Finals are over, but it’s never too late to learn something. We are in the season of Advent and there is no greater Advent hymn than “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. The words to the hymn date from a Latin hymn in the 9th Century and the melody to a 15th Century French carol. For some time, each the carol has come with seven antiphons, one to be read before each verse is sung. The carol itself is an expectation of the coming savior, but doing so by invoking names from the salvation history of God.
And so, we’ll explore this carol, looking at each antiphon and verse and the names that they draw on in recounting salvation and waiting with hopeful expectation.
Antiphon & Verse 1
O EMMANUEL, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord, our God.
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
In Isaiah 7, the prophet gives to King Ahaz of Judah a sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. … For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” The promise to King Ahaz is that though he is afraid of the armies of Israel and Syria, by the time that the child a young woman is carrying will be old enough to know right from wrong, those two kingdoms will be deserted. Indeed, it would not be long before the Assyrian Empire destroyed both Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And while that wouldn’t end Judah’s problems—the Assyrians would come calling at their doorstep next—Judah would get an important reminder: immanu-El, God is with us.
That is a lesson that would stay with the people of Judah not only during that Syro-Ephraim war, but a century and a half later during the midst of the Babylonian Exile. Rather than conclude that God had abandoned them and that the Babylonian deity must be stronger, they understood that even in the midst of exile, in the midst of their captivity, God was with them.
And so it was that the early Christians saw this verse of Isaiah’s prophecy about an 8th Century BC war as a verse having something to do with Jesus. For in Jesus they saw God present with them—Immanuel. And so it is we sing for the God-with-us to ransom ‘captive Israel’ mourning in lonely exile—a reminder that just as God was present with Judah in its Exile and delivered them from captivity, so God can is present with us in our times of exile and able to deliver us, too.
Antiphon & Verse 2
O WISDOM, who came forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end, and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: Come, and teach us the way of prudence.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.
Wisdom is a much discussed element of Jewish thought, but it is especially prominent in the Book of Proverbs, in chapter 8 of which, Wisdom itself is personified (and female) and speaks:
“I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion. … I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries. The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.” (Proverbs 8:12–24 NRSV)
The wisdom spoken of is not simply the quality of being wise, it is the creative power and mind of God, created at the beginning of Creation before anything else. Christians understand this Wisdom to be synonymous with the Word of God, the Word which God spoke at Creation calling into being all that is, the Word that became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). The great cathedral in Constantinople/Istanbul—as well as the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Washington, D.C.—is named Hagia Sophia, meaning “Holy Wisdom”. And so it is that we sing “O come, thou wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh.”
Antiphon & Verse 3
O ADONAI and Leader of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in flames of the bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come, and with your outstretched arm redeem us.
O come, O come, great Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height in ancient times once gave the law, in cloud and majesty and awe.
The name of God in the Hebrew tradition is written with the Hebrew letters yod-he-vav-he, usually rendered in English as YHWH. By the time of Jesus, the name had become considered too sacred to pronounce (it’s why the vowels are never included). Instead, pious Jews began to pronounce the word “Adonai” meaning “My Lord” whenever the name of God appeared in the text. In fact, in an English Bible, whenever you see the word “LORD” in small caps written, the Hebrew name יהוה is what lies underneath.
But “Lord” is also a title of sovereign majesty and evokes power and deliverance, particularly that of the Exodus. The antiphon draws upon that Exodus imagery, particularly the power of God as deliverer: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” (Deuteronomy 5:15 NRSV). From the earliest days of Christianity, remembrance of the deliverance of the Exodus was central in Christian understandings of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. And so it is that we sing: “O come, great Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height in ancient times once gave the law, in cloud and majesty and awe.”
Antiphon & Verse 4
O ROOT OF JESSE, who stands for an ensign of the people, before whom kings shall keep silence and to whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: Come, and deliver us and tarry not.
O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all peoples on they mercy call.
