Purposeful Praise: Making Sense of Congregational Singing

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O Come, O Come Emmanuel: It’s All in the Name - By Corrie Schwab

Since (at latest) the eighth century, Christian churches have been using a set of call-and-response chants known as the “O Antiphons” during the Advent season. Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering whether the O Antiphons come after the N Antiphons. But “O” in this case doesn’t signify a letter of the alphabet; rather, it’s a one-letter word that indicates direct address. Each chant addresses Christ using a title related to an Old Testament prophesy of the Messiah’s coming. For instance, the final chant begins with “O Emmanuel.”

The original seven Latin chants are still recited in Catholic churches during Advent, but many centuries ago five of them were converted into the hymn we know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” with the verses rearranged to put Emmanuel first.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel” makes a great first line (and a great title) because it’s a play on words. Since Emmanuel means God with us, the first line is essentially calling on God-with-us to come to us: the answer is in the request. The name Emmanuel first appears in the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The hymn’s second verse begins “O come, O come, thou Lord of might” and goes on to highlight Christ’s identity as God the majestic lawgiver. Lord in English (and the corresponding dominus in Latin) is usually used to translate two of God’s names: his title Adonai, which indicates his sovereignty and power, and his name Yahweh, which declares his self-sufficiency. The Latin version of our hymn actually uses the word Adonai. The prophesy in view, however, seems to be Isaiah 33:22, where Lord is a translation of Yahweh: “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.”

The third verse calls Christ “Rod of Jesse.” Rod here means shoot or branch: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). But the English translation also lets us envision the rod as something that can physically beat down Satan’s tyranny. Jesse, of course, was King David’s father, so this title indicates that Christ is the heir of David, rightful king of God’s people. By referring to Jesse rather than David, though, Isaiah not only states that the Messiah will be David’s heir, but also suggests that he will be at least as important as David.

The fourth verse refers to Christ as Dayspring and highlights his role as comforter. Dayspring is a delightfully picturesque word for the dawn, and the rest of the verse reflects Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”

The fifth and final verse begins “O come, thou Key of David,” and asks Christ to bring us safely home. Key of David refers to Isaiah 22:22, where Isaiah prophesies about God’s servant, a man named Eliakim: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” A further reference to the key of David in Revelation 3:7 makes it clear, however, that Eliakim prefigures Christ, “the holy one, the true one,” who has ultimate authority over who enters God’s house.

The refrain at the end of each verse switches from addressing Christ to addressing Israel (i.e., God’s people): “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Again, calling Christ Emmanuel reminds us that he is already with us even as we ask him to come. Indeed, the season of Advent brings into sharp focus the already-not-yet state of our Christian life: we anticipate Christ’s second coming even while we remember how he already arrived and redeemed us, just as we long to fully experience God’s kingdom even while we know we’re already living in it.

And what gives us assurance that Christ will come again and fulfill all the promises about him? It’s in his nature—in his very name.