The Origins of a Great Christmas Hymn
One of my favorite hymns of the Advent and Christmas season is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel because of its rich use of biblical imagery to recount the prophetic references to the coming Christ. The Latin text for this hymn is found in a 1710 German publication but its roots go back to the early days of the Church. The familiar tune for the hymn, Veni Emmanuel, is a 15th century French melody that was paired with these texts in the 1851 publication of Hymnal Noted.
The text has its origins in the "O Antiphons"--a series of refrains sung on each day from December 17-23 during the evening Vespers service. Each one focuses on a different name of Christ in anticipation of the Incarnation. They occur as follows:
December 17--O Wisdom (O Sapientia)
December 18--O Lord (O Adonia)
December 19--O Root of Jesse (O Radix Jesse)
December 20--O Key of David (O Calvis David)
December 21--O Dayspring (O Oriens)
December 22--O King of the Nations (O Rex Gentium)
December 23--O With Us is God (O Emmanuel)
Boethius, who lived between 480-524, referenced these lyrics thus attesting to their use in the early 6th century. The beauty of these texts is their systematic combining of a descriptive name for Christ while referencing a prophetic passage from Isaiah that points towards the coming Messiah.
Following are the texts of the original antiphons as the influence for the later hymn text along with some of the Scriptural references:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Isaiah 11:2 says, "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord." As Wisdom that comes from the mouth of God, Christ as the incarnate Word is also referenced (John 1).
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
Isaiah 11:4-5 says,
"But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins."
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
In Isaiah 11, verses 1 and 10, we read,
"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit..."
"...In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples--of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious."
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 22:22 says,
"And 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."
O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 9:2 says,
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.
O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.
Isaiah 9: 6 reads,
"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Isaiah 7:14 says,
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
With these texts as a guide, poets began to paraphrase these words as hymn lyrics. One of the earliest known versions is the 8th century poem by the English poet Cynewulf. Other versions occurred in the following centuries, but the one that is most familiar is the text published in Germany on 1710. This version changes the order by placing the "O Emmanuel" verse first and adding the refrain, "Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel will be born for you, O Israel." The republishing of the text in another German hymnal in 1844 brought these words to the attention of John Mason Neale, the great translator of hymns who wrote the familiar English text most commonly in use today.
In 1851, Thomas Helmore paired Neale's text with a 15th century French tune and published them together in his Hymnal Noted. In 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the highly influential and popular English hymnal, republished this pairing of text and tune and ensured the enduring use and popularity of this hymn. While several other melodies are used in various parts of the world, they tend to be German tunes that set different translations of the text.
The beauty of this hymn is the careful, systematic, and concise presentation of the prophetic witness to the coming of Christ and the expectation of what He will bring. As the Word Incarnate, He will fulfill the Law of God, bring justice and righteousness, deliver the people, reign as King, bring light to the darkness, save His people whom He created, and be Emmanuel, our God with us. This is the promise of the first and second coming of Christ, and for this we hope, wait, prepare, and pray.
Hymns Ancient and Modern,1861,
Greg Wilbur is the Chief Musician and Liturgist at Cornerstone PCA in Franklin, TN. He is also the Dean of the Chapel, Senior Fellow at New College Franklin, a Christian classical college in Franklin. Greg has written numerous articles about worship, the arts, and education. You can find our more about his work at wilburmusic.com.