Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” leads us in singing with joy about the first coming of Jesus Christ and with longing for his second coming. In this song we acknowledge what God revealed concerning the Christ through the prophets—most notably Isaiah—and later confirmed in the New Testament. At the same time, we also express our on-going need for Christ. The first coming of Jesus was what people sometimes call “a game-changer,” but the game isn’t over yet.
The hymn opens by leading us to call on Jesus as Emmanuel/Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Through the prophet Isaiah God revealed, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). That, according to Matthew 1:23, was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Jesus has come! Immanuel has come! And yet, in this verse we who trust in him plead with him to come because we groan inwardly for him to complete our redemption (Rom 8:18-24).
Here we call upon Jesus as the Lord of might (Is 9:6; 40:10), as he showed himself to be during his earthly ministry (Luke 24:19). He has led his people powerfully and gloriously before, and our implied plea here is for him to come and do it again.
The prophet Isaiah declared, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Is 11:1). Many older translations use a different word for shoot: rod. According to Matthew 1:1-16, Jesus is that Rod of Jesse; he is the promised offspring from that line of kings. Thus we plead with him to come and bring us full and final deliverance from sin, death, and Satan (1 Cor 15:50-57; Rev 20).
Dayspring is another old word, used by some translations in Luke 1:78. It means dawn or sunrise. The King James Version, for instance, reads, “The dayspring from on high hath visited us.” Who is this dayspring? Jesus. He is “the light of the world” (John 8:12) foretold 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 shone.” Thus we ask him to come and shine on us, dispersing the gloomy clouds of night and putting death’s dark shadows to flight once for all.
In Isaiah 22:22 we read, “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.” Many years later Jesus referred to himself as the one “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Rev 3:7). In that light, we finish our song by asking him to come, open wide our heavenly home, and close the path that leads to misery.
The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” come from a Latin poem dating back to the 8th century or earlier. By the 9th century the poem had become part of the medieval liturgy for the week before Christmas, but not in a form that we today would recognize. Only in the 12th or 13th century were the words of the poem put in their current hymn form. Later, in 1851, a British minister named J.M. Neale published an English translation of that hymn. Soon thereafter Neale’s translation became associated with an arrangement of a 13th century chant, and the two have been inseparable ever since.