What does that song mean? “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

You heard my rant on Christmas music, yes?

A friend from out west has started a series of posts on facebook about what different advent and Christmas songs mean; I thought they were well done (all that he does is well done, actually), and asked if I could put them, the discussions, up on my blog. He said I could, so here is his first.

Written by Phillip, from Sunday, Dec 2

First Sunday of Advent, and I would like to start a series of posts over the next few weeks exploring the theology of Advent hymns. So many of the carols are so familiar to us that it is easy to sing them as just words to a carol. But what do those words actually mean? What is the biblical theology underlying them? We begin our study of Advent hymn theology with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

“Emmanuel” is a reference to Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” As Matthew records in his gospel (1:23), this name means “God with us.”

“Ransom captive Israel” is a reference to Isaiah 35:10 and Jeremiah 31:11. In these passages, the prophets speak of Israel in their bondage and the redemption the LORD performs on behalf of Israel to restore them to Zion.

However, although Israel was physically restored out of captivity to her land, she remained in spiritual exile. Even after the captivity, Israel struggled with sins such as intermarriage (Ezra 10) and neglecting to give to the LORD (Haggai 1 and Malachi 3). Moreover, there was a silence of 400 years after the close of the Old Testament with no further word from the LORD “until the Son of God appeared.”

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

A number of passages speak of God as the source of all wisdom. There are too many to list here, but just search BibleGateway.com for the word “wisdom.” Scripture does teach that it is by wisdom that God made the earth and established its order (Jeremiah 51:15, Psalm 104:24).

“Path of knowledge” is possibly a reference to Isaiah 40:14, “Who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge…” This passage is asking a series of rhetorical questions to show the supremacy of God, for no one exercises authority over him or teaches him anything.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

“Rod of Jesse” is a reference to Isaiah 11:1, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:” “Rod” in this King James passage is not referring to metal or wooden bars as we normally think of a rod. Rather, it is using the first definition shown on Merriam-Webster’s website: “a straight slender stick growing on or cut from a tree or bush.” Modern translations use the word “shoot” instead of “rod,” but they have the same meaning.

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.

“Dayspring” is a reference to Luke 1:78, “the dayspring from on high hath visited us.” This is at the end of Zechariah’s “Benedictus” over the birth of his son John. In the preceding verses, Zechariah says that John will go before the Lord to prepare his ways and give knowledge of salvation to people by the forgiveness of their sins. This will be possible because of the mercy of God that has manifested itself in the “Dayspring.” Dayspring is an older word for dawn or sunrise. Because Christ is the sunrise, He disperses the clouds of the night and causes the dark shadows of death to flee.

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.

“Key of David” is a reference to Isaiah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” In the original prophecy, Isaiah is speaking this in reference to Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who was the finance minister under King Hezekiah. The name Eliakim means “whom God will raise up.” However, the statement “he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” is clearly prophetic of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus would later apply these words to Himself in the letter to the church at Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7), “The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Because Christ has the Key of David and has the authority to open and shut, He is the one who has “gone to prepare a place for us” (John 14:2) as our heavenly home.

 O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree, 
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

“Root of Jesse,” like “rod of Jesse,” is also from Isaiah 11, this time from verse 10. “And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.” Paul would later quote this in Romans 15:12.

However, the more interesting thing to draw out from this verse is the statement that “before Thee, rulers silent fall.” For here, Christ is referred to as the “root of Jesse,” i.e., the source, whereas two verses earlier, he was referred to as the “rod of Jesse,” i.e., the offspring. This is very reminiscent of what Jesus said about himself to the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-45. The Pharisees said that Jesus was the son of David, so Jesus asked how it was then possible for David, in Psalm 110:1, to refer to him as Lord. “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” So Christ is both the son of David in his earthly lineage as well as the Lord of David in his divinity. Because he is the true king who will sit on David’s throne, all other rulers will bow fall silent before Him. “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

 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.

“Desire of nations” is a reference to Haggai 2:7, “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come:” The plain history of the world shows us that nation has fought against nation, and there has been division amongst people. Since Christ is the desire of all nations, He is the only one who can unite the hearts of all mankind and cause such divisions to cease. Isaiah 9:6 refers to Jesus as the Prince of Peace, but this verse promotes Him to the role not just of a prince, but of the very King of peace.


It’s always worth knowing what a song means when you sing it.



  1. I used your Oh Come Emmanuel information (or Phillip’s) in bible study. I am sharing the Advent with my group and used this song in conjunction with our first Advent topic “Faith”. Waiting patiently. Waiters=Servants.

    Do you have any other Advent/Christmas song blogs? By you or Phillip. We have a couple of singers in our group and this seemed like a creative approach for our group. Thank you much.

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