In conjunction with our Advent series “A Christmas Carol,” I will offer brief devotional and theological reflections on the songs that will be covered. Our series begins with the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This hymn was most likely written by an unknown composer around 1100. It was originally written in Latin and translated into English by the Anglican priest and hymn-writer John Mason Neale in 1851. You may read more about the history here.
O Come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Emmanuel is the alternate spelling for the Hebrew name Immanuel. During the reign of King Ahaz of Judah, Isaiah prophesied that a child would soon be born and his name would be Immanuel, meaning “God is with us” (Is. 7:10-16). Isaiah was attempting to assure King Ahaz of God’s presence and protection over Judah despite their impending war with two different nations. Ahaz didn’t take the assurance that Isaiah offered.
Nevertheless, Emmanuel continued to be a name of hope for Israel that, though they faced oppression or exile, their God would one day rescue them. Israel would wait for a few hundred more years before that promise would be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:22-23). Jesus was the one for whom Israel longed to rescue them from their “lonely exile.” For the Christian, our true home is not in this present world and its corruption from sin. So, we experience a kind of “lonely exile here.” Our true home is to come when God restores heaven and earth. In that new heaven and new earth, we will live in his full presence. It is in the full presence of God, no longer separated by our sin, that we will ultimately be free from our lonely exile. Jesus, Emmanuel, accomplished our rescue from exile when he was banished from the presence of God, in our place, on the cross.
Christians now live with the blessing of access into the presence of God, by the Holy Spirit and through Jesus Christ. We enjoy God’s presence, even now, despite remaining in this sinful world. We look forward to the day when God’s kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus’ resurrection, is finally, fully established on this earth.
Therefore, we sing “O come, Emmanuel” in remembrance of God’s faithfulness to his people in sending his own Son to be the ultimate assurance of hope. Furthermore, we sing “O come, Emmanuel” with our eyes oriented to the future. We have faith that God will return to complete the establishment of his Kingdom on this earth, thus rescuing us from the presence of sin to enjoy his presence, since he has proven himself faithful and trustworthy in the gospel.
O come, thou dayspring, come and cheer
Thy Spirit by thine advent here
And drive away the shades of night
And death's dark shadow put to flight
Darkness and shadow is a common motif for evil and death in the Bible. In contrast, light is the motif of wisdom, hope, and God’s presence. When we prayerfully sing for God’s “advent,” for God’s arrival on this earth, we must acknowledge that we are calling for a transformation of the world.
Our world exhibits great beauty and great ugliness. The Christian view of the world is that, though much goodness remains by the grace of God, it is mostly covered in the darkness of sin. We may clearly see “death’s dark shadow” in the suffering of the innocent, the oppression of the weak, and rampant injustices that occur wherever people are found. We certainly live in “the shades of night.”
However, we know that light always drives out the darkness. Christianity doesn’t believe in a God who keeps his distance from the messiness of our lives. Instead, God enters our world and engages with our suffering. He carries justice with his right arm and strikes down the oppressors, and with his left arm he carries mercy for his people.
Let us be clear. The “light” of God’s presence, which drives away the darkness and brings hope, joy, and salvation, is not an impersonal force or power which emanates from him. He is the light. His presence is our hope. God is our salvation, who puts “death’s dark shadow… to flight.” As John wrote, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5, ESV).
Oh come desire of nations bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid thou our sad divisions cease
And be thyself our king of peace
The conclusion to this hymn could not be better written for our world today. Humanity faces many “sad divisions" today. The old division between East and West have boiled to the surface with tensions increasing between major international powers and global terrorism. In our own nation we have been forced to face the reality that racial and economic divisions still exist with a much greater intensity than we would like to admit.
Therefore, the Christian should remember that Emmanuel is a King. Jesus Christ was inaugurated King when he defeated death and rose from the grave. He is not King over a part of the world. He is not King over a “heavenly” or “spiritual” realm with no jurisdiction over what happens on our neighborhood streets and courtrooms. No, Jesus is the King who is sovereign over all. He is the King who may “bid our sad divisions cease” in a way that no president, prime minister, or monarch may. For he is Lord over every nation and every person.
He is the “king of peace.” Jesus is the Ultimate Mediator who brings reconciliation between God and mankind. He is the king of peace who brings reconciliation to broken families and communities. His crucifixion and resurrection is death’s death sentence. When he returns to execute his judgement against his enemy—sin and death—then we will know everlasting peace between the nations too.
Rejoice, Christian! Rejoice, O Israel! Emmanuel has come and will return again.
I'll continue to explore the meaning of the songs that we sing at Christmas, like this one, in our Advent series at Redeemer City Church. Join us on Sundays at 10:15 a.m. from Nov. 27 through Dec. 25.
Also, visit our videos page to see a music video of our worship team performing a rendition of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."