Friday, November 30, 2018

Christmas Carol Contemplation: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"


For the month of December, this series of articles will dive into the meaning behind a number of cherished Christmas carols. We start with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to learn about seven names of the promised Messiah, the prophecies surrounding them, and the works that they describe Him fulfilling. I think it enhances the enjoyment of the holiday to be reminded of its reason, the arrival of “God with us.”

Like a lot of people, Christmas is my favorite time of year. There is something peaceful about winter, and the decorations of the holiday form a beautiful combination with the season in a way no other celebration does for me. But of course, it is the reason for the celebration that gives it the greatest meaning. Looked at purely for importance, Easter does deserve first place. Easter does not come without Christmas, though, and with the sights, sounds, flavors, and traditions of December, I just can’t help playing favorites.

Speaking of sounds, that is another important element. I’ve made my respect for Thanksgiving abundantly clear, and I do not start celebrating Christmas beforehand. However, one of the things I look forward to doing first on the Friday morning afterward is to start listening to the music. It immediately puts me in the Christmas spirit. And many of these songs, especially the old carols, have a deep significance.

Between now and the 25th, I want to take some time to dive into that significance. For the next few weeks, I will publish a series of articles on the subject of the music of the holiday. I have picked four of my favorite Christmas hymns, and will be looking at where they came from and why we sing them. To start off, let’s consider “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

History of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

This song has an ancient quality to it, but I never realized how old it actually is. Though the sources I checked did not speak in unison as to its creation, it seems to have been developed over the course of centuries. It is based on medieval monastic chants known as the “O Antiphons,” which were developed into a hymn by at least the 18th Century (though there are some suggestions it existed as early as the 12th Century). This hymn was translated into English in 1851 by John Mason Neale, an English revivalist and antiquarian. He set it to a melody that had been produced in the 15th Century and had not been connected to this hymn before he joined them. That’s interesting to me, considering the music even more than the words gives it that distinctive monastic flair.

It is on the words, however, that I want to focus here. The “O Antiphons” were seven Latin verses sung one a day by monks during the week of Christmas. Each verse centers around one name of the anticipated Messiah taken from the Old Testament. Also, each name taken in order spells the Latin words ero cras, meaning “I come tomorrow.” It’s ingenious, really, the way everything works together to focus the mind on the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of God’s promises. That is exactly what the hymn still accomplishes, when considered in full.

Emmanuel (God With Us)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

The first verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is the most familiar to us. The name of the Messiah here, Emmanuel, means “God with us.” It is taken from Is. 7:14, which also contains the prophecy of the Messiah’s virgin birth. The fulfillment of this prophecy is explicitly applied to Jesus in Matt. 1:22–23. While that is obviously the central aspect here, the remainder of the first verse is also interesting for the way it fits in the rest of the OT context.

Isaiah’s ministry took place during the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the miraculous salvation of the southern kingdom of Judah from the clutches of the Assyrian Empire. Eventually, of course, the Judahites were also defeated and deported by the Babylonian Empire. Much of the OT concerns the failure of the children of Israel to keep their covenant with the Lord, the consequences of that failure, and the Lord’s faithfulness to restore them by sending a Savior. While in exile, they cried out for this salvation. And in an important sense, the experience of Israel applies to all of humanity. We are all alienated from God, so our only hope is that He should come to us. In Jesus, that is exactly what He did (Matt. 20:28).

Rex Gentium (King of Nations)

O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.

Depending on how well you know this song, you will notice that I am going to take the verses out of order from this point forward. That’s so I can keep the Latin names in order and show the ero cras of the “O Antiphons.” Hopefully it won’t be too off-putting. Then, of course, there is the alteration to the lyrics. Today, we normally sing it as “desire of nations” rather than “king,” and that changes things a bit. The antiphon this verse is based on includes both, so we may as well look at both.

