A Reflection on ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of my favorite carols and is particularly appropriate to sing in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s an ancient song, originally written in Latin in the eighth century as a seven verse poem, organized into a reverse acrostic which can be translated “I shall be with you tomorrow.” The refrain was added later. Each of the verses we have in our hymnals (usually just five) focus on one of Christ’s names or titles: Emmanuel, Adonai, Rod of Jesse, Dayspring or Morning Star, and Key of David.

Let’s walk through this. Feel free to hum along with me.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.”

We are held captive until Christ delivers us. Back when Isaiah foretold the birth of Christ, Judah was rejoicing more in their strength than in the God who delivered them. They would feel their exile in full many years later, but King Ahaz’s day, Isaiah warned the oppressors of Judah: “Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing; speak a word, but it will not stand, for God is with us” (Isaiah 8:10 ESV). Even when our enemies win every conflict they start, this fact remains: God is with us.

“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.”

The Lord our God has brought us up from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and given us instruction on how to live and worship. “Adonai” is the name that has been passed down to us from Jewish scholars as the acceptable name for us to use for the Lord, because they believe the actual name in Scripture, transliterated “yehôvâh,” should not be pronounced. The old Baptist scholar John Gill calls the pronunciation idea “a false and superstitious notion.” For the Lord of might has not hidden his name from us; he taken up residence with us. He is, as Gill writes, “Jehovah, the self-existent Being, the Being of beings, the everlasting I am, the unchangeable Jehovah, true, firm, and constant to his promises, ever to be believed, and always to be depended on. . . . or Elshaddai, God all-sufficient, who has a sufficiency of happiness in himself, and everything to supply the wants of his creatures in things temporal and spiritual.”

“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.”

Isaiah said the Spirit of the Lord would rest on Jesse’s Rod, and he would judge the poor and the meek with righteousness and equity (Isaiah 11). He would strike the earth and slay the wicked with his words alone, either in a final condemnation of their godless lives, from which there is no recovery, or in a salvific revelation that kills their flesh, from which they will be raised to new life—victory over the grave. “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10 ESV). As we look forward to this day, we see the dawn already. Jesus is setting the nations free to worship him.

“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.”

“I, Jesus, . . . am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16 ESV). Though today he is with us, soon we will be with him in his fully glorified kingdom. Night and its shadows will be dispersed, and we will walk in his light as children of light (Ephesians 5:7–9). We reflect his glory now, but soon it will be all we know or can even imagine.

“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.”

Save us, Lord, and all the nations. By your authority, we live. The doors you open, no one can shut, and the doors you shut, no one can open. Lead us through that door to heaven and bring with us the rebels, strangers, hypocrites, and refugees who have exchanged their lives for yours. Lock up the door to misery, for your name’s sake, so that we may rejoice.

“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.