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O Come, O Come

This week, Pastor John hands over the TAGD keyboard to Pastor Brent Whitefield, Northpoint’s Pastor of Missions and Outreach.

O Come, O Come

Hello Church Family,

As I compared notes with some of my colleagues recently, we agreed that many of the carols that we sing during the Advent season contain some of the richest theology of any of the worship music that we use. It is a shame, perhaps, that they are regarded as seasonal works and only dusted off for a couple of weeks each December. In my humble estimation, one of the richest and most meaningful carols is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It is one of the most ancient carols, written in Latin no later than the twelfth century and possibly much earlier. The English phraseology that we commonly use is from the middle of the nineteenth century. The lyrics are at the same time evocative, beautiful, and theologically meaningful. No carol does as good or thorough a job at tying the Christmas narrative to the Old Testament stories, prophecies, and promises. And it is a wonderful musical sermon on the tension between what the first advent has accomplished and the promise of the second coming, and what it will bring to completion.

Take for example, the first stanza:

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.

The phrase “captive Israel” refers to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity of the Israelites as referenced in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Though the political captivity would eventually end, the Jews find themselves in spiritual captivity awaiting a Savior. So do we in our unbelieving condition. The arrival of the Messiah heralds our freedom and release, a wonderful advent truth.

The second stanza reads as follows:

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
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The idea of the rod of Jesse, found in Isaiah 11, refers to the line of David through which Jesus’ lineage can be traced, demonstrating the truth of the prophecies about His royal bloodline. The stanza also shows the superiority of Jesus over the other kings and prophets who, for all of their heroic exertions, could do nothing about our spiritual bondage to Satan, death, and hell. The apostle Paul echoes this when he proclaims: “O death, where is your victory, O death where is your sting.”

The consensus on the exact order and number of stanzas varies after the second, but one popular verse reads:

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The reference to the “Day-Spring” comes from the King James version of Luke 1:78. Newer translations prefer “dawn” or “sunrise.” In any case, the birth of Jesus is highlighted as that event which dispels the darkness. The shadow of death that hangs over us all is lifted. If there was ever a Christmas message to cheer the spirit, it is Jesus’ claim: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

To cite one more verse:

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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Jesus Christ is the prince of peace. He alone can bind us together in spiritual union with Him and each other. Here we find the eschatological promise of eventual peace. Peace will not come by our striving after it, or unity conferences, or our undertaking to get along, but will come by divine favor, for which we can but pray.

The words “o, come” and “shall come to thee,” remind us of the beauty of what has been achieved by God in the first advent and the promise of what is left yet unfulfilled. We as believers, should know what it is like to be released from the bondage to Satan, while we are painfully aware of the fact that the earth is not filled with heaven’s peace. Therefore, we celebrate the first coming, always mindful of and longing for the second.

The carol also offers a wonderful apologetic for the continuity between Old and New Testaments, and can be a great source for both evangelistic themes (to Jews and Muslims, for example, who have familiarity with OT stories) and encouragement at this time of year.

May the Lord bless you as you take time to reflect on one of the great hymns of the faith this Christmas season.

Pastor Brent