Isaiah of Jerusalem, the author of most of the book of Isaiah, was a staunch supporter of the monarchy and a believer in God’s covenant with David. He believed that God had covenanted to establish David and his line forever over the throne of Judah and that God would protect Jerusalem, God’s capital, from all harm. With this belief in mind, Isaiah would use very flowery language to describe the coronation of King Hezekiah (the one for whom the “for unto us a child is born” language from chapter 9’s coronation hymn is probably directed). But later in his life, Isaiah began to despair that the kings of Judah would rise to the challenges facing the nation. Isaiah began to project his hopes into the future, toward a day when God would raise up a new king, a king like David, who would deliver the people and before whom the nations would bow. For this purpose, he used the metaphor of a shoot that arises out of a stump (the current state of the Judahite monarchy, cut off from its former greatness):
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1–3 NRSV)
With these verses, the Messianic tradition is born: the hopes for an anointed king, growing up out of a kingly line (Jesse being the father of David, Israel’s most glorious king) that had once known greatness, but had lost it. Later in the chapter, he continues:
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. … He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:10, 12 NRSV)
This king, a descendant of David, son of Jesse, who will be a signal to the people, who will gather the exiles back from around the earth, who will command respect and power among the leaders of the nations. A very old messianic ideal. And the reason we sing: “O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be….”
Antiphon & Verse 5
O KEY OF DAVID and Scepter of the house of Israel, who opens and no one shuts, who shuts and no one opens: Come, and bring forth from prison the captive who sits in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home. The captives from their prison free, and conquer death’s deep misery.
In the 22nd chapter of Isaiah, the prophet announces an oracle concerning Elikiam, son of Hilkiah:
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” (Isaiah 22:22 NRSV)
A sign of power, the “Key of the house of David” represents authority and might. It was another early identification with Jesus made by the early church, most visibly in the Book of Revelation:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: “I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:7–8 NRSV)
The Key of David then becomes a sign of the authority of Christ and the power that Christ gives to the persecuted church, opening a door to salvation and victory in the midst of their persecutions and sufferings. The church has but “little power” and yet Christ has opened a door for them that “no one is able to shut”. A messianic office, a title of power, and a promise of deliverance for those who suffer, but endure faithfully and patiently. “O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home.”
Antiphon and Verse 6
O DAYSPRING, Brightness of the light eternal and Sun of justice: Come, and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
In Luke’s telling of the Gospel, Zechariah and Elizabeth give birth in their old age to a baby who will grow up to be John the Baptist. At the child’s naming, Zechariah, who had been stricken speechless, becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy about his newborn child:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. … And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:68, 77–80 NRSV)
In the King James translation, “dawn” from on high is rendered as “dayspring”, the rising of the sun that gives light to those who sit in darkness. This parallels the sentiment found in John’s Gospel:
“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12:46 NRSV)
Of course, because we read the Gospel story backwards and forwards, we know that the story ends with the dawn, the Resurrection early on that Easter morning, when the rising of the Son signals that death itself has been conquered. The darkness of death is conquered by the brightness of the dawn. It is this dawn, this dayspring, whom we plead to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
Antiphon and Verse 7
O KING OF THE GENTILES and their Desired One, Cornerstone that makes both one: Come, and deliver us whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.
O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind. From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.
Another echo of the salvation history, this time reaching back to the Creation and the formation of humanity in the second creation story, found in Genesis 2: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7 NRSV)
In the Book of Haggai 2:7 we read:
“And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2:7 KJV)
In the New Revised Standard Version, the word hemdah, which is translated in the KJV as ‘desire’, is rendered ‘treasure’. That is, this is an oracle speaking of how the treasure of the nations shall be brought to Jerusalem, a reversal of the plunder that so many empires and conquerors have wrought.
The Christian tradition has long seen itself as a universalist tradition–a vision of hope for all peoples, a reflection of the Jewish belief that God is the God of all the nations. Throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament, we see visions of reconciliation for all peoples, and an eventual union of all peoples under God’s reign. And so, here we have an affirmation of our common humanity, our common mortality, and our common creation at the hands of God. And thus we sing of the true treasure of the nations, the coming One who brings peace and unity to all the world: “O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind.”
This entire carol with its antiphons evokes a number of different strains of the salvation history: creation, exodus, kingdom, and exile. But remembrance is not simply about recalling the past. It is about remembering the future to which the past points. And it is because of that that each verse, drawing upon the history of the people’s experience of God, is able to conclude triumphantly:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.