Whenever I hear this carol during Christmastime, I’m always piqued by its solemn, flowing tune against the refrain “rejoice, rejoice”. Composed in a minor key, O Come, O Come Emmanuel sits in stark contrast to other Christmas carols with more festive tones. It reflects a quiet majesty, encompassing awe and reverence for Christ.
Originally written in Latin and titled “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, little else is known of the origins of the carol. Some suggest that it dates as far back as the 12th century. An English translation came about in 1851 when it was translated by priest and scholar John Mason Neale. Since then, many different versions have appeared – the carol that appears in our hymnal is Neale’s version with two verses added to it.
Anticipating the Saviour
The carol opens with Israel crying out for Emmanuel, the Messiah, to come and rescue them. Israel is captive and in exile, awaiting redemption. This is a picture of our spiritual state before salvation: we were desolate, hopeless and ransomed captive to our sins, waiting for the Saviour to redeem us.
In the second verse, the hymn-writer calls out for the Lord of might to come as He did in the past: on Mount Sinai to give the moral law (Ex 19:16-25). God came down in great majesty, causing thunders and lightnings, a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a trumpet (v 16). This is a reminder to us of the same majesty of Christ’s arrival on earth.
This same idea is described in various ways in the following verses. In the third verse, we hear a cry for Christ to come and save His people from Satan’s tyranny. Next, in the fourth verse, the hymn-writer calls for Jesus’s coming to bring light and drive away the night. Finally, the carol closes with a focus on eternity, calling for the Key of David to come and open heaven, where the saints shall dwell.
In between each verse, the chorus rings out an important promise – the Saviour is coming, so His people can rejoice. In the midst of gloom, as one waits for the Saviour’s arrival, there is the stillness of knowing that Emmanuel is coming.
For us, we can rejoice all the more, because we know that the Saviour has come; we no longer have to wait in anticipation. Now, we can rejoice while we wait for Christ to return once more and “open wide our heavenly home”.
The many names of Christ
Various names of Christ are used throughout the carol. The first name used is Emmanuel, meaning God with us (Matt 1:23). God would dwell amongst men as a human, a fulfilment of the promise to His people that He would send the Messiah (Isa 7:14). He continues to dwell in our hearts today by the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:16-17).
The name Rod of Jesse again emphasises that Christ is the prophesied Messiah (Isa 11:1, Rom 15:12): Christ descended from the royal line of David, son of Jesse (Matt 1:6). Commentator Albert Barnes notes that the “rod” is also a picture of a branch or twig shooting from a decayed tree. When Christ was born, the family of David had fallen into decay, but he would restore the family to its ancient glory.
Christ is also the “Dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78). “Dayspring” refers to the rising of the sun and stars. As the Sun of righteousness, Christ is the light of the Gospel, shining forth from heaven. Lastly, Christ is described as the Key of David (see Rev 3:7). As “key” denotes authority, Christ has authority over His kingdom: the authority to admit or exclude whom He pleases into the kingdom of heaven.
These names capture the majesty and authority of Christ, as well as His humility in coming to dwell among sinful men. It is a reminder that our salvation rests in Christ alone; without Him, we would have no hope or reason to rejoice. Do we meditate on our salvation daily, and does this lead us to treasure Christ in our hearts?
A time for rejoicing
To conclude, the Saviour’s coming and the salvation he brings should lead us to rejoice and worship Him daily. We are also led to praise God for His wonderful grace and faithfulness in sending the light of the Gospel into the world, just as He promised long ago. Therefore, during this Christmas and in the coming year, we have every reason to rejoice and meditate upon the majesty of our God as we eagerly wait for Christ’s return.