Theology of Worship: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Verse 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!

Next to Great Is Thy Faithfulnessthis is my favourite hymn. I don’t consider this a Christmas hymn, but apparently to some it is. Well, that’s society for you. First of all, who is Emmanuel? (The more correct English transliteration is Immanuel!) We find our answer in Matthew 1:23, “All this took place to fulfil 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).” Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 7:14Jesus Christ is God incarnate. The gospel of John proclaims Immanuel this way, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). The words in bold are our focus. According to John, inspired by the Holy Spirit and using Genesis 1 language, Jesus Christ is the Word of God who was with God since the beginning; and this Word, Jesus, is God, the very God who walked among us in the flesh as the only Son from the Father.

Immanuel came to “ransom captive Israel”—to redeem us from our sins. One can erroneously read this as Israel being the Jews alone, yet as Paul makes it clear, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Romans 9:6-7). God’s true Israel through the promise of Abraham “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the Law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all… Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 4:16; 5:1). All those who have faith in Christ belong to God’s Israel, just as Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3; cf. Genesis 15:6). Therefore, when Jesus came to “ransom captive Israel,” He came to ransom all those who believe from their captivity in sin. Jesus “gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). All who may believe in Him shall be ransomed from their sins (cf. John 3:16-17).

God’s Israel “mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.” This is Old Testament prophet language. Several of the prophets, such as Zephaniah, spoke of the remnant of Israel: “‘Therefore, as I live,’ declares the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Ammonites like Gomorrah, a land possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a waste forever. The remnant of My people shall plunder them, and the survivors of My nation shall possess them'” (Zephaniah 2:9). Similarly, Zechariah 9:7 says, “I will take away its blood from its mouth, and its abominations from between its teeth; it too shall be a remnant for our God; it shall be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.” These prophets and others were speaking of the remnant of Israel to return to their land from their exile in Babylon. Yet there is another remnant of Israel—those who will believe in Christ:

“And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out His sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.’ And as Isaiah predicted, ‘If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.’ What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteous that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, a rock of offence; and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:27-33)

What Paul is saying is that although the number of descendants belonging to Abraham are as abundant as sand on the sea as God promised to Abraham, only a portion—a remnant—of these descendants will be saved. Gentiles are saved because they receive righteousness by faith, just as Abraham did. Yet these Jews who keep the Law in order to receive righteousness do not receive it because they are attempting to receive righteousness by works rather than faith—the faith Abraham exhibited. Christ has become a stumbling block for the Jews—their lack of faith in Him causes them to stumble and fall. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). To unbelieving Jews, they reject Christ because they fail to see Him in the Old Testament and seek to attain righteousness by works rather than faith; thus, the Law makes them stumble rather than leading them to rely on Christ (i.e. the second use of the Law). To unbelieving Gentiles, they reject Christ because it seems foolish and irrational to believe in Him.

Yet for the remnant of Israel who believe in Christ, justified by faith, He has appeared to ransom us from our captivity to sin. Therefore, let us rejoice in Immanuel who has come to save us.

Verse 2

O Come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

The Scriptures confess Christ as God’s wisdom. “And because of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19). From the gospel of John we already know Christ is the Word of God and was with God in the beginning, and it is by His Wisdom—Christ—”who ordered all things mightily,” “for by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16). As the proverb states, God created the heavens with understanding, which was through Christ, who is the knowledge of God. “For I want you to know… the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:1a, 2c-3). As Wisdom and Knowledge, Christ commands us to baptise and make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus Christ, as the source of all Wisdom and Knowledge, teaches us how we ought to live as God’s people.

Verse 3

O come, O come, our Lord of might,
Who to Your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

This verse recalls when God gave the law of the covenant to Moses on Mt. Sinai. “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:15-18). Why would this verse rejoice in the Law? “By the blood of the covenant, the Lord anticipates the forgiveness of sins in Jesus, who would become ‘sin’ for us in order to redeem us (2 Co 5:21)” (Engelbrecht, 137).

Verse 4

O come, O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust Your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

“Rod of Jesse” is King James Version language. In the ESV, it says the “stump of Jesse.” This term is coming from Isaiah 11:1, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from His roots shall bear fruit.” This is, of course, Christ, the descendant of Jesse the father of David. To put the next two lines of the hymn in modern English: “Deliver them who trust in Your mighty power to save from every foe.” This appears to me to be psalmic language. “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment” (Psalm 6:8-10). God hears the cries of His people who are crying out to be delivered from their enemies. Even if we suffer a little while, we receive the ultimate victory through Christ’s grave, through whom we will be resurrected like Him (Romans 6:4-5), who left our sins in the grave.

Verse 5

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

“Key of David” comes from two verses. First, Isaiah 22:22, “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.” We find this to be Christ in Revelation 3:7, “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Jesus has the authority to let people into Heaven or to leave them outside the door. For those who believe in Christ by faith, He opens wide our heavenly home. On our journey home, we ought to pray, “Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.” Let us pray that the Lord keep our lives safe as we journey home and close off the path to misery.

Verse 6

O come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!

“Dayspring from on high” comes from the KJV translation of Luke 1:78 in Zechariah’s prophecy, “through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high to know His place.” The ESV—a translation much more faithful to the Greek—translates it this way, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” What on earth does this mean? The Lutheran study Bible comments that it’s “the dawning of a new era” (Engelbrecht, 1,708), cross-referencing Isaiah 9:2 and Isaiah 60:1—both Messianic prophecies. The verses record the following, respectively, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” As our sunrise—as our light from the darkness, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Verse 7

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;

O, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be Yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

“Desire of nations” is also a KJV translation of Haggai 2:7, whereas the ESV says “treasures of all nations.” “And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.” This is also a Messianic prophecy, where God promises He will fill His rebuilt temple (Christ after the resurrection) with His glory just as He filled the Solomonic temple. I see “bind in one the hearts of all mankind” coming from Revelation 15:4, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy. All nations will come and worship You, for Your righteous acts have been revealed.” This is not a declaration that all people will be saved and glorify Him, as universalist heretics profess. Rather, it is declaring that people coming from all nations will glorify Him at His return. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17Paul addresses divisions in the Corinthian church. Just as there were divisions then, so there are divisions now. Paul exhorted the Corinthian Christians to “be united in the same mind and the same judgement” (v. 10)—that is, in the same doctrines. Yet today Christians are still divided because of minor differences in doctrine. Let us evermore pray that Christ bring these divisions to cease and let Him reign as King of Peace.

Bibliography

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., et al. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2016.

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2 thoughts on “Theology of Worship: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

  1. Pingback: Theology of Worship: O Come, All Ye Faithful | The Writeous Christian

  2. Pingback: Theology of Worship: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing | The Writeous Christian

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