The OT speaks of the King of Nations in a few places. In fact, the exact phrase appears in Jer. 10:7 in reference to God. But applied to the Messiah, two of the most important passages are Dan. 2:44–45 and 7:9–14. These prophecies promise the coming of a universal kingdom ruled by the Son of Man. They are also an extension of the promise in Is. 2:2–4. At the end of everything, all peoples will be united in Christ. And in the meantime, His gospel unites people of all descriptions in His church (Gal. 3:28). This verse celebrates the fact that Jesus has already given us peace with God and one another, and looks forward to the day when He perfects that peace.

It seems to me that is the driving sentiment of this verse of the song, but “desire of nations” is not an inappropriate one either. In fact, it arguably has more to do with this time of year. In the King James Version, this phrase occurs in Hag. 2:7. The context here is that the word of the Lord is coming through the prophet Haggai to the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua. These two men were the leaders of the Jewish community after the people had returned to the Promised Land from the Babylonian Captivity. They had taken on the task of rebuilding the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed. They completed the work in spite of many obstacles, but the finished product was disappointing. It did not compare with the grandeur of the former temple. Here, however, the Lord promises, “‘The final glory of this house will be greater than the first,’ says the Lord of Armies. ‘I will provide peace in this place’” (Hag. 2:9).

This promise of God was about more than articles of silver and gold. It also referred to the Shekinah glory, the presence of God in the form of a cloud that descended on the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–35) and on Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 7:1–3) when they were completed. This was the most important thing missing from the blessing of the Second Temple. But God’s promises never fail, even if they seem long to us in coming. It was to this temple, five centuries after its completion, that a young family from nearby Bethlehem brought their little baby boy to dedicate Him (Luke 2:21–24). At last the presence and glory of God had returned to His people, more fully than ever before. Jesus, the desire of nations, had come.

Oriens (Morning Star)

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

This one is interesting. In the OT, “morning star” (or “day star”) appears only once. And it happens to be a reference usually applied to Satan (Is. 14:12). Now, it’s a good question whether that was really the meaning. It seems more likely that the prophet was only speaking to a king of Babylon. Possibly it can be applied to both. However you look at it, though, it is definitely not meant as a compliment.

The OT passage that actually matters more in a messianic context is Is. 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; a light has dawned on those living in the land of darkness.” What we need to know is that the “morning star” is no star at all. It is the planet Venus, which rises twice a night. The second time is shortly before dawn. In other words, it announces the arrival of a new day. This is the sense Jesus applies to Himself in Rev. 22:16. His first coming promised that the night would end, and His return will bring the great Day of the Lord.

Clavis David (Key of David)

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death's abode.

This name for the Messiah is taken from Is. 22:22, but the connection would be tenuous without the reinforcement of Rev. 3:7. In Isaiah, it is used in reference to Eliakim son of Hilkiah. Eliakim was called by God to be the steward of the king’s palace in Jerusalem, as a replacement for the evil steward Shebna. This position of trust was an important one because it carried with it the king’s authority, so that “what he opens, no one can close; what he closes, no one can open.” Therefore, he was an officer rather than the Davidic heir himself.

However, the application to the Messiah is invited by the fact that Eliakim is referred to as the Lord’s “servant.” This term is frequently applied to the Lord’s Anointed in Isaiah (most famously in Is. 52:13–53:12). If a quality belongs to a lesser servant, then it surely belongs to the Chosen Servant. That is how Jesus uses it in the very close paraphrase in Rev. 3. It expresses the fact that as the great Son of David, He has all authority. No power could stop Him from opening the way to heaven, or force its way in where He does not permit. All that He holds, He holds securely.

The song also connects this messianic title to Matt. 7:13–14. Jesus tells us to walk the narrow path that leads to life and to avoid the broad gate that leads to destruction. But we cannot do either through our own efforts. We must rely on Him as the key. When we have faith in Him, He shuts the way to death and takes us through the door of eternal life. Clearly, then, while “Key of David” might seem difficult to connect to Christ, it perfectly describes Him once we understand it.

Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse)

O come, O Branch of Jesse's stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o'er the grave.

