December 15, 2020 College Heights Baptist Church

Listen to the Words - Song One

Listen to the Words - Song One

A Christmas series by Pastor Greg Crawford

Over my three decades as a Christian and two of those decades in ministry, I’ve had the privilege of participating in and leading numerous Christmas worship services. The majority of those services began with the same song… O Come O Come Emmanuel. There is a good reason for that, as its content has a focus upon biblical material that chronologically precedes that of other Christmas hymns. While many songs hone in on the angels, shepherds, magi, and virgin birth, O Come O Come Emmanuel does not mention any of these things but, rather, concentrates on the Jewish hope of the Messiah. It is a song that looks forward to the nativity, while other songs look backward to the events of that glorious event. It is a song of potential hope, whereas, other Christmas hymns are inundated with realized hope. Both are important for us as believers. Since we live between the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom and the consummation of that Kingdom, we know what it’s like to have already tasted salvation while still awaiting it in a fuller sense. Theologians call this the “already/not yet” aspect of eschatology. The Kingdom is “already” here, but simultaneously, has “not yet” arrived. From the perspective of O Come O Come Emmanuel, however, only one side of this dichotomy is present… the “not yet.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

This first verse has several things that may be overlooked by Christians today. First, Emmanuel is the name provided in Isaiah 7:14 to King Ahaz to demonstrate that God was not abandoning His people. Though enemies pressed all around, God was promising to deliver them from an enemy way too powerful for Judah by human standards. Hundreds of years after this, Matthew uses the word Emmanuel to provide the same hope to Israelites in the first century, that Jesus would provide the same type of hope that God had provided in times past. Knowing the context of Old Testament passages that are used in the New Testament will shed light on the passage. It elevates how “God with us” is a story of deliverance, not just a cute relational term.

“Ransom Israel” is an interesting thing for Christians to sing since most of us are Gentiles, not Jews. Yet, Christianity shares a history with Hebraic people and our scriptures record God’s working in history through the nation of Israel and so we do have a strong connection to the people of God from that past era. Not only that, but Paul tells us that Christians have been grafted into Israel, so in a sense, we are “spiritual” Jews. However, the song is not focused on this truth but simply singing from the perspective of a native Jew from the Old Testament era who has not yet tasted the salvation brought by God’s Messiah. The Old Testament scriptures were confident that one would come in the future and bring deliverance in various forms.

“Mourns in lonely exile” may seem even stranger to the modern person as a cursory look at scripture, and history, tells us that the Jewish people went into exile around 586 B.C., but then were released 70 years later. And unless this song is set as a hymn from Babylon during this time of exile, there is no reason to mourn displacement since they were back in Israel. What many fail to see though, is that many within the Israeli community did indeed view themselves as being in exile still. Yes, they had traveled back to Israel, yes, they had rebuilt the temple, yes, they had established a government, etc., but they had lost much of who they were. They were not independent, but answered to Suzerains who lorded over them, such as a Persia, Greece, the Seleucids, and Rome. The Jewish temple was nowhere near comparable to the temple of Solomon in size and grandeur. Ten of the twelve tribes had been scattered during the Assyrian invasion, while many of those people ended up marrying into Assyrian families and losing their pure identity as Jews (this is where Samaritans come from and is the reason Jews did not willingly interact with them). And finally, this weak broken subordinate nation carried out their worship to God through an inferior temple complex by the hands of priests who were not biblically assigned. The scriptures designated which Levitical family would serve as priests and as the high priest, yet, following the Maccabean revolt in 167B.C., the priesthood came into the hands of the Hasmoneans. Some Israelites saw this as a breaking point and left the temple system behind as a way to commune with God. Instead, they turned to study of the Torah to find communion with God, something familiar from the exile period, which resulted in the rise of the synagogue. By Jesus’ day, the synagogue was as influential as the temple. One prominent group who rejected temple worship was the Qumran community who were responsible for gathering and preserving the Dead Sea scrolls. They were separatists who lived in the wilderness and rejected society as a whole. John the Baptist was probably one of them. For them and others who rejected the priesthood of the day, they truly were in exile awaiting “ransom.”

Christians too, are awaiting ransom from exile. Paul calls us pilgrims or sojourners and Peter numbers Gentile Christians among the "elect exiles of the dispersion" as well as James who writes to Jews and Gentiles through his greeting "to the twelve tribes in the dispersion." Christians, like Jews, were considered "homeless" in the sense that their eternal rest awaits in the eschaton. We are exiles.

There are up to seven additional verses of this song, and I will not burden the reader with commentary this extensive for all seven, but I will bring out a few highlights of the remaining verses. Each verse begins with a name or title for the Messiah derived from the Old Testament.

Verse 2 - O come, Thou Wisdom from on high

Verse 3 - O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Verse 4 - O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer

Verse 5 - O come, Thou Key of David, come

Verse 6 - O come, O come, great Lord of might

Verse 7 - O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree

Verse 8 - O come, Desire of nations, bind

Volumes could be written on these names and titles, but quickly, each of these are connected to the promises of the coming Messiah. The word Messiah simply means the “anointed one” and is the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek “Christ.” The Messianic hopes of the Jews were rooted in the Davidic covenant. God had promised David in 2 Samuel 7 that He would establish David’s throne and that his descendants would always sit as king. For this very reason, Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that establishes Jesus’ Davidic lineage. As an heir of David, he is the Rod of Jesse (David’s father), the root of Jesse, and the Key of David. The Key of David is mentioned in both Isaiah and the book of Revelation. Since David sat as King over God’s people, he had the key of authority to act on God’s behalf for the nation. He is even called the “son” of God in the Psalms. Jesus, being the prophesied descendant of David, arrives in the nativity event and assumes the position of King and has Davidic authority over all God’s people. He states, “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth” (Mt 28:18) and He extends this authority to His body, the Church. He states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In conclusion, when we sing O Come O Come Emmanuel in our Christian worship services, we should be reminded that there was a time where hope was promised, but not realized. The Messiah was expected, but the national and spiritual challenges clouded the hope of Israel. Not unlike today, there are things around us that distract us from the real hope we have in the coming Messiah. We already have this hope “realized” since Jesus has come, has died, and has risen, but we still follow Him through faith, not sight, and await His coming Kingdom. So while singing this song we transfer ourselves into the shoes and perspective of Ancient Israelites awaiting the Davidic King to come, Christians can simultaneously contextualize that hope towards the Eschatological reality that awaits us when Christ returns for His people. Shallom.