For those that would prefer it, there is an audio track of this blog post. Don’t forget after listening to skip to the end of this post to play the recording of the Carol.

This is another great carol – also with an interesting history. Let’s take a look.

A bit of history:

I hadn’t realised that this carol, like O Come All Ye Faithful that we looked at last time, was originally written in Latin. The origins on this occasion are much older, though.

The original idea comes from a series of chants which are over 1200 years old. They were designed for services in the last days of Advent – one for each of the days from 17th to 23rd December.

The earliest record of a version with the words written for singing, rather than chanting, was from about 1710 in Cologne, in Germany. It was then reprinted in another hymn book in 1844.

This later printing brought it to the attention of John Mason Neale.

John Mason Neale

Neale was a prolific hymn-writer and, especially, a hymn-translator.

You would recognise a number of his other hymns, including the Christmas ones he translated into English like Good Christian Men Rejoice and Good King Wenceslas .

Neale published his first translation of “O Come, O Come Immanuel” in 1851. The words were “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Immanuel” at that point, although it did have the familiar tune which dates back to at least the 15th century in France.

Neale later revised his translation and in 1861 published a version in Hymns Ancient and Modern, similar to what is sung today

Current translations

There have been a number of translations or revisions done at different times. Some have different verses, or have the verses in a different order.

If you are quick with numbers, you may have noticed that I said the original chants were done from 17th to 23rd December which is 7 days, but our hymn usually has only 5 verses. The other two verses in Latin were added rather later.

Come

Just like last week’s blog post, a key word is Come. The word is used in 2 ways in the carol.

  • It is firstly a request in the first line of each verse, for Christ to come to us.
  • But then in the chorus, a promise that he will come.

Both this and last week’s exhortation for us to “come to Christ” are essential to our Christian life and experience. 

What is this carol about?

Is the song about Christ’s nativity – his coming to earth as a baby?
Or is it about his future triumphal return?

Both, I reckon.

His first coming was to live a perfect life, pay the penalty for sin, conquer the hosts of darkness, and break the power of death. We are living in the result of that, with the church spreading across the world.

This world is not perfect, has not yet been renewed, but God is waiting patiently until the full number of the redeemed shall be brought home, and then Jesus will come back, not quietly like the first time but so that “Every eye will see him” and the whole physical creation shall be renewed.

O come, O come, Immanuel …

The Bible references in this carol are not straight quotations, but indirect references and ideas picked up from across the scriptures – you may well think of different references to me. Let me know.

To look at the content I’ve picked the version published in the Songs of Fellowship song books. I think this is pretty close to the one I remember from when I was young.

Verse 1

O come, O come, Immanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice, rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The first verse points me to Isaiah.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.

Isaiah 61:1

Verse 2

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.

We clearly have a reference to Exodus 19, leading up to God giving Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law from chapter 20 onwards.

16On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

That must have been a terrifying experience – but remember the law was intended to show us our need of a saviour and bring us to Jesus.

Verse 3

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.

Here is another reference to Isaiah

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him –
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord

Isaiah 11:1-2

Some translations have the word ‘rod’ instead of ‘shoot’.
Jesse was the father of King David, so this verse speaks of Jesus as King, and maybe also refers to 1 Corinthians.

Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?

1 Corinthians 15:55

Verse 4

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Dayspring is an old word which means sunrise – and refers to Zechariah’s song of praise after the birth of his son John the Baptist.

78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Luke 1:78-79

Verse 5

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Here is another reference to Isaiah which is a book full of prophecies pointing to Jesus.

I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

Isaiah 22:22

I’m not sure why it is on his shoulder – it sounds like a very big key – but it is a great picture of Jesus opening the door to heaven for us.

Rejoice, rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The chorus after each verse reminds us to rejoice.

Whatever is difficult or problematic is actually very small compared to the coming of Jesus.

Yes, he came once, and that is great cause for rejoicing.
He WILL come again, and that should gladden our hearts even more.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18