The Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” continues to captivate the English-speaking church 158 years after John Mason Neale translated five of its verses into English for the 1861 hymnal, “Hymns Ancient and Modern.” The textual source of the hymn comes from an addition to the daily liturgy during the Advent season. The lyrics of the hymn paraphrase the seven “O” Antiphons. These ancient Latin verses of unknown authorship are steeped in scriptural imagery and are traditionally sung at evening services on the last seven days of Advent. Serving as a touchpoint between hymn and Scripture, each antiphon (and their corresponding verses) opens by addressing the Son of God with a messianic title.
Despite its familiarity and frequent usage, this hymn’s imagery is often underappreciated.
Despite its familiarity and frequent usage, this hymn’s imagery is often underappreciated. In this article, we’ll look at the seven verses and the refrain of the hymn, and explore the images each draws from Scripture and their implications for us.
Verse One: Emmanuel
The first verse invokes the most familiar messianic title of the hymn. Isaiah prophesies, “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). Matthew connects this prophecy and the title’s significance with Jesus. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Isa 1:22-23).
The rest of the verse’s exilic imagery can be hard for modern-day residents of the “free world” to personalize since we rarely see ourselves as captive exiles in need of ransom. The theme of exile predominates the Old Testament from Genesis 3 onward as God exiles Adam and Eve (and the rest of their future offspring with them) from his unmediated presence in the garden. The hymn primarily draws on the exiles of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC from the promised land and God’s mediated presence in the temple.
The images of us as lonely, mourning exiles in need of ransom, and our call for the appearance of “God with us” establish the focus of the hymn as we move into the refrain.
Refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice!
While the verses set a somber tone, the refrain strikes the opposite note. It calls for us to rejoice, not once, but twice. We are called to rejoice in the midst of our exile because the God who is with us shall come to us! And with his return, he will fulfill all the hopes we sing of in the verses.
The refrain has two other notable features. First, it shifts the direction of our singing. In the verses, we call upon Christ as the Apostle John responded in Revelation 22:20, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” In the refrain, we now sing to our fellow lonely and morning exiles. We do what Paul admonishes us to do in Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).
Second, the refrain, echoing the first verse, refers to its singers as Israel. Paul writes in Romans, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (9:6-8). Those who trust in the promises of God, that is, the church, are the new Israel.
Verse Two: Wisdom from on High
If the imagery of exile was difficult to personalize, this verse could be more challenging. While wisdom is not a name frequently used to refer to Jesus, the title is Scriptural. Paul draws the connection for us, “But we preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God…. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God” (1 Cor 1:23-24, 30).
The connection goes deeper than Paul’s words. In Proverbs, we see Wisdom personified and speaking, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work” (Prov 8:22). This beginning work is God’s work of creation. In the beginning, he, by his word, “orders all things mightily” as the verse sings. John’s Gospel colors in the image, as he proclaims that this creative word is Jesus himself, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt with us (John 1:14).
In this verse, we ask God to rescue us from exile in our lack of understanding and show us the path of the knowledge of salvation and the way to go. We know our salvation by the forgiveness of our sins. We know the forgiveness of our sins by seeing the Wisdom from on high crucified for us.
Verse Three: Lord of Might
It seems odd to find a reference to God giving the Law at Sinai “in cloud and majesty and awe” in a hymn that implores Christ to return. But the details of this event show us that this verse compliments the rest of the hymn.
At Sinai, God revealed himself to his people. Then, before giving his Commandments, he promised, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2).
He did not say, “Do this and I will be your God,” or “Maybe, I’ll consider being your Lord.” No. He promised that he was their God, then and there, at that moment. They had done nothing to deserve that promise or his presence in their midst. He had not come nor conditioned his promise on their actions, but on his grace and mercy.
If there was any doubt as to who we were calling on to come in this hymn, it’s this God. The one who promised himself to his people and revealed himself to them, despite their sin and failures. The one who fulfilled that promise and revealed himself in a different kind of majesty and awe through the incarnation of his Son.
Verse Four: Branch of Jesse’s Tree
In the lyrics of verse four, we sing a veiled reference to Christ’s work on Good Friday and Easter as we pray for freedom from Satan’s rule and victory over death. The messianic title takes our New Testament understanding of the gospel and grounds it in Old Testament hope.
The title comes from Isaiah, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa 11:1). Isaiah goes on to say that the Spirit of the Lord will rest on this branch” (Isa 11:2) and that he will bring unprecedented unity. The lamb and the wolf, the leopard and the goat, the calf and lion will all dwell together and a little child will lead them (Isa 11:6-9). And on that day, the Lord will “recover the remnant that remains of his people” across the nations (Isa 11:11). This remnant is not only Israelites scattered by foreign powers, but it is also us, scattered by Satan and exiled in sin.
In singing for Christ’s return, we sing for God to gather the remnant of his people, the church, and that the powers of sin, death, and devil which divide us would be no more.
Verse Five: Key of David
Like many of the messianic titles in this hymn, this one in verse five also comes from Isaiah. “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” (22:22). The shoulders in reference belong to Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was over the household of King Hezekiah, one of the great kings of Judah who sought to return God’s people to worship God alone.
In Isaiah, Eliakim stands in for the promised Messiah. Jesus is faithful over God’s house as both a son (see Heb 3:6) and as a suffering servant (see Isa 53). As the obedient suffering servant and Son, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to” him (Matt 28:18). The ultimate display of that authority is seen in the forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness, which is ours in Christ, is the key of David, which opens wide our heavenly home and closes the path to misery.
Verse Six: Dayspring from on High
This verse comes from Zechariah’s Song at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
The messianic title “Dayspring” derives from the King James (and New King James) translation of sunrise. Regardless of the translation, the sentiment we sing remains. We recognize that we sit in the darkness of our sin, and death’s shadow shades us and makes the darkness even darker. We sing and pray that Jesus Christ, the star of Jacob (Num 24:17), the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2), the lamp that shines in the dark place (2 Pet 1:19), and the light to our path (Ps 119:105) would come and send death, darkness, and the devil packing.
Verse Seven: Desire of Nations, King of Peace
Verse seven contains two messianic titles. “King of Peace” is the more explicit of the two, so it’s here we’ll focus. While the title King of Peace draws us to Isaiah’s familiar prophecy, instead, we turn to the book of Hebrews to see the comforting image this second title gives. “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.... king of Salem, priest of the Most High God…. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (Isa 6:19-7:3).
Though Melchizedek is as mysterious as his name is hard to pronounce, the author of Hebrews ties him to the greatest gift we receive: God’s presence no longer mediated by an endless line of frail priests and feeble sacrifices, but our crucified and risen high priest, Jesus Christ. Who as, Paul writes, “is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:14-22).
In this hymn, we call on Christ Jesus, not as a distant deity, but as the Son of God who draws near to us so that he would draw us near to him. He is God-at-hand to rescue us from exile and reconcile us to God. And in him, we rejoice and give thanks that what he promised to do he has done and what he has left to do, that he shall come again, he will fulfill.