O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
Last week, we considered that we must endure present hardships and await Our Lord’s return. A whole genre of hymns focuses on these themes. We call them “advent hymns.” For the next three Sundays, we will consider the biblical content of some well-known advent hymns. First up is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a medieval hymn that has received various translations from Latin into English. It is song number 429 in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. Here are the lyrics presented there:
1. 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.
2. O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain
3. O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and cause us in her ways to go. Refrain
4. O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. Refrain
Advent hymns descend from the psalms. Like the psalms, they cry out for the Lord’s coming. “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” (Ps 90.13). In “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” we cry for the Lord to return and put everything right, which makes it the quintessential advent hymn.
The cry of the first line sets the tone with a painful irony. “O come, O come!” we cry to Jesus, addressing Him as “Emmanuel”—“God With Us.” The irony of Advent is that Emmanuel is not with us, at least not in the flesh. It is the greatest burden that we bear. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8.23). If the world never lifted a finger against us or uttered even a syllable against us, we would still count our time here as suffering, because we are apart from Our Lord.
The first verse compares the church to Israel in exile, as indeed we are sojourners in a strange land. See how Peter and James address us as “the Dispersion” (Jas 1.1; 1 Pet 1.1). Peter goes on to say, “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet 1.17-19). We await the day that Jesus will call us out of exile and take us to our eternal inheritance.
The second verse focuses on Jesus as the coming Light. We shall have more to say about this in a couple of weeks when we consider “The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns,” but let us say this for now: we await the day that Jesus comes and “the morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Pet 1.19).
The third verse calls Jesus “Thou Wisdom from on high.” This refers to Jesus’ role in Creation resembling that of Wisdom in Proverbs. Read John 1.2-3 alongside Pro 8.22-31. We await the day that Jesus will put everything right—including us.
The fourth verse focuses on the reconciliation that will come through Christ. Paul calls us “ministers of reconciliation,” because the mission of the church is unity and peace in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5.14-21). John foresaw a day when people of every nation would enter into heaven to dwell in unity (Rev 21.23-26). We await that day when Jesus will cause all strivings to cease.
We await the great day of the Lord, because we know that it will surely come. As we await the coming of Our Lord, let us live in the hope of the hymn’s refrain: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”