O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

J. V. Fesko

New Horizons: December 2008

The Coming of Christ

Also in this issue

The Mystery of Godliness

The Price of an Intern

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel is one of the better-known hymns that is typically sung during the Christmas season. What some may not know is that it originated in the Middle Ages, around A.D. 800, as an antiphon, or anthem, that was restructured into verse form in the 1100s and was eventually published in Latin in 1710. The hymn was later discovered, translated, and published in 1851 by John Mason Neale, an Anglican minister.

As people sing this hymn, they know that they are singing about the birth of Christ. However, what is striking about this hymn is the way in which it unpacks the birth of Christ. It moves from the shadows of the Old Testament into the light of the New Testament with the revelation of God in Christ. This hymn traces the themes of Israel's exodus to the eschatological, or final, exodus that was to begin with the birth of the Messiah.

We can see this progressive unfolding of God's redemptive plan if we turn to the Old Testament and begin with Israel's exile in Babylon.

Mourning in Lonely Exile

In Israel's earliest days as a nation, God brought his people out of Egypt, made a covenant with them, and began to lead them to the land of promise—the land that he had sworn to give to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 15:18-21). Israel, of course, was a cantankerous nation and lacked the faith to enter the Promised Land, to believe in the gospel promise of God (Heb. 3:18-4:2). When Israel had finished her forty-year wandering and stood at the threshold of the Promised Land, it was undoubtedly a time of excitement and hope. The people of Israel were at last going to enter the land promised to their patriarch, Abraham, so long before.

On the eve of their entry into the land, however, Moses wrote an inspired prophetic song. This song was filled with praises for their covenant Lord, but at the same time it foretold Israel's future disobedience and sin (Deut. 32:20-24). Israel did fulfill these words and was carried off into exile because of their sin, idolatry, and rebellion. The northern kingdom of Israel was taken away by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C., and the southern kingdom of Judah was taken away into captivity by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.

Over the centuries, millions of people have been displaced by war—exiled from their home country. However, Israel's exile in Babylon was unique, because Israel was the only nation on the face of the earth with whom God had made a covenant. Just as God had put Adam, the first man and God's son (Luke 3:38), in the garden-temple of Eden, so he had given Israel, his firstborn son (Ex. 4:22), a fruitful land, one flowing with milk and honey, one that was also marked by God's very own presence. In the same way that God walked in the cool of the day with Adam in the beautiful garden-temple (Gen. 3:8), so too God walked with Israel in the Promised Land by his presence in the tabernacle (Lev. 26:11-12; 2 Sam. 7:6). Yet, like Adam before them, Israel sinned, which caused the prophet Hosea to cry out: "Like Adam they transgressed the covenant" (Hos. 6:7).

As punishment for their disobedience, like Adam before them, the people of Israel were exiled from the presence of God. Israel was carried into exile to Babylon, longing for the presence of God, longing for God to redeem them, to ransom them from their captivity. However, the faithful remnant did not desire merely to return to the land, but ultimately for God to dwell once again in their presence (Ps. 137:1-4). As Israel sat in exile by the waters of Babylon, there was still hope of redemption.

Many undoubtedly looked to the prophetic words of Isaiah: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14). There was a coming child, one who would save Israel—the Lord's presence in the flesh. In this regard, we should note that the word Immanuel (also spelled Emmanuel) means "God with us."

Perhaps now we have a better idea of what lies behind the first two verses of our hymn:

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.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

Here the hymn recounts the faithful remnant in exile in Babylon, longing and looking for the birth of their Savior. Our hymn couches this desire in terms of the biblical theme of the eschatological exodus, evident in the connections between Israel's exile in Babylon and the exodus from Egypt by reference to God's presence on Sinai.

The Shoot of Jesse and the Key of David

The prophet Isaiah, however, had much more to say about this coming Savior. Many Old Testament saints knew that the coming Savior would come from the line of David (2 Sam. 7:12-13). However, the nation was in ruin, and the temple, God's dwelling place, was razed to a pile of rubble. It seemed as though David's line had been cut off. Once again Isaiah prophesied: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit" (Isa. 11:1). Here the prophet likens the Davidic dynasty to a stump—the great oak, if you will, of David's kingdom had been all but destroyed. Yet from this stump, this seemingly dead tree, a shoot would come forth—and this shoot would bear much fruit. Unlike Israel's wicked kings, even unlike King David, this king would be holy and righteous (11:2-5).

Elsewhere in Isaiah's prophecies, there was an oracle of judgment against Jerusalem and especially her king, who relied too much on other nations, rather than on the Lord. Isaiah prophesied that God would raise up an insignificant servant to care for the house of David, namely Eliakim the son of Hilkiah: "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" (Isa. 22:22).

Yet Eliakim only pointed forward to the greater servant, to the one who would possess the key of the house of David: "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ÔThe words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens'" (Rev. 3:7). The apostle John in the book of Revelation applies this Isaianic title to Jesus. It was Jesus, of course, the son of David, the son of God, who would come and rule Israel. The faithful Israelites undoubtedly longed and looked for the birth of this one, the one who would hold the key of David.

