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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7 Parallels Between Isaiah 53 And Jesus

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Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 53:1-9

1. The first parallel that comes to mind is the birth of Jesus. It was a challenge for Joseph, Mary, and others to believe that Jesus was the messiah that was foretold in the scriptures. Later, during His ministry, we also see plenty of examples of people who struggle to accept that He was the one that Israel was expecting to deliver them.

2. When I read in verse two and three that the servant had no beauty and was rejected by men it takes me to Matthew 13:54-57 where the Jews were offended by the idea that a man as lowly as he, of no repute, could do such miraculous works and speak with such wisdom. This is where Jesus says that a prophet is not honored in his own country.

3. The parallel in verse four is much more explicit and we get it from the text itself in Matthew 8:17. The crowds brought their sick and demon-possessed and Jesus healed them all. We read that this is a fulfillment of the prophecy that God’s servant “would take up our infirmities and bare our sicknesses.”

4. In verse five we see that well-known text which explains what Jesus was doing on the cross to offer us salvation. He was beaten, tortured, and whipped for our sakes and because of that we receive healing. We are healed by His wounds.

5. The scene of Jesus’ scourging comes to mind as I read verse seven. He took His punishment, even though it was unjust and abusive. He did not fight back either. There was never a man as innocent and undeserving of any punishment as Jesus.

6. Verse eight relates to the scene in the Temple and in Pilate’s palace after Jesus’ arrest. He did not try to avoid the punishment because He knew this is why He came and that the Lord would give Him the grace to endure. He did not dispute the charges but He did fill His accusers with guilt and shame as they realized that they were putting an innocent, if there ever was one, to death.

7. We know from the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection that verse nine indicates the burial tomb that was provided for Him by a wealthy man. He was unlike any man who ever lived and yet His body was laid to rest as if He was just another criminal who failed to throw off Israel’s Roman oppressors.