We find a bit of conflation here, but I do not see it as a problem. There is a slight difference between the “Branch of David” (Jer. 23:5–6) and the “Root of Jesse” (Is. 11:10), so I am not sure why Neale changed it from the Latin. But they are united in Is. 11:1, and the connection is a natural one. Cutting down a tree does not necessarily kill it. If the roots are strong, new shoots can bud from the stump. The Lord’s promise, then, was that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (and therefore of Jesse) who would have the strength to restore the kingdom after its destruction (cf. Rev. 22:16). In that way He is the Root, but He is also the Branch in that He will spread out to have universal dominion. Another way to say it is that Jesus is the foundation and the crowning glory of God’s chosen people.

And as the verse of the hymn points out, the ministry of the Messiah to His people is the focal point. Is. 11:11–12 tells us that He will gather them from all the places where they have been dispersed and oppressed. As the Root He will be their source of life, and as the Branch He will cover them. And again, His ability to do so has an agricultural model. As Jesus explains in John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Where the crucifixion seemed to be the end, it was in fact the planting that allowed the mighty Tree of Life to grow.

Adonai (Lord)

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai's height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

This one actually isn’t Latin. It is the Hebrew word for “lord,” and our spelling of it is just a transliteration that the Greeks and Romans also used. As Judaism developed, it took to no longer using “Yahweh,” the divine name revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Repeating the name was considered impious, and so wherever “Yahweh” appeared in Scripture, faithful Jews said “Adonai” instead. Of course, “Adonai” occurs on its own in the Hebrew text, so readers did have to be aware of the difference. But in any case, it is the reason Christians call God the Lord. It is not so much a name (though we treat it that way), as it is a title that replaces the name. Obviously, it also makes it difficult to pick just a few verses that use it. Both Old and New Testaments use it so frequently that you can hardly open any page without seeing it multiple times.

Fortunately, there is a really easy one to consider. In Ps. 110:1, David says “This is the declaration of the Lord to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It’s truly the perfect example. The first “Lord” translates “Yahweh,” while the second one is “Adonai” in the original Hebrew. Not only that, but this is a messianic prophecy, as well. Jesus explains this fact in Matt. 22:41–46. While in the Spirit, David had understood that one of his own heirs would actually precede and surpass him, sharing equality with God. Christ is Lord in the fullest sense.

Of course, that is just the name. This verse describes the Lord’s work as the instructor of His people, as well. The experience of the Israelites in Exodus is specifically in view, but the meaning once again extends to Jesus. In Matt. 5–7, the apostle draws a number of pointed parallels between God’s giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai and Jesus’ giving of His new teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. There is an unmistakable continuity. In the OT and the NT, the Lord tells His people what it means to follow Him.

Sapientia (Wisdom)

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go.

The last name of the song is just as powerful as the others, but the OT connection would once again be difficult without the NT. There are certainly messianic prophecies where wisdom is front and center. Is. 11:2 says that He will have “A Spirit of wisdom and understanding,” and Is. 9:6 names Him “Wonderful Counselor.” However, Wisdom is used as a name primarily in the book of Proverbs, where it describes the personification of understanding (e.g., Prov. 1:20; 4:6; 8:1). Where it comes into its own as a title for the Messiah, however, is 1 Cor. 1:24. Here Paul calls Jesus “The Power of God and the Wisdom of God.” It is in Christ that God’s plan of salvation is revealed and fulfilled. Above all else, grasping this truth is what it means to have wisdom.

Once we see Jesus as Wisdom, we see the meaning of the hymn more fully. Wisdom speaks in Prov. 8:27–30, “When [God] prepared the heavens, I was there. When He drew a circle on the face of the deep; when He established the clouds above; when He strengthened the fountains of the deep; when He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters would not transgress His command; when He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside Him as a master craftsman. And I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him.” This matches the description of Christ in Col. 1:15–17, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” The Son of God is the Creator, who has made all things. Nothing is hidden from Him, or exists apart from Him. With knowledge this vast, we can trust Him to teach us all the things we need to know.


I know this has been long, but I appreciate your time. I am sure you also understand that this has not even begun to exhaust the meaning of these seven names, yet alone all the other descriptions of Jesus in the Bible. Hopefully dwelling on these few helps you to embrace the meaning of this time of year, and to celebrate the Lord’s arrival. May our hearts sing:

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