But did you know that this carol was written between the 8th and 12th century A.D., during a time when Rome was being ravaged by plagues and by war? Did you know that the original composer wrote the hymn’s lyrics in Latin? Or did you ever imagine that it was penned from a pre-Christian Jewish perspective? Questions surrounding this hymn have been around for years. But the key dilemma is this: Was the peculiar perspective of this hymn simply a matter of artistic choice, or could an individual of the Jewish faith possibly have written it?
Time to investigate.
Picture in your mind what life was like during the Dark Ages. Alaric, King of the Visigoths had sacked Rome in 410 AD, and Attila the Hun also busied himself plundering the region. In 846 (possibly around the time this carol was written), war-ravaged Rome was invaded by Muslim Arabs who proceeded to loot St. Peter’s Basilica.
Meanwhile, frequent epidemics of bubonic plague caused raging fevers and painful, disfiguring abscesses, often resulting in death within days. It was a hideous and agonizing way to end life on this earth. Invariably fatal as well, leprosy was also a constant fear at that time. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk who lived in the thirteenth century, estimated that throughout Europe there existed an astonishing total of 19,000 leper colonies. Between war and pestilence, Rome’s population declined from over one million people in 210 AD to a mere 35,000 during the Early Middle Ages.
With the prospect of gory death and spiritual darkness lurking everywhere, it’s no wonder that early Christians longed so intensely for Heaven. Nor is it hard to understand why they empathized so strongly with the plight of the Old Testament Jews, who, like themselves, also endured sickness, famine, war, and enslavement, as is vividly chronicled in those ancient, canonical Hebrew texts.
With this in mind, consider for a moment the lyrics of the first verse of O Come, O Come Emmanuel:
1. 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.
In an effort to understand this ancient canticle better, we consulted three experts in the Jewish and Christian faiths: Rabbi Howard Siegel shepherds the Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita, California. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Arts in Judaica, rabbinical ordination, and a Doctor of Divinity (honoris) through the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City; Dr. Lee Irons has a Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California; Pastor Dave Muntsinger leads worship at Spring Cypress Church (PCA) in Spring, Texas, and has a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary.
These accomplished gentlemen were kind enough to talk with us. Delving directly into the meat of the song, we discussed the overall lyrical perspective. Why did the author, if Christian, choose to write this carol from the perspective of an Israelite who lived before the birth of Jesus?
Pastor Muntsinger suggested that the Christians of the Dark Ages would have looked for a coming Messiah in much the same way as did the ancient Jews.
“They had a very different view of life than we do,” Pastor Muntsinger explained, “and their theology was influenced entirely by the monasteries. There was a great sense of forlornness and melancholy, so they could readily identify with the ancient Jews who sought deliverance from the bleakness of life. They also were not clued in to the doctrines of grace, and did not live their faith out of freedom in Christ. Instead, they strove to earn deliverance from their dark age.”
Indeed, in a time when good works were heavily relied upon and the world seemed desolate and cursed, it is not difficult to imagine early Christians feeling much as Abraham did when he said to the Hittites, “‘I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” (Genesis 23:4.)
While the early Christians surely based their beliefs largely on the writings of the New Testament, they also relied heavily on the Old Testament for guidance. This propensity has largely fallen by the wayside in many modern Christian churches. However, it is deeply rooted in the teachings of the apostles, who originally inscribed the New Testament.
Like a relic of bygone years, the value which early Christians attributed to the Hebrew Bible is poignantly demonstrated in the words of O Come, O Come Emmanuel , a hymn based primarily on passages throughout the Book of Isaiah. A prophetic book in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah was written over 700 years before the birth of Christ. According to Christians, it foretells the birth and redemptive ministry of Jesus.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14.)
The Apostle Matthew later recorded the story of Jesus’ birth, saying:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:22-23.)
Rabbi Siegel notes, “When Christianity was founded by Paul, its early followers referred to themselves as the ‘New Israel.’ They, being Jewish, were certain Jesus was leading the Jewish people – Israel – in a new direction with a new covenant. The ancient rabbis of the 1st century rejected the notion of Jesus, or anyone for that matter, being the Messiah. This rejection caused Paul to give up on the Jerusalem church and proselytize in Europe among the heathens. It permanently split Christianity from Judaism.”
The Crusades of the Middle Ages, however misdirected and politically driven they became, are indisputable evidence of the passionate zeal and superstitious awe many early Christians felt for the physical land of Israel. It is possible that our author found himself in the midst of this intense clash of religion and ill-fated politics.
“Why does O Come, O Come Emmanuel go back to the period of time just before Christ came?” considered Dr. Irons, who also holds B.A. in Greek from UCLA, and a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California. “I think it is based on Matthew’s and Luke’s references in their infancy narratives to the theme of God visiting His people Israel (Luke 1:54, 68), to Jesus as the One who is coming to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and to the godly Israelites who were ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25).
“Both Matthew and Luke make allusions to the fact that Israel is in a kind of spiritual exile, groaning and waiting for the Messiah to come and redeem them. Of course, He does come. But the ‘salvation’ He brings is not a nationalistic deliverance from Roman domination but a spiritual redemption from sin. It was not brought about by victory in the military and political realm but by a Suffering Servant who gave His life as a ransom for many.”
