One of the songs we sing during the advent season is entitled ‘Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel’. It is a familiar hymn, but I wonder how many times we really stop and think about the words we are singing. As I was looking at the words yesterday, I was struck by exactly what this hymn says. This is a very old hymn, first written in Latin in 1710. It was translated into English in 1861. The hymn is based on Matthew 1:23, “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel.” Some call this a dark advent hymn but I see it as a hymn of hope and anticipation. There is some of Israel’s history here but also the recognition of the promises God has made to His people.
These are the verses: Oh, Come Oh Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the son of God appear. The second verse is: Oh, Come Oh Come Great Lord of might, who to your tribes on Sinai’s height. In ancient times once gave the law in cloud and majesty and awe. Verse three: Oh, Come strong branch of Jesse, free your own from satan’s tyranny. From depths of hell your people save and give them victory o’er the grave. Verse four: Oh, come blest day spring come and cheer. Our spirits by your advent here. Dispense the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Verse five: Oh, Come O key of David come and open wide your heavenly home. Make safe the way that leads on high and close the path to misery. The refrain is: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you O Israel.
There is much to be learned in this hymn. First off, the one who is expected is called Emmanuel, which means God with us. If you remember the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and God was with them. He was there in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Once they settled in the promised land and the temple was built, God dwelt in their midst in the Holy of Holies. God’s people are waiting for Him to send His Son. And they know that God will ransom them…pay the price needed to get them back. The lonely exile is where God’s people were in their sin, divided and separated from God’s presence not only by sin but also by the temple curtain that covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
The second verse is a throwback to Exodus chapters 19 and 29. The Israelites were gathered around the base of Mount Sinai. Moses told the elders to prepare the people because on the third day of their preparation, they were to meet God, He would come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. God appeared in thunder, lightning, a thick cloud, a trumpet blast, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. Moses went up on the mountain and it was then he received the ten commandments. In scripture mountains are always places of revelation. This was no different. God spoke the words to His people who were gathered at the mountain that day. It is a stunning picture of God’s power and might.
The prophet Isaiah gives us the setting for verse three. The writer of this hymn calls for a strong branch of Jesse. Jesse was King David’s father and the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. In Isaiah 11:1-2 we read, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon Him; the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Jesus is, of course from the line of David. That is why Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, because Joseph and Mary were from the line of David. The writer of this hymn knows that this one who comes from Jesse’s line will be able to save His people from the evil one who rules the world and speaks the language of lies, hate and division. His true home is hell, the place of darkness and total separation from God. The language also speaks to Jesus victory over sin, death and evil…a victory over the grave.
In verse four Jesus is referred to as the Dayspring. We find reference to that in Luke 1:78, part of Zacharias prophecy at the birth of his son, John the Baptist. He says, “The dayspring from on high has visited us.” Here the word Dayspring is a metaphor for the promised Messiah, Jesus, who would soon arrive. The NIV version of the Bible translates this word as ‘the rising un’ and the NASB translates it as Sunrise, a reference to the Son of God who would rise like the sun to bring light to all men. There are references to this in Malachi 4:2, John 1:4, 9-10. Now, this is a word that is seldom used. The hymn writer knows when the Dayspring came, it lifted spirits though many were bothered by Jesus message. And again, there is reference to removing the darkness of the world…clouds of night and death’s dark shadows. Jesus is the Light of the World and in Him darkness is vanquished.
We don’t always sing the last verse but here Jesus is referred to as the key of David. When you have the keys, you are in charge, you have control. By calling Jesus the Key of David we see He is the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, the ruler of the New Jerusalem and the Lord of the kingdom of heaven. In Revelation 3:7 we read, “And to the church in Philadelphia write: The words of the Holy One, the true one who has the keys of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” This is a description of the Risen Jesus, glorified and ruling in heaven. The one who holds the keys has the authority. So, the Key of Davis implies control of David’s domain which was promised to the Messiah in both Old and New Testaments…Isaiah 9:7 and Luke 1:32. And we know from John 14 that Jesus has returned to heaven to prepare a place for us when this life is ended.
The refrain simply reiterates the hope in the promise that Emmanuel will come. God’s people waited a long time for the arrival of the Messiah. We can watch the journey through scripture. We know how everything turned out. We know that Jesus did in fact pay the ransom. We know He conquered the clouds of darkness and sin and death. We know He has opened the doors of heaven to all who believe, and we have a place. And best of all, we know He is with us always.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W