In the weeks prior to the celebration of Christmas, many Christians will sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a traditional hymn of the Advent season that implores:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” seems to be a stringing together of liturgical antiphons, derived from scriptural texts, which originates in the 12th century. This 12th century rendition appears to be a precursor of a 15th century processional hymn composed by or for a community of Franciscan nuns in France. The version that is used today was arranged in the 19th century. The eloquent words of the hymn are simultaneously lamentation and consolation, recognizing the plight of Israel while at the same time encouraging God’s chosen people to envision the day when the God of Israel will act in an extraordinary way to liberate them from the oppression of their current circumstances.
Lamentation then gives ways in the hymn to poetry and mysterious metaphors that indicate the identity of the Emmanuel who is to come:
O come, Thou Day Star, come and cheer….
O come, Thou Key of David, come…
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse…
These are all biblical allusions derived for the most part from the prophet Isaiah, all of which evoke the return of a king to Israel—and not just any claimant to the throne, but someone who would arise from the house of David himself. This imagery and the ethos of the hymn deeply immerse us in the strange world of biblical prophecy, particularly in the Messianic expectations that are redolent of the aftermath of the terrifying events of the year 587 BC.
The prophecies of the Book of Isaiah are a window into the year 587 BC. This was the year that the last of the defenses of the Kingdom of Judah were overcome by the armies of Babylon. The Kingdom of Judah was the last remnant of the kingdom founded by David, a kingdom that was divided after the death of David’s son, Solomon. The northern part of the divided legacy of King David fell to the armies of Assyria in the year 722 BC.
This was a devastating loss as ten of the twelve tribes, tribes that had been united by King David, effectively disappeared from that moment from history. Assyria would fall before Babylon, and the Kingdom of Judah’s attempt to maintain its independence through alliances with other powers would eventually lead to disaster. Judah would fall; its lands would be assimilated into the Babylonian Empire. The city of David, Jerusalem, would receive the full force of Babylon’s fury; it would be destroyed. The temple, the spiritual and cultural center of the people of Israel, would be desecrated and razed to the ground. The royal family would be executed before the walls of the city, walls that would then be demolished. In the wake of all this, Israel was more than just a defeated people; in the eyes of the world, they were no more.
Isaiah’s prophecies provide Israel with a theological point of view in regard to these events and offer the strange insight that although Israel has been defeated, the God of Israel has not. The events of history, even those of such terrifying consequence like what happened in the year 587 BC, are “under God,” meaning that a mysterious providence is moving Israel through their current circumstances toward a purpose that has yet to be realized. (Modernity has found this kind of theological conception of history to be problematic, but it is Isaiah’s insight. How such an insight was received and understood by the people of his own day is not presented in the text.) The Book of the prophet Isaiah presents the culmination of God’s purposes in the revelation of an extraordinary person who would bring about the restoration of the Kingdom of David and would, mysteriously enough, rise out of the ashes of David’s remaining heirs. In other words, Israel would one day witness the restoration of not only what had been lost in the year 587 BC, but also what had been lost in the year 722 BC—and a successor to King David would accomplish this tremendous feat.
This crystallizes the Messianic expectations of Israel: the anticipation that God would act in Israel’s history, and his actions would culminate in the restoration of the Kingdom of David, the gathering of the scattered tribes (even those seemingly lost to history), the defeat of Israel’s enemies, and the rebuilding of the temple. All of this would lead to the recognition by the nations of the world that the God of Israel is the one, true God, and his Messiah is the Lord of the nations. It was this set of expectations that electrified the followers of the Lord Jesus, and the Gospel that they proclaimed was an announcement that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, God had finally acted to bring Israel’s history to its culmination and set right everything that had gone wrong leading up to and including the horrible events of 587 BC. The canonical Gospels that originate in the witness of the earliest followers of the Lord Jesus are each, in their own way, making the case that Christ’s identity as the Messiah is true. When we hear those scriptures proclaimed, we should be more attentive to how the Gospels are making the case for Christ as the Messiah than just trying to glean impressions from the texts about timeless truths that are useful to know for daily living.
However, the canonical Gospels say more about the Lord Jesus than just how he is the Messiah. They make an extraordinary claim about his essential identity. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic expectations, but in him, God has done something remarkable: he has become himself Israel’s Messiah. God has entered into human history in the man Jesus of Nazareth and assumed for himself the responsibility of fulfilling the Messianic tasks. Thus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the arrival of the one called “Emmanuel” (“God with us”) is not just about the establishment of a new institution, like a dynasty, which would symbolically represent, as David had in the past, the human potential of those who followed Israel’s God. Instead, God offers more than a symbol; he offers himself, and this offering is revealed to Israel in God’s face-to-face encounter with his people in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Messianic claims made regarding the Lord Jesus are extraordinary enough. The claims regarding Christ’s identity as being the God of Israel incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth are breathtaking. The melodious beauty and poetic wonder of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is an expression of not only Israel’s Messianic expectations, but also their mysterious fulfillment in the divine person of Christ, who is the God of Israel that took for himself a human nature, united this human nature to his divine nature, and revealed himself to Israel as the Messiah. It might be easy, because of the beauty of this hymn, to lose oneself in the aesthetic experience of its words and music and in doing so fail to engage the strange revelation that the totality of the piece means to communicate. It is a perennial temptation to dull Christ’s specificity by preferring an abstract experience that provokes an emotional response—a temptation that is particularly acute given the quality and beauty of the music, customs, and liturgical practices of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Giving in to this temptation makes Christ perhaps easier to take, but misses his sharp-edged reality and particularity. A hymn like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is at its best when we accept its purpose: to illuminate the mysterious truth that Christ is God the Messiah, and even while we rejoice at his coming, to wait in hope that the fullness of the restored Kingdom that he bears into the world will one day be revealed.