Posted by: rcottrill | April 22, 2013

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Words: Ancient Latin antiphons (responsive chants), translated by John Mason Neale (b. Jan. 24, 1818; d. Aug. 6, 1886)
Music: Veni Emmanuel, a fifteenth century French melody arranged by Thomas Helmore (b. May 7, 1811; d. July 6, 1890)

Wordwise Hymns (John Neale)
The Cyber Hymnal

The origin and history of this carol is quite fascinating. First of all because it began as a song with a text of one word only!

An established custom in the ancient Latin church (by the eighth century, or perhaps earlier), was to sound “the Great O of Advent,” meant to express a deep longing for the coming of Christ. A long drawn out “O” was sung, before and after the reading of Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55). This Scripture is so called because that’s the word that begins Mary’s praise of God in vs. 46 of the Latin Vulgate: “My soul magnifies [exalts, glorifies] the Lord.”

This “Great O of Advent” was sounded for each of the days before Christmas. And eventually the idea developed to give each “O” a particular emphasis or theme, based on statements of Scripture that exalted the Lord Jesus. There was, in Latin:

O Sapienta (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Lord) – cf. CH-6
O Radix Jesse (Stem of Jesse) – cf. CH-3
O Clavis David (Key of David) – cf. CH-5
O Oriens (Dayspring) – cf. CH-4
O Rex Gentium (King of the world)
O Emmanuel (God with Us) – cf. CH-1

With the last of these being sung on Christmas Eve, the seven “O’s” also contained a hidden message. The acrostic formed by the seven Latin words, s-a-r-c-o-r-e, when read backwards (i.e. looking back) is ero cras, meaning, “I will be present tomorrow.”

Later, someone turned these and other antiphons into a fully developed Latin hymn. It is this which was translated by John Mason Neale, in 1851. The Cyber Hymnal provides eight stanzas, of which four are commonly found in hymnals today:

CH-1 (cf. Matt. 1:22-23)
CH-3 (cf. Isa. 11:1-2)
CH-4 (cf. Lk. 1:78-79)
CH-5 (see below)
CH-6, added by some hymnals, proclaims the deity of Christ, identifying Him with Jehovah God who gave the Law on Mount Sinai (cf. Exod. 19:9; 20:1).

A word should be added regarding CH-5 that speaks of Christ as “the key of David.” This comes from Isaiah 22:20-23 which, in the context, refers to a mortal man named Eliakim. A trusted servant in King Hezekiah’s time (cf. II Kgs. 18:37), he was given control (the “key”) of the royal chambers, and charge of the wealth of the king, as well as being responsible for choosing servants for the royal household. He further had the authority to accept or refuse access to those wanting to approach the king.

Though this man was a historical figure, he is a type (i.e. an Old Testament picture) of Christ (the antitype, the New Testament fulfilment). Even the meaning of his name (Whom God Will Raise Up) providentially suits the coming Messiah. Regarding access to the throne of God, compare the words of the Lord Jesus, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:6). In Revelation 3:7, Christ is said to have “the key of David,” ultimate and final power and administrative authority over the kingdom of God.

CH-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.

I’m surprised that some hymn books have not included CH-8, a prayer for the peace and unity of the whole human family. While the Lord’s peace can be enjoyed at the personal level now (Rom. 5:1), it will only be achieved internationally when Christ, the “Desire of nations” (Hag. 2:7) and Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6), returns to reign. The sentiment is in keeping with the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which says, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

CH-8) O 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.

1) What might the feelings of godly Jews have been before Christ came? And after He came?

2) What is to be our attitude now, as we await Christ’s return (II Tim. 4:8; Tit. 2:13)?

Wordwise Hymns (John Neale)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Robert, perhaps that eighth verse is left out because it is viewed as a Christmas hymn, and verse 8 will only be fulfilled at Christ’s return. When we compiled our hymn book, we left it out for that reason — we didn’t want to give the impression of post-millenialism, and including it in a hymn of the first advent of Christ didn’t quite seem to fit.

    It does fit, of course, if understood properly. The hymn is a hymn of longing for the coming of Messiah. In effect, it is not a hymn of the advent, but a hymn of the prophecies. But I didn’t want to have to explain that every time we sang it. 🙂

    Anyway, that’s why we left it out.

    • Thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point.

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