EMMANUEL SHALL COME TO YOU by David Powlison

Hymns that endure do so for one reason. They are true. They give voice to human experience. They reveal God, and nourish our faith. They express our faith. A hymn lasts when it is true to life and true to God.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel” is lasting. It’s origins go back some 1500 years. Believers have been singing this for a long time! And we still sing it today, and sing it appropriately at Christmas. It stays fresh.

Why?

Let’s take it slow and consider the weight of the words we sing. Each stanza has a simple yet profound structure. The more carefully you ponder, the deeper it goes. Notice how the first stanza speaks:

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.

We begin with a cry for help: “O come, O come.” We are asking God to come in person. This cry gives voice to our greatest need. “We need you, O Savior. Be with us. Deliver us.” We need the Emmanuel whom Isaiah promises (7:14). You need him. Same for me. Same for the people we love. Same for the people we counsel. Left to ourselves we die—captives, sorrowing, alone, refugees. But God’s presence with us will bring life. So we call each other to join in rejoicing. He promises to come to his people.

Each of the following stanzas embodies this same basic structure. We begin with a cry for help. We call on one of the characteristics of the Messiah, as Isaiah portrays him. We express some aspect of our human struggle. We ask the Lord to intervene. We rejoice. We promise each other that he will come. It is a beautiful and significant pattern. Read and listen to the words that you sing.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel embodies the Spirit of wisdom and understanding—Isaiah 11:2–3. We need him to guide us in the way.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save, and give them victory over the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel will sprout from David’s lineage—Isaiah 11:1. We need him to deliver us from all our enemies.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel is the dawning sun—Isaiah 9:2. We need the Light of the world to drive away all that is dark.

O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel is the key who opens the door of life and shuts the door of death—Isaiah 22:22. We need that one door to open wide and that other door to firmly close.

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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel is the Lord himself, reigning, speaking, and saving—Isaiah 33:22. We need his authority, power, words, and presence.

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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Emmanuel rises to rule the nations; he is the hope of all peoples: Isaiah 11:10; 49:6. Divided hearts and divided peoples need him to bring us together as one.
* * *
So we say, O come, O come, Emmanuel, be with us. Our need is the same need Jesus teaches us to seek in the Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Spirit is God’s in-person blessing to us in response to our cry, “Lord, be with us.” This same desire is spoken in the Bible’s final verses: “Come, Lord Jesus.” Jesus is Emmanuel. He is wisdom. He is the rod of Jesse. He is the dayspring. He is Lord. He is the key of David. He is the desire of the nations. He is the king of peace. Each name is a facet of who he is and points to a facet of how he meets us.

So the refrain after every stanza calls us to rejoice. We’ve interceded. We’ve sought help. We’ve seen our need. We’ve asked the Lord Jesus to come. Now we rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice—because he’s going to do it. Emmanuel is going to come as he promised.

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Dr. David Powlison is Director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF) and a prolific author.

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