Twelve Songs of Christmas #10
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
It is thought that the song O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was written sometime in the ninth century. The English translation came from John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest who was sent to minister in the Madeira Islands. There he started an orphanage, a place of safety for prostitutes, and a school for girls. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel would have spoken to him as a minister to the marginalized.
This is a theologically rich song, expressing the desire and need for a Messiah to ransom his people. It begins with a call for God to free his people, using Israel to symbolize all who are awaiting freedom and ransom from captivity.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel, which mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear
In the book of Isaiah, king Ahaz of Judah is under pressure from two other kings. God speaks to Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah, telling Ahaz that a baby will be a sign that God is with him. This baby will be called Immanuel (a Hebrew word meaning "God with us").
Many years later, an angel announces the birth of another baby who will show God's people that God is with them. "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel." (Matthew 1:22-23). This baby once again fulfills the prophet's words that God is with his people.
This opening verse is a cry to God to bring this Messiah. It is a cry of desperation for the Saving One to appear in a world of captivity.
Verse two calls back to Isaiah 11, in which it is said that a shoot will come from the tribe of Jesse, the Spirit of the Lord would be upon him, and he would rescue and reclaim his people.
O come, thou rod of Jesse,
Free thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of hell, thy people save, and give them victory o'er the grave.
Verse 3 calls Immanuel to bring light in the darkness. This calls back an image from Malachi 4:2, which says that for those who revere the name of God, the Sun of Righteousness will rise.
O come, o dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here,
And drive away the shades of night
And pierce the clouds and bring the light
In Isaiah 22, God says that he will give a king the "key of the house of David." Verse 4 connects this image to Jesus bringing the key to the kingdom of God.
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.
The final verse reflects on God as the Lord who appeared in glory on Mount Sinai, and gave the law to the people. This same God who gave the law and appeared in glory to Moses and the people is the God who came as a baby. This is the God who declared that he was with the people through the birth of Jesus; Immanuel.
O come, thou wisdom from on high
Who in thy glorious majesty from Sinai's mountain, clothes in awe,
Gavest thy folk the elder law
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is a cry for the God of the Old Testament to appear to his people.
This cry is met with celebration in the chorus, which proclaims that the Messiah, indeed, will come. He will fulfill each of these prophecies, and will signify that God continues to be with his people.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!