I love singing Advent and Christmas hymns and carols, but I don’t always stop to think about the words or the work the lyricist/poet put into writing them. So between now and the end of the year, I’m going to look at the lyrics of five Advent and Christmas carols, starting with an old standard: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
According to Hymnary.org, the text is taken from a 7-verse poem that dates back to the 8th century. J.M. Neale translated it into English in 1851.
The author is unknown, so how can we understand his thought process in writing the poem? (And yes, given that it is an ancient text, the poet was probably a he.) Actually, we can tell a lot from the poem’s structure. First, each verse reflects a different Biblical name for and description of Christ. For example, the first verse calls Him Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and “Son of God.”
Second, Hymnary.org says the original Latin verses created a reverse acrostic on the term ero cras, which means “I shall be with you tomorrow.” Unfortunately, the acrostic was lost in translation. Still, it’s presence in the original reinforces the poem’s traditional use as an Advent hymn.
If you look at “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in more than one hymnal, you may find that the first verse and the refrain are the same (except for minor variations in spelling), but that the other verses use slightly different wording. That’s to be expected from a hymn that is centuries old and was originally written in another language. Even the refrain was probably a later addition. But the text of the hymn has remained true to the original meaning, which celebrates the various names and attributes of Jesus and looks for His return.
Here is the text of all 7 verses as found in The Lutheran Service Book published by Concordia Publishing House.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who ord’rest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go. Refrain.
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain.
O come, Thou Branch of Jesse’s tree,
Free them from Satan’s tyranny
That trust Thy mighty pow’r to save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave. Refrain.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery. Refrain.
O come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Refrain.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace. Refrain.
Come, Lord Jesus.