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The Meaning Behind Classic Christmas Carols - O Come O Come Emmanuel

This is the third post in my series, "The Meaning Behind Classic Christmas Carols", and I am so excited to dive into this next song, "O Come O Come Emmanuel"! This song has a lot to unpack, a lot to discover, and I can't wait to share it all with you!

John Mason Neile wrote this song, but aside from being a composer, he also helped organizations care for orphans and young women, ran a college, and translated Greek and Latin hymns in his free time. Like many of the other Christmas songs, this song reminds us of the purpose behind Jesus' birth, but also His death, and reminds us to look forward to His second return.

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.

This first verse goes way back to when the Israelites were in captivity. It's a reminder of the context of why it was so necessary that Jesus came.

The reality is, before Jesus came, there was a period of about 400 years of silence. And before that, the Israelites were entering and exiting captivity for hundreds of years, a cycle of sin, repentance, and crying out to God. Just like the song says, they were mourning in lonely exile, constantly feeling far from the Lord. They were stuck in sin and a broken relationship with the Lord - UNTIL! Until the Son of God and Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23) appeared. A partner in the creation of the universe, the newborn king. Until Jesus was born. And then everything changed.

They began rejoicing! Jesus came, and there was hope. There was an opportunity for redemption. There was joy, because Christ came.

The same is in our lives. Because Christ has come for us, we can rejoice. Because Christ has come for us, we have hope. Because Christ has come for us, we have the opportunity for redemption. And because Christ came for us, we can have joy, no matter our circumstances. Christ changes everything, and that's what this first verse of the song is reminding us of.

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.

At first glance, this verse seems complicated - but it's really not. At its core, this verse is talking about Jesus' death and resurrection.

"Thou Rod of Jesse" simply points to Jesus' ancestry. His relatives include a wide variety of people, from kings to prostitutes. Even with the quick mention of Jesus' ancestry, it's a reminder that God can use anyone to accomplish His glory and perfect plan. This specific reference of the "rod of Jesse" is mentioned in Isaiah 11:1.

Next, this verse talks about the victory and salvation that Christ brings through His death and resurrection. From the depths of hell, Christ saves, and gives them victory over the grave. Isn't that the entire Gospel message?! Through Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection, we are declared victorious over sin, death, and the grave. When Jesus walked out of that tomb on the third day, He conquered hell, and when we accept and believe that He is the Lord, we get to walk in the identity as "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37) along with Him.

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,

And cheer us by Thy 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.

This reference to Jesus as "dayspring" is actually found in Luke 1:78 and Numbers 24:17, which is a metaphor for the Savior Christ who would soon arrive. So although it sounds very complicated, again, it's simply an artistic way to describe the hope and life that Jesus brings.

Ultimately, this verse talks about the freedom that Christ's birth brought to the world. It uses such imagery to explain the before and after of Jesus. Before, the world was full of darkness and gloom. After, all of the darkness and gloom is repelled and defeated, and we all rejoice because of His coming.

I wasn't really sure how I wanted to elaborate on this verse, because despite the perplexing vocabulary, it's a pretty simple concept. But I never, ever want to lose my awe for the transformation that the Lord brings to our lives.

My testimony has a few "big" situations where God came through for me in major ways, but my testimony is mainly composed of a million little moments where God is refining me. Every day, I learn so much from the Lord and *hopefully* become more like Him, and every day, I can sense the anxiety and lack of peace lifting from my shoulders as I learn to walk in His peace and contentment. This, I believe, is how the hope of the Christmas story lives on in our every day lives.

Another thought: perhaps this verse is also talking about Jesus' return? When He comes to finally conquer all of the darkness in this world? Just something to contemplate!

O come, Thou 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.

This verse, again referencing Jesus' ancestry, particularly His royal blood, talks about the pathway to Heaven that Christ has paved for us through His birth, death, and resurrection. Because Jesus, God in human form, came to this broken, sinful earth, He opened an opportunity for us all to spend eternity with Him. There's no application, no prerequisites, no requirements to make it. This is an opportunity available to each and every one of us, "open wide", no matter what our pasts, our mistakes, or the skeletons in the closets. We no longer have to earn our way into Heaven or try to resist the "misery" found in this world by ourselves, but instead walk closely and intimately with Christ through the gates of Heaven.

Rejoice, friends, because not only was this immaculate conception a miracle, it was the only way that we could have forever with the Lord, and He made it possible. Rejoice, because He closed the gap between our broken humanity and a perfect God. Rejoice!

O come, Adonai, Lord of might,

Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height,

In ancient times didst give the law

In cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

This final verse, like most of the others, seem confusing with words like "Adonai", "thy", "Sinai", and "didst" (surely that's not a real word), but it is such a beautiful way to illistratue the character and power of God.

The first line of this verse is simply addressing God. "Adonai" means Lord, or is used as a term of respect. In biblical times, this word was not reserved for God in the way "YAWEH" was, but sometimes was referred to other gods or even people, such as Saul in the Old Testament. It says that the Lord is a Lord of might, a reminder of His holiness and perfection, slightly contrasting it to the friend and counselor in God that we tend to focus on most.

Next, this verse describes a testimony of the Israelites in the wilderness after being freed from captivity in Egypt. While they were wandering, Moses, their leader at the time, left for quite a bit of time to meet with God on top of the mountain, Sinai. While he was up there, God gave him what we now call "the Old Testament law", including the 10 Commandments. A cloud covered the entire mountain during this time, a physical reminder of the Lord's presence in that place, of His majesty and holiness.

I believe that this final verse is a testimony of the Lord's unchanging character. It alludes to this time of confusion and doubt and waiting that the Israelites walked through, yet God's constant power and awesomeness. He never fails to meet the standard of perfection, even in seasons where we don't understand what He's doing. Even when we feel farther than ever from meeting the law, Jesus' birth is the one thing that closed that gap, so when we fall short, we don't have to be far from God for long.


This song was the most daunting out of all of them in this series, but it may have been one of my favorites. I never knew the deep, intentional meanings behind these words - I only felt confused by them - but now, I feel ready to worship through this song with so much more understanding of who God is and the power behind the birth of Jesus in light of eternity. I'm so grateful for all of the things that the Lord revealed to me through the study of the song, and it's my prayer that you feel closer to God after learning these things as well.

What did you learn about this song after reading this post? What is your favorite part or verse? Did it speak to you in a different way than it spoke to me? Let me know down in the comments below!



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