The canticle continues:
2. O come, O come, thou Lord of might who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law in cloud, and majesty, and awe.
Exodus 24:15–18 imparts the story of the giving of The Ten Commandments, saying, “When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai … To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.”
Pastor Muntsinger explained the import of this imagery. “Height and proximity to Heaven is the symbolism behind the mountain,” he said. “You had to ascend to the Almighty. He is above us, and requires us to go to Him and meet Him on His level. The cloud and smoke were necessary to veil the people from God. His holiness – like a consuming fire – would have otherwise destroyed the people.”
“‘I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ He said, ‘you cannot see My face, for no one may see Me and live.’” (Exodus 33:19–20.)
So, just as the Tower of Babel was a presumptuous and mocking attempt by humans to reach God, Mount Sinai was a holy and humble attempt by God to stoop down and reach out to humanity.
Our Judaic-influenced carol continues with these words in the third stanza:
3. 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.
The oppression of Satan and the looming fear of death and Hell were tangible threats during the Dark Ages. Waves of the bubonic plague (which reached pandemic levels in 541–542 AD), leprosy, and an assortment of other pestilences filled people with terror. Like the Israelites of old who waged war against pagan nations, many of which upheld barbaric rituals such as child sacrifice, the early Christians must have felt some kind of demonic aggression was behind those deadly plagues and bouts of violence that claimed their children’s lives.
“Christianity,” said Rabbi Siegel, “has always laid claim to the Hebrew Bible as an account of their pre-Jesus history. In accordance with the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Jewish tradition, a Messianic era is referred to as a time when all peoples will come together in peace. The Messiah (unnamed in the Hebrew Bible) is to come from the seed of King David. Hence the numerous references to David in this song.”
When asked about the unusual and rather mysterious-sounding terms employed in these lyrics, such as “Thou Rod of Jesse,” Dr. Irons explained that “Jesse’s Rod” is an allusion to one of Jesus’ Messianic titles. “He is called ‘a shoot from the stump of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11:1), ‘a righteous Branch’ (Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15), or ‘the Branch’ (Zechariah 3:8, 6:12). The royal line of kings that came from Jesse was cut down when the last king of Judah was taken into exile and became a stump. But Jesus is the shoot that is coming out of the seemingly dead stump, thus reviving and fulfilling the Davidic royal line. The actual phrase in the current lyric derives from the King James Bible (Isaiah 11:1), which reads, ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’”The song continues:
4. O come, Thou Day-spring, from on high and cheer us by Thy drawing nigh
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
5. 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.
The term “day-spring” is an archaic word meaning daybreak, indicating that Emmanuel will mark the dawning of Heaven. Regarding the fifth stanza, Pastor Muntsinger explained, “The ‘Key of David’ is a metaphoric device employed by the songwriter, indicating that Jesus opens the door to Heaven for us.”
But can O Come, O Come Emmanuel be sung by Jewish people, or is it exclusively a Christian Christmas carol?
Rabbi Siegel indicated that there are a few outstanding issues. “The dead giveaway that this is a Christian carol, and not a Jewish song,” he said, “comes in the first verse which reads, ‘until the Son of God appear.’ The Jewish tradition recognizes a future Messianic figure as the ‘Son of David’ (meaning from the line of King David), and never as the ‘Son of God.’ We believe in One God and we are all ‘God’s children.’”
Dr. Irons confirmed that the original Latin text translates, “Come, come, Emmanuel; release captive Israel, who groans in exile, deprived of the Son of God.”
And in response to Rabbi Siegel’s statement, Dr. Irons agreed, noting: “That is the major issue that divides non-Messianic Jews and Christians – Christology. That divide goes back to Jesus Himself who claimed to be the Son of God and thus provoked the Jewish leaders to accuse Him of blasphemy (e.g., John 10:29–39).
However, Dr. Irons countered, “Of course, it is important to understand what is meant by the language of God ‘having’ or ‘begetting a Son.’ The divine begetting of the eternal Son takes place within the unity of the divine being so that we still maintain that there is only one God, not two or three.
“The mode of the divine begetting is ultimately a mystery,” he continued, “and we must not bring it down to a carnal level. This applies to all of the attributes of God by the way; e.g., God’s love is not a sappy emotionalism; his wrath is not getting ticked off in a fit of selfish fury; et cetera. This is because God is the Creator and we are mere creatures. Therefore, all of our talk about God is based on an analogy with humans who are made in God’s image, without bringing God down to a merely human level.”
“God is God, and we are not,” he concluded. “We cannot grasp what it is like to be the Creator of all things. Yet, because we are made in God’s image we can still get an approximate glimpse into God’s character by way of analogy, as long as we recognize the limitations of the analogy.”
In closing, Rabbi Siegel revealed a further interesting differentiation between Judaism and Christianity. “For Christians,” he says, “the future Messianic era is the Second Coming. For Jews, it is the first.”
Is it not incredible to think, that from the olden days of the pharaohs, through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, across the shadows of the Dark Ages, and the enlightenment of the Reformation, God’s promise to His people still stands.
As our enigmatic friend said so long ago, “Rejoice, rejoice; Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”
Jennifer Grassman is an award-winning recording artist.