Famous Christmas Hymns: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”


Title: Famous Christmas Hymns: O Come, O Come Emmanuel


Text: Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 1:23, Zechariah 9:9


Time: December 12th, 2013




I’ve been meaning to write a series of Christmas sermons based on the most famous Christmas hymns of the church, but I’ve never gotten around to it. But this year I’ve decided to go ahead and do it, starting with an Advent hymn, and following up with a number of Christmas hymns.  I love the Christmas season each year, and a big reason for my love of it is because we get to sing the famous hymns that have been written especially for the occasion. It seems now that the whole world is singing these very hymns; even unbelievers find them enjoyable, although they don’t subscribe to the content of the hymns. But usually each of the more famous Christmas hymns tells a story or message in itself. It’s as if we’re singing a small sermon or sermonette. That goes for the hymn we’ll be looking at today – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a song about longing for the coming of the Messiah. We’re presently in the Advent season of the Christmas holiday, which means we’re remembering the looking forward to the Messiah’s coming. Now as Christians, we’re actually looking back before the Messiah came and reliving the anticipation of his coming. For Jews, that is religious Jews not secular ones, they mistakenly are looking forward to the initial coming of the Messiah; they don’t accept the fact that Jesus was the Messiah and that he’s already come. The next big event is his Second Coming. But for the Christmas season, we Christians remember back before Jesus’ coming, to the time of anticipation, and try to relive that over again with this song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The hymn has four main stanzas but I’ll only talk about the first: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appears. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel. Shall come to thee, O Israel.” Now why do we remember the time before the coming of Jesus in order to celebrate his birth? Because by taking the time to think about how it was before salvation, we can better appreciate what we have now being saved by Jesus. It’s good and healthy to remember how hopeful those ancient Jews must have been for the coming of the Messiah. The Old Testament had prophesied over and over again of the coming of one who would restore Israel, or in other words, the Jews, to their ancient holy land, and free them from the hand of their oppressors. At the time of Jesus, Jews were living either in the holy land under control of the Roman Empire, or living outside of the holy land, still under the power of Rome. After the exile under Assyria and Babylon, many or even most Jews lived elsewhere other than the holy land. Even after Jews returned to the land of Israel, still most Jews lived outside of the Promised Land. So the dream, the hope, the prayer was for God to send the Messiah or Deliverer to restore the Jews to their former glory. But as it turned out, God had something much bigger in mind. Let’s look at the words of the hymn.



First, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Matthew 1:23, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and you shall call him Immanuel, which means, God with us.” Now this verse is the familiar Christmas passage that describes what the angel tells Joseph in a dream about the boy child Mary will bear. But for the ancient Jews the thought was that there would be born a messiah for the Jews who freed them from the power of Rome. As Christians we understand the messiah’s work in a deeper way, but Jews normally were thinking rather narrowly in term of political and economic freedom. So when the Jews pray, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,” they were thinking of their social and political position vis a vi the Romans. They were hoping for a restoration of the kingdom of David, or something similar to what Israel experienced during the reign of David and Solomon, in a united Jewish kingdom. The reference to captive Israel is in respect to being under the powers of foreign nations, which would remain until the Jews had their own nation under their own leadership. At the time of Christ, Rome occupied the holy land, so that Jews living there weren’t free, but neither were the Jews living in foreign lands. These too were under the authority of the national leadership of whatever country existed there. So the cry and prayer was for God to send the Messiah to free the Jews to live and work under their own leadership structure in their own nation once again. Now as Christians we need to remember the longing of the heart of the Jews for the Messiah, because it will help us in our own Christian faith today. We have a similar prayer for the Second Coming of the Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus. We too experience a similar longing to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. We are taught by Jesus in the famous “Lord’s Prayer” to pray: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Well, we know that this prayer hasn’t been answered yet because sin and rebellion against God exist on earth. We still have to put up with evil and spiritual opposition today. The world is not as it should be, so we pray for the coming of Messiah to set things right. In our own day and age we see the rise of evil in the form of, for example, abortion and gay marriage. Who would have imaged that the world would so easily accept baby killing as normal and acceptable? Who could have guessed that people of the world would so easily tolerate the redefinition of marriage to include the sin of homosexuality? Yet this is happening today. As Christians, we long for the day when Christ comes and straightens everything out and sets things in order as they should be. The Jews were waiting for this to happen at the time of Christ by praying, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” While we can pray this prayer today, while we put our own Christian meaning to it today, we can understand and sympathize with the Jews who originally prayed it. And we can see how much more God answered it than even the Jews were thinking.



