Advent: Understanding "O Come Emmanuel"

Some of the Christmas carols we sing mean more than you may have realized. For instance, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" talks about "ransoming Israel." What does that mean? Gather up the family, settle in, and think with me for a bit about the advent, the coming, of Jesus. Click here for a shorter family Advent reading.

The Song and Lyrics

Feel free to skip to the next heading if you are familiar with this song. 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 Rod of Jesse, free Thine own from Satan's tyranny From depths of Hell Thy people save And give them victory o'er the grave Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel. O come, Thou Day-Spring, 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. 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. O come, O come, Thou Lord of might, Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai's height, In ancient times did'st give the Law, In cloud, and majesty and awe. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Funny Old Words

  • Thee? Thy? Thou? Thine?
You see in a lot of Christmas carols words like "thee," "thy," "thou," and "thine." In Old English, these words mean "you" and "your." The King James Version of the Bible uses these words as well.
  • Did'st?
Look at the word above. It has an Old English suffix you do not see very often. Still, you should recognize the root word. What is the root word of "did'st"? Knowing that, what do you think this word means?
  • O'er?
This is another word you do not see very often, except in songs, poetry, and Old English. It is a contraction of a word you probably know. What word is made if you put a "v" where the apostrophe is?
  • Advent?
We see this word more often in December, but it was used more often in Old English. "Advent" simply means "coming." Why do you think we call the four weeks before Christmas "advent"? Hint: Who do we remember is coming? Now, put together all you know about Old English. How would you rewrite the line "O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer Our spirits by Thine advent here" to help other people understand it a little better?
  • Emmanuel?
Emmanuel (sometimes spelled Immanuel) is one of the names of God. It means "God with us." It is first used in Isaiah.

"The Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin is going to have a baby. She will give birth to a son. And he will be called Immanuel."

Isaiah 7:14 (NIRV)

To understand why this is so important, we need to brush up on our history.

The Exile

Below are two short videos (3:40) about the Exile, a rough time in Israel's history. Pick one to watch together. For younger children: For older children & teenagers: The northern kingdom, called Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC. They took most of the Israelites into Exile, making them live far from home. In 612, the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. They then became the muscle in the middle east. It wasn't long before they turned their sites to what was left of Israel. The southern kingdom, called Judah, was conquered and the temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Jewish people were taken into Exile, just like their northern relatives. Roughly forty years later, in 538 BC, the king of Babylon said the Jews could go home.

Isaiah's Bad News

The prophet Isaiah, who lived about 760 -673 BC, was one of the people who followed God, even in these tough times. God told Isaiah to warn the Jews living in Jerusalem and the southern kingdom (Judah) what was going to happen, even before Assyria conquered the northern kingdom (Israel). Get this. God always knew that the people would not listen to His warnings. When God told Isaiah the people wouldn't listen, Isaiah asked how long he should keep trying to warn them. Look at God's reply.

Then I said, “Lord, how long will it be like that?”

He answered,

“It will last until the cities of Israel are destroyed. It will last until no one is living in them. It will last until the houses are deserted. The fields will be completely destroyed. It will last until the Lord has sent everyone far away. The land will be totally deserted."

Isaiah 6:11-12 (NIRV)

How would you like to tell people such terrible news for 55-60 years? I think I'd get discouraged and a bit depressed.

There is still hope!

Here's the best part: along with all those terrible warnings, God still gave the people hope. Many famous verses come from the book of Isaiah, verses of hope.

"but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."

Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)

God also promised a Messiah, a Savior who would rescue His people. Many verses in Isaiah point to the coming, the advent, of Jesus. Here is one of my favorites:

"He suffered the things we should have suffered. He took on himself the pain that should have been ours. But we thought God was punishing him. We thought God was wounding him and making him suffer. But the servant was pierced because we had sinned. He was crushed because we had done what was evil. He was punished to make us whole again. His wounds have healed us."

Isaiah 53:4-5 (NIRV)

Now how does that compare with these verses?

" 'He himself carried our sins' in his body on the cross. (Isaiah 53:5) He did it so that we would die as far as sins are concerned. Then we would lead godly lives. 'His wounds have healed you.' (Isaiah 53:5) 'You were like sheep wandering away.' (Isaiah 53:6) But now you have returned to the Shepherd. He is the one who watches over your souls."

1 Peter 2:24-25 (NIRV)

O Come, Emmanuel

Emmanuel means God with us. When Jesus was born, He became God in a human body. Think about that for a minute. God Almighty, walking around and hanging out with people like you and me. Crazy, isn't it? Still, God promised to be with us. Jesus was God with us. Our sin separates us from God (Romans 3:23). Jesus died on the cross to ransom us, to take our punishment for sin so we can be made right and live with God if we turn away from our sins, trust and believe in Him (John 1:12). (See more in this video.) When Jesus rose from the grave (came back to life again), He went back up into heaven (Acts 1:1-11). After He left, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to live with us. That means that God is still Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus has promised to come back someday soon. Then, once again, He will be Emmanuel, God with us (Revelation 21:22-27).

Take some time to pray. Thank God for being Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus who was promised long before He was born in Bethlehem. Ask God to give you hope when things seem to be going wrong. Pray that Jesus comes back soon.

You can read more on this website how Isaiah's prophecies are used in the New Testament.

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