The Story Behind “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

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This hymn has become one of my favorites over the last few years. Since I was studying Latin during that time I am partial to this song because of its Latin roots. This song was originally song in Latin masses and eventually made its way to a wider audience.

In its original form, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” was known as a song of the “Great Antiphons” or “Great O’s.” The initial Latin text, framed in the original seven different verses, represented the different biblical views of the Messiah. One verse per day was sung or chanted during the last seven days before Christmas.

For the people of the Dark Ages—few of whom read or had access to the Bible—the song was one of the few examples of the full story of how the New and Old Testament views of the Messiah came together in the birth and life of Jesus. Because it brought the story of Christ the Savior to life during hundreds of years of ignorance and darkness, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” ranks as one of the most important songs in the history of the Christian faith.

The song owes its worldwide acceptance to a man named John Mason Neale. Born on January 24, 1818, this Anglican priest was educated at Trinity College in Cambridge. Brilliant, a man who could write and speak more than twenty languages, he should have been destined for greatness. Yet many feared his intelligence and insight. At the time, church leaders thought he was too evangelical, too progressive, and too much a freethinker to be allowed to influence the masses. So rather than get a pastorate in London, Neale was sent by the church to the Madiera Islands off the northwest coast of Africa…

Neale was an avid reader of anything related to the scriptures and came across the song in a Latin songbook. He translated it into English with the lyrics beginning with “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel.”

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The tune that went with Neale’s translation had been used for some years in Latin text versions of the song. “Veni Emmanuel” was a fifteenth century processional that originated in a community of French Franciscan nuns living in Lisbon, Portugal. Neale’s translation of the lyrics coupled with “Veni Emmanuel” was first published in the 1850s in England. Within twenty-five years, Neale’s work, later cut to five verses and called “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” grew in popularity throughout Europe and America.

The first verse comes from Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Isaiah 11 is the inspiration for the verse describing Jesus as the rod of Jesse. Malachi 4:2 tells us that Jesus is the “sun of righteousness,” the Dayspring. The “Key of David” is found in Isaiah 22:22.

This hymn is a great musical source of biblical teaching. It condenses what the Old Testament tells us of the purpose of Jesus’ advent and ministry into seven verses. Just like how Jesus revealed to His disciples what the Law and the Prophets said about Him as they walked on the road to Emmaus so this hymn reveals Jesus’ manifold fulfillment of prophecy. He is truly Christ the Lord.

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