The (Hidden) Theology and History of O Come, O Come Emmanuel

If anyone had a side hustle or a gig, it was the Anglican priest and hymn writer, John Mason Neale.

Neale (1818-1866) not only founded a nursing order of Anglican nuns, helped social welfare organizations care for orphans and young woman, and was a warden of Sackville college, but he translated early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns in his spare time—focusing on the ancient ones that were written around “the feasts and the fasts of the Christian year.”[1]

HE IS MOST NOTABLY KNOWN FOR BRINGING US THAT BELOVED CAROL, O COME O COME EMMANUEL.

While the hymn as we find it today was first published in the mid 19th century, its origins are actually found in a Benedictine Gregorian chant from the late 8th and 9th century. History tells us that beginning the week before Christmas, the monks would sing a verse a day to prepare their hearts and minds for Christmas.

What’s fascinating about the original seven verses is that each began with a Messianic title from the Scriptures that prophesied and foreshadowed Jesus’ coming:

  • Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • Adonai (God)
  • Radix Jesse (Stem or root of Jesse)
  • Clavis David (Key of David)
  • Oriens (Dayspring)
  • Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • Emmanuel (God with us)

If you’re interested in how each verse points to Jesus, you can watch the sermon that I preached on this hymn at the bottom of this article.

I did want to highlight the last verse, which is actually the first verse of the version that we sing today:

O come, O come, Emmanuel 
And ransom captive Israel 
That mourns in lonely exile here 
Until the Son of God appear

EMMANUEL—GOD WITH US.

We see this prophecy about Jesus the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”

Jesus, the son of God, was going to leave it all, leave the right hand of God, to come and be with us, so that we can experience all that is talked about in the seven verses of this hymn…

What’s amazing about this verse in particular, and also the other ones, is that they have a double purpose.

In these seven verses, we realize that through Jesus’ first coming—his birth—he was going to be the ransom paid to set Israel and the nations free. So when we sing these verses, and many of our other beloved Christmas carols, what happens is that we are often seeing the world through the lens of those living in the first century.

You know…little baby Jesus who was born in a manger, on a silent night, with angels singing, and the wise men bearing gifts.

However, if you take a look at each of these seven verses again—with an eye toward Jesus’ return—you’ll discover that they all have a hidden meaning, or a double purpose.

Jesus is coming back.

When we sing the lyrics of this song, we’re not only celebrating the birth of our savior Jesus, but we’re also preparing our hearts and growing in excitement for Jesus’ return, which we may actually witness during our lifetime.

So in a sense, each verse is helping us place our eyes on Jesus’ return by remembering his first coming and then anticipating, yearning, hoping, and aching for his second coming.

I love this quote by John Piper,

The Christian life oscillates between these two poles: the overflowing joy of the “already” redeemed (Ephesians 1:7) and the tearful yearning of the “not-yet” redeemed (Ephesians 4:30). Not that we ever leave the one or the other in this life. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).[2]

I will be present tomorrow

Now here’s the kicker. Take a look at the first letter of each verse in Latin (after O). As an acronym, it spells, SARCORE.

If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” which means “I will be present tomorrow,” or I shall be with you tomorrow.[3]

Friends, Jesus is God with us. He has not only come in history, but he is coming again…

What a reason to rejoice!Jesus is God with us. He has not only come in history, but he is coming again.

End Notes:

[1] https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/ magazine/article/ o-come-o-come-emmanuel

[2] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles /o-come-o-come-emmanuel

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/ resources/history-of-hymns- o-come-o-come-emmanuel

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