Behind the Hymn
O Come, O Come Immanuel
O come, O come Immanuel is one of those very great hymns which is in danger of passing out of use, at least in the evangelical Protestant tradition.
It’s only sung to one tune – Veni Emmanuel, drawn from a 15th century processional of French Franciscan nuns. This has a mournful tone at odds
with the chorus, which tells us to ‘rejoice, rejoice’.
The original Latin words date from the 12th century, and they were translated by the noted hymn-writer and translator John Mason Neale, who rescued many ancient texts and brought them back into the living worship of the Church. The verses each take a biblical description of Christ (except the second, where the ‘Lord of Might’ is God the Father) and take it as a theme for prayer. The rod of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1) stands for power and authority – so, ‘From depths of hell thy people save.’
The dayspring, or dawn, is from Zechariah’s words in Luke 1:78; spiritually, Christ will ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night,’ and put death’s shadow to flight. The key of David is in Isaiah 22:22; Christ will ‘open wide our heavenly home’.
These aren’t references which spring easily to mind, but they are very thought-provoking, and arise from a deep knowledge of the Scripture. There has been a wonderful expansion of song-writing in different styles over the last few years, and there’s no doubt that the simple directness of many of them speaks powerfully to parts of us that classical hymns couldn’t reach. But they suffer sometimes from their simplicity; they don’t give us enough to think about, and in the end, if they are our only diet, our worship is impoverished. This is one of those hymns which gives us more to think about every time we sing it.
The verses don’t have to be sung in a vacuum; each of them can be related to the real experience of God’s people today. We are in exile, as the first verse says; God is mighty to save (verse 2); Christians are oppressed, and need help (verse 3); we fail and are downhearted (verse 4); we have a home in heaven, and a glorious hope (verse 5).
It is a lovely hymn, and very rich in meaning. It would be a pity if we were to lose the habit of singing it: it does us good to grapple with hard things from time to time.
There are various versions of the lyrics, and not all the verses are nowadays sung.
In these sad times, this one may be worth reinstating:
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.