Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14
This is one of the oldest hymns that is in current use if we trace it all the way to its roots. To do that, we need to go back to at least the 8th century, when we have our first certain references to it in the monasteries. But some scholars have discerned a passing allusion to it in a work by the 6th century Roman senator and philosopher Boethius. In some fashion, then, it appears it dates back to within just a few centuries of the New Testament.
Its origins lie in what are commonly called the “O Antiphons.” An antiphon is a simply a chant sung in a call and response fashion. Those in question were the seven used at vespers, the evening prayer service, one each day of the final week of Advent leading up to Christmas Eve. They were initially written in Latin, of course; they are referred to as the “O Antiphons” because each one begins with the Latin “O,” the vocative particle indicating you are directly addressing someone.
In this case, that one is Christ. Each one of them highlights a different title of the Messiah used in Scripture, pulled from the book of Isaiah in particular (the Latin is given in parenthesis):
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. (Is 11:2) Lord (Adonai):
But there the Lord in majesty will be for us
a place of broad rivers and streams,
where no galley with oars can go,
nor majestic ship can pass.
For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver;
the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Is 33:21-22)
Root of Jesse (Radix Jesse):
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. (Is 11:1)
Key of David (Clavis David):
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. (Is 22:22)
Dayspring (Oriens, literally “rising sun,” but the poetic “Dayspring” is typical in English):
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. (Is 9:1)
King of Nations (Rex Gentium):
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore. (Is 2:4)
Emmanuel, of course, was already mentioned in the passage heading the article. It is quoted directly in Matt 1:23 as well, where we are reminded of its meaning: God with us.
That’s the order of the verses in the “O Antiphons.” In 1861, the Anglican priest and scholar John Mason Neale loosely translated them into what we know as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” rearranging the stanzas as well.
Two things stand out about the hymn. One is how steeped it is in Scripture. If we truly focus on each title of Jesus, we are not only forced to think about him as the fulfillment of these prophecies, but our understanding of his identity and his mission is deeply enriched.
More than that, it is fascinating that the song places us in the position of Israel, yearning for the coming of Messiah. The tune that the words were placed with in the 19th century reinforces that plaintive sense of longing. We are reminded that, as God’s people, we live in the tension between already and not yet: Christ has now come, but we look forward to the consummation of his kingdom. Much like the ancient Jews, we hope for God’s deliverance.
But his first coming reminds us that God keeps his promises; as the refrain resounds, Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel! And there is a wonderful little clue hidden in original Latin of those titles that reinforces the message: Sapientia, Adonai, Radix, Clavis, Oriens, Rex, Emmanuel. Take the first letter of each and you have SARCORE. This is a reverse acrostic; flip it around and you have ero cras—Latin for “I shall be with you tomorrow.”
We rejoice that he has come and plead with him to come again, clinging to that beautiful promise.