and was also used as a noun to mean “Dawn” or even the direction East. In the name Dayspring Jesus is seen as the newly-come Light of the World. It also refers to the word of hope found in Isaiah 9:2, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Rejoice, people of God, because the Dayspring, the Light of the World, has come, to free us from the shadow of death!

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.

Jesus is also the Key of David, as is written in Isaiah 22:22, “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.” Here, “key” refers both to the power to lock and to unlock, and more broadly to the ruling authority given to him.  Thus, this verse of the song can also be taken as a reference to Isaiah 9:6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…”

The Key of David is Christ the King, who opens the door of Heaven to us. For those who Christ opens the door of Heaven, no one can block the path or shut the door. Those for whom Jesus locks the door of condemnation, that way is forever sealed. In that way, Jesus provides security to those He has called to life in Him.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Here, Jesus is praised as the giver of the Law. It also perhaps references Isaiah 33:22, “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.”

At first glance, this verse seems rather out of place. This is a hymn of longing and of hope. The law does not save us, after all. And the image of Mount Sinai, covered in flame, with a decree of death to any man or beast who steps on it, hardly seems like one of eschatological hope.

Let me offer two considerations for how this verse fits in to the whole. First, referring to Christ as the giver of the law anticipates the image of Christ as the fulfiller of the law. The law prepared the way for Jesus. Furthermore, and more to my point, the Law is the beginning of formal divine revelation. It is the beginning of God’s work to systematically reveal himself to sinful humanity. The call of the patriarchs was preparation. On Sinai, the covenant of salvation is decisively rolled out. Thus, we look to the One who gave it with hope.

Secondly, judgment-as-restoration is a major theme in this hymn. Almost all of its images have a potentially frightening flip-side for those who are not joined to Christ in salvation. (Either in anticipation, or after his appearance among us.) But each is shown in the light of hope, in the blessings they bring for God’s people. Thus, this hymn looks at the law not in the lens of Hebrews, but in that of Psalm 119. For us Protestants, so attentive to the thread of the New Testament that show the downside to the Law, this is a useful reminder to see, through Christ, its other side.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Finally, the hymn praises Jesus as the Desire of Nations, who extends His grace to those of every tongue and tribe and nation. In Him, the peoples of the earth will be reconciled and His reign of peace established.

The term “Desire of Nations” comes from Haggai 2:7, “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.” (KJV) (Note, all other bible quotations in the post are from the ESV, but here the ESV follows the variant translation, “the treasures of all nations.” NIV says “what is desired by all nations.”) This passage, when translated as “desire of nations”, has often been seen by Christians as a reference to the future entry of Jesus into the temple that was rebuilt in Haggai’s day.

The hope of the universal Messianic rule of peace comes from a great many passages in the Bible, with Isaiah 2:4 offering a good example:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for mean peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Again, this hymn emphasizes judgment-as-restoration. Jesus will reconcile all peoples to Himself, and will thereby reconcile all those people with one another. He will adjudicate our complaints against our neighbors, individually and collectively, hence we are told to forgive and to recognize that vengeance belongs to the Lord. Full reconciliation can come only in light of Jesus’ assumption of the punishment for sin.

In light of this hymn, as we celebrate Christmas tomorrow, let us praise Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel, the Wisdom of God, the Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, Lord of Might, and the Desire of Nations!

Kevin White