O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Written by J. V. Fesko |
Sunday, December 24, 2023

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.

“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 1100’s 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 and 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—

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