This Isaianic connection lies behind the fifth verse of our hymn:

O come, thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

Notice once again the theme of the Exodus, as it is this descendant of David who will make safe the way that leads on high—the pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the fulfillment of the shadow of the Promised Land.

Dayspring from on High

After the days of Isaiah, though, hundreds of years passed, and little seemed to happen to address Israel's mourning. Yes, Israel returned from exile. Cyrus, the great Persian king, had permitted Israel to return to the land and had instructed them to rebuild the temple (Isa. 45; Ezra 1). Israel left Babylon in an Exodus-like journey that brought them back to the land of their forefathers (Isa. 49, esp. vs. 10; cf. 42:16; 48:21; Ex. 13:21-22; 15:13).

Even though the temple was rebuilt, the faithful remnant knew that their return to the land was not the great divine visitation for which they longed, hoped, and prayed. In fact, when the temple was rebuilt, Israel wept, rather than rejoiced. The prophet Haggai laments: "Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?" (Hag. 2:3). Yet the prophet also looked to the future: "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts" (2:9). So, then, Israel was still looking for a greater day, one that looked beyond this provisional return to the land. That day would come hundreds of years later.

On the heels of the birth of John the Baptist, John's father, Zechariah, prophesied of the Messiah who would soon appear (Luke 1:67-79). Zechariah likens the coming Messiah, the descendant of David, the one who would deliver Israel from her enemies, the one who would be righteous, the one who would bring forgiveness of sins and light to those who sat in darkness, to the sunrise, or dayspring, from on high (Luke 1:78 kjv). In other words, he likens the coming Messiah to the rising sun shining light upon the dark world (cf. John 1:1-5). It would be through the birth of the Savior that God's people would be liberated from the powers of Satan, sin, and death.

Hence, we find the following in the fourth verse of our hymn:

O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Birth of Emmanuel, God with Us

Emmanuel, God with us, did come to Israel. God fulfilled his promises that he had made long before, not just through the prophet Isaiah, but even as given to our very first parents, Adam and Eve. God promised them that the seed of the woman would overcome the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). Ever since then, God's faithful people have been looking for the birth of their Savior (cf. Gen. 4:1).

When Jesus was born, God had finally answered the prayers of his people. He had finally fulfilled his long-awaited promise (see, e.g., Luke 2:4-14). Here was the son of David, the Lord, the one who would deliver his people from their sin. In this regard, it is important to understand that Christ was not born to bring political freedom to the people of God, but rather to bring a freedom of far greater significance. He was to bring freedom from the powers of Satan, sin, and death.

In the third verse of our hymn, given what appears in the first two verses, Christ's redemption is cast in terms of the eschatological, or final, exodus. It is no longer the exodus from the tyranny of Pharaoh, nor is it the exodus from Babylon, that appears. Rather, Jesus brings an exodus from the oppressive rule of Satan, sin, and death:

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.


When we contemplate the birth of Christ, we must not do so in terms of some sort of saccharine tale about an infant king born to bring the world some joy—to give some glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy place. When we think of the birth of Christ, we should also not get caught up in seasonal sentimentality, where Jesus is but one of a number of symbols meant to inspire kindness and good cheer: snowflakes, snowmen, sleigh rides, and Jesus.

Rather, the birth of Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment of God's promises to his people, the beginning of the eschatological exodus. Christ was born in a lowly estate, in the likeness of sinful flesh, that he might redeem for his Father a people, that he might redeem for himself a bride, a bride for whom he laid down his very life.

At that time, an aged and devout man named Simeon was waiting in Jerusalem for the consolation of Israel. When he laid his eyes upon Jesus and held the infant, he said: "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:29-32).

It is this fulfilled promise that the author(s) of our hymn saw running through the pages of Scripture. The author(s) saw a line that began in the earliest portions of the Scriptures in Israel's exodus and was recapitulated in Israel's exodus from Babylon. It was a line that began in those shadows and ultimately came to fulfillment in the advent of Christ. He would lead the Israel of God, the church, in the eschatological exodus—their liberation from the tyranny of Satan, sin, and death.

This hymn, though typically employed to celebrate a man-made "holy day," is grounded in the unfolding drama of God's revelation that culminates in the advent of Christ. It is certainly a hymn that the church should use to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is also one that should be upon the lips of God's people throughout the year as Christ continues to lead us in our eschatological exodus, which has the new Jerusalem as our destination, the new heavens and earth. Let us therefore celebrate the birth of our Lord on God's appointed day by moving from the shadows of the Old Testament, characterized by promises and types, into the fullness of the light of the revelation of Christ.

The author is pastor of Geneva OPC in Woodstock, Ga. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2008.

New Horizons: December 2008

The Coming of Christ

Also in this issue

The Mystery of Godliness

The Price of an Intern

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