O Come, O Come Emmanuel: Meaning

It’s been a while since I last posted in my occasional ‘hymnology’ series, where I look at the meaning of Christian hymns. You can see the previous ones under the hymnology tag. Seeing as it’s Advent Sunday, I thought it might be worth looking at the popular Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

It’s a beautiful, haunting hymn – but what does it really mean?

If you want to understand O Come, O Come Emmanuel – you need to understand the Old Testament. The hymn draws heavily on the Old Testament, and you can’t talk about the meaning without it.

Biblical Background: Israel and exile

The first verse of the hymn begins:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here

The fundamental thing to understand here is exile.

Let’s take a very brief history of the people of Israel through the Bible:

  1. God promised Abraham that he would eventually have his own land. You can read about that in Genesis 12:1-3.
  2. The people of Israel ended up as slaves in Egypt, so God rescued them and promised to bring them into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).
  3. Before they entered the Promised Land, Moses warned them that if they disobeyed: “The Lord will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors” (Deuteronomy 28:36).
  4. They did take possession of the Promised Land – the land of Israel – and you can read about that in the book of Joshua.
  5. However, because of their disobedience, eventually they were conquered by Assyria and Babylon and taken into captivity. This is what is meant by exile.
  6. The people did eventually return from exile – you can read about that in Ezra and Nehemiah.

In a nutshell, when God’s people were in exile, they were away from the Promised Land. They were awaiting the day when they would be able to return.

Christians and Exile

All that happened to the Israelites. But what relevance does that have for modern day Christians? And why does O Come, O Come Emmanuel talk about things which happened long ago?

Interestingly, the New Testament book of 1 Peter picks up the theme of exile and applies it to Christians. The book begins: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles, scattered throughout the provinces…”. So Peter addresses Christians as exiles. Why?

It’s all because of a concept called ‘typology’. This basically means that things which happened in the Old Testament prefigure or foreshadow things in the New Testament. Peter is saying that there is something about the Old Testament exile which applies to Christians.

What this means is that the situation of the Old Testament nation of Israel is analogous to Christians today: we, too, are not living in the Promised Land. We’re here because we as the human race disobeyed God – because of the Fall (which happened in Genesis 3).

Of course, for Christians, the details are different: the Promised Land is the New Creation. The one holding us captive is not the Babylonians or Assyria, but Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). There are differences! But Peter says that, nonetheless, in a sense we are in exile.

The key thing is, does that help us to make sense of the hymn?

O Come, O Come Emmanuel and Exile

Let’s return to the hymn and see if the theme of exile helps us to make sense of it.

Verse 1 and chorus

The first verse of the hymn finishes off:

Until the Son of God appear.

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

We are in exile until the Son of God appears. This is what the Bible says: we will not reach our Promised Land – the new creation – until Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. But the good news is, we can rejoice – our comfort in this dark world is that Jesus will return and come to us.

Verse 2 and onwards

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.

As we’ve already seen, Satan is the one holding this world in slavery to sin. The ‘rod of Jesse’ is a reference to Isaiah 11:1 (‘rod’ is the way it was translated in the King James version; these days modern translations go for a ‘shoot’). It’s basically saying that Jesus, as the descendant of King David, would come and free us from Satan.

Jesus, Son of God, would save us from the claims of hell and death (Hebrews 2:15). Although we are living in exile, we need have no fear of the future because we know that all those in Christ are secure.

The rest of the hymn is basically a variation on the same theme. Jesus is the one who saves us from our sins (Matthew 1:21). He has defeated Satan and death. He rescues us from exile and leads us into the promised land.

Interesting fact: Joshua led the people into the Promised Land in the Old Testament. Joshua and Jesus are basically the same name – Joshua is the Hebrew version, and Jesus is the Greek version. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Like I said – typology!

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, then, O Come O Come Emmanuel is saying that Christians today are living in exile. We’re not in the Promised Land. Although Jesus has and defeated sin at the cross, we still await the final judgement, where all evil will be destroyed. Until then, we have to deal with a dark world, where sin and death still exist. And yet, we have hope that one day Christ will return, lead us into the Promised Land of the new creation, and destroy death, sin, and Satan forever.


Here’s a version of the song recorded by Belle & Sebastian:


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