Christology in “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

Christian Worship“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a popular Christmas hymn written by an anonymous Latin author in the twelfth century and translated into English in 1851 by John Mason Neale. The hymn contains nine verses, all of which contain statements about Christ. The name “Jesus” and title “Christ” do not actually appear in the hymn; however a plethora of other titles are used to refer to the coming to Israel. This is quite clearly a hymn of Advent and Christmas, as it is written as if in the distant past, reflecting an Old Testament view of things (as we shall see with the names and titles used below), a view that welcomes the coming of the messiah to Israel. The refrain, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee , O Israel” demonstrates the position of Christ as coming savior of Israel, the messiah figure of the Old Testament prophets.

The figure initially referred to as “Emmanuel” (God with us) in the first verse is in subsequently referred to in the following verses as Wisdom, the Rod of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David, the great Lord of might, the Root of Jesse, the Desire of nations, Prince of Peace, and the Son of God. These Old Testament terms the author clearly views as references to Christ as Messiah and savior of Israel. The hymn further explains Christ’s coming work, ransoming Israel, ordering the world, leading and teaching knowledge, freeing people from Satan’s tyranny, giving people victory over death, dispersing the power of death, opening the path to heaven, showing people the safe path to victory, and binding the hearts of man and showing them the way of peace. Christ is seen as doing all of these things in this hymn, clearly demonstrating his power, leadership, and his role as the savior and messiah of Israel. The emphasis on the whole hymn is of course on Christ’s role as the Son of God ransoming Israel from captivity.

ChristologyThe person of Christ is not really a major concern of this hymn. Christ is clearly portrayed as messiah and referenced as the Son of God—both explicitly and as Emmanuel, God with us. He could easily be viewed as purely divine based upon his actions in the hymn, though his titles as Rod and Root of Jesse add a balance of Christ as a descendent (human descendant) of David. Christians see in this hymn a divine Christ who leads them, frees them from oppression, and gives them Wisdom. The interpretation of Old Testament passages (especially Isaiah 7 and 9) seems to reflect messianic expectations of divinity, expectations that historically speaking may not be as widespread as this hymn portrays them to be among the people of Israel. This hymn thus presents us with a historical re-reading of divine messianic expectations into the Old Testament, a very Christian reading of the text. However, this could be interpreted simply as a correction of the Jewish misunderstandings of the Old Testament passages.

Christologically speaking, the hymn presents Jesus as messiah of Israel, the one of whom Isaiah and the Old Testament prophets speak. This messiah figure is the “Son of God”; other inferences and passages of the hymn point towards Christ’s divinity, though not with at least a slight human corrective. Written from the perspective of Second Temple Jews expecting the coming messiah, it may be inferred that the author may have assumed Christ’s humanity in writing. The hymn in that view presents a balanced Christology. Overall, the hymn presents Christ as coming to the people of Israel as the Son of God and Emmanuel—the good news that God is with us.

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