Second, “That mourns in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Isaiah 9:2, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” Again, the reference to exile here in this stanza referred originally to the Jews dispersed in the many nations in which they had been exiled by either the Assyrians or Babylonians. They were disorganized, dispersed and disunited. But with the coming of the Messiah it was hoped that Jews all over would then be united again by having a free homeland to return to. Think about this fact. Most of the Jews at the time of Christ lived outside the holy land in foreign nations. Why? Because often it was the case that life was better in a location other than in Israel. Rome was ruling in the Promised Land, and they kept a close watch on the Jews there. In other places, they weren’t as strict or tight in their control. In other places, many Jews simply stayed in exile and lived out their lives among foreign people. This was not the ideal situation, but it’s understandable. The dream was that one day the Messiah would come and reunite all the Jews in the Promised Land that was free. “Until the Son of God appear” refers to the Messiah’s coming. So we see again, from Jewish eyes, it was all about Jewish freedom. Now as Christians we can totally understand how the Jews must have felt, how political and economic situations dominated their thinking. We can think back over two hundred years in our country, the United States, how our forefathers here were obsessed with freedom from England. They wanted freedom, longed for the right to rule themselves, and suffered under the rule of an outside power. That’s why the Revolutionary War happened. So we can understand the longing of the Jewish heart, but we also understand now that looking back it was too narrow a vision. God has shown us through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ that the Messiah’s primary work, his main responsibility, wasn’t to deal exclusively with the nation of Israel, but to free the entire world of sin. The real universal problem was the problem of sin, not political or economic problems. The Messiah came to deal primarily with sin in a way that the Jews couldn’t even imagine; yet we can understand because we’re looking back of the life of Jesus not trying to anticipate that life. The reference in Isaiah 9:2 points to the problem of spiritual darkness and sin, and then interjects the spiritual solution the Messiah brings. Jesus the Messiah was a light that came in a spiritually dark world. He opened the way to spiritual salvation not only for the Jews but for everyone who believes. Praise God that the narrow-minded Jewish hope wasn’t fulfilled. Thank God that the real agenda of the Messiah was salvation from sin and the salvation of the soul instead of a narrow political or economic agenda.



Third, “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel.” Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion. Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem. See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Now what many people don’t realize is that when the adult Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we now call Palm Sunday he was fulfilling ancient prophecies concerning the Messiah. But he was bringing salvation in a more spiritual sense than political or economic. Again, the Jews were thinking mostly in terms of the Jewish kingdom on earth rather than God’s kingdom in heaven. They were thinking too narrowly of earthly well-being. But they were looking forward to the Messiah and were rejoicing in his coming, even if their expectations were not entirely correct. We Christians can actually fulfill the prophecy because we can fully rejoice in what the Messiah Jesus brought with him in his appearing. He brought forgiveness of sins for all people who believe. He brought eternal spiritual salvation, not simply a limited earthly good life. He brought a right relationship with God, not just a good civil society. So in one important sense, while we can look back and sympathize with the Jewish expectations concerning the coming of the Messiah, we can truly rejoice in a more complete way because our anticipation includes both the spiritual and earthly expectations of salvation. When Jesus returns a second time he will set things right on earth, just as he’s already set things right spiritually for us today. Today we can have a right relationship with God because of the spiritual work of Jesus who died on the cross for our sins. We can be forgiven through the blood of Jesus. We can be saved by his righteousness. What we haven’t seen is society rightly ordered. Yes, we’ve seen much good accomplished since the time of Jesus, much of it the fruit of his teachings about love, but we’ve not seen universal peace as a consequence. So we long for the day, like the ancient Jews, when society will be rightly ordered so as to bring about a righteous and just society. This will happen when Christ returns for the second time. So we find ourselves in a parallel situation today to the ancient Jews, longing for the Messiah to reign over all the earth. Jesus at his first coming didn’t do that in the visible sense, only in the invisible spiritual sense. The spiritual is most important, which is pretty clear. For example, isn’t eternal blessedness in heaven more desirable than the good life on earth that lasts only a few decades? Certainly. So the priority of Jesus is correct. He took care of what was most important first. But we also long for all the earth to one day experience true community and be led by a compete leader. This will all happen when Christ returns.



We shouldn’t judge the ancient Jews very harshly in their wrong expectations concerning the Messiah. We’ve got our own false priorities and agenda in our lives today. For example, even though we have the example of the false Jewish expectations of the Messiah as political and economic liberator, don’t we make the same mistake in the area of politics and economics? Sure we do. Don’t we today tend to look at political and economics too much? Don’t we tend to make too much of temporal things while neglecting eternal things? Certainly. Every election year people give off the impression that electing the right candidate to office is of ultimate concern. It isn’t, of course. Politicians come and go, some good, some bad, usually most in the middle somewhere, average. But even if the right guy or gal is elected, even if the right policy is implemented, where does that leave us? It leaves us still in a temporary situation. But with spiritual priorities, we are truly focusing on things that matter the most. Jesus came to addresses the most important problems of the world, including our separation from God through sin, the judgment to come if sin isn’t dealt with, and the ultimate punishment towards all unrighteousness. By his death on the cross he solved all three problems. He deals with sin by forgiving us through his blood. He deals with judgment by taking our place in judgment. And he deals with the punishment by experiencing the wrath of God the Father on our behalf. So we no longer need to worry about sin, judgment or punishment. It’s all taken care of through the finished work of the Messiah Jesus. The Jews unfortunately were blind to all this because they were focused too heavily on the promises of social salvation. Yes, the Messiah will come again and set things right on earth in respect to society, but that is a secondary role, not primary role. Now that we’ve got our spiritual salvation accomplished through Jesus, we do turn to his Second Coming and long for the day when he returns to establish his kingdom on earth, which will be a lot closer to the original Jewish hope for Messiah. Let us pray that many, many Jews today come to understand the Messiah role in a more comprehensive way, that includes primarily spiritual salvation. Let us pray this happens quickly, because the time of his Second Coming is drawing near. We don’t know when Christ will come, but after so many years now, it’s got to be pretty soon. And when he comes he will fulfill many or most of the ancient Jewish expectations concerning the Messiah, only it will benefit the whole world, not just the Jews. Thank God at Christmastime we know the true agenda of the Messiah Jesus. But even as we understand it, let’s not get overconfident in our understanding. Let’s be opened minded to learning more. We don’t want to became narrow minded and wrong, just as the Jews at the time of Christ were in respect to the Messiah.



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