Church History: A Hymn

I discovered this interesting piece of church hymnal history while searching for something quite different. During this Christmas season I hope you find it fits each day of the coming year as well.

I often find it soothing somehow the history of how classic hymns came to be, then develop as I trace the story through the years. The many that clearly describe the triune God the Father, Savior, and the Spirit translate the biblical message in caresses of melody within my spirit. It invigorates a tired soul as it paints a portrait of God on the inner canvas of a welcoming weary mind.  ~G.W.



O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
9th-Century Latin hymn
No. 211

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.

This hymn, originally in Latin, takes us back over 1,200 years to monastic life in the 8th- or 9th-century. Seven days before Christmas Eve monasteries would sing the “O antiphons” in anticipation of Christmas Eve when the eighth antiphon, “O Virgo virginum” (“O Virgin of virgins”) would be sung before and after Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55).

The Latin metrical form of the hymn was composed as early as the 12th century. John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the famous architect of the Oxford movement, discovered the Latin hymn in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,” with a refrain. Neale, a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, included it in his influential collection, Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851).

British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in the UM Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”

Each antiphon begins as follows:

O Sapentia (Wisdom)
O Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
O Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (key of David)
O Oriens (dayspring)
O Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
O Emmanuel

Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.”

All of the Latin attributions to the coming Messiah are from the Old Testament except “Emmanuel,” which is found both in Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. Matthew quotes Isaiah virtually verbatim—“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel”—with the exception that Matthew adds the phrase: “which being interpreted is, God with us.”

The “O Emmanuel” antiphon was traditionally sung on the night before Christmas Eve, revealing the meaning of the liturgical riddle through the completion of the acrostic.


With warmest prayers for all to have a blessed Christmas season with the anticipation of our Lord’s return.


Representative Text

  1. O come, O come, Immanuel,

and ransom captive Israel

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel

shall come to you, O Israel.

  1. O come, O Wisdom from on high,

who ordered all things mightily;

to us the path of knowledge show

and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain

  1. O come, O come, great Lord of might,

who to your tribes on Sinai’s height

in ancient times did give the law

in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

  1. O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,

unto your own and rescue them!

From depths of hell your people save,

and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain

  1. O come, O Key of David, come

and open wide our heavenly home.

Make safe for us the heavenward road

and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain

  1. O come, O Bright and Morning Star,

and bring us comfort from afar!

Dispel the shadows of the night

and turn our darkness into light. Refrain

  1. O come, O King of nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind.

Bid all our sad divisions cease

and be yourself our King of Peace.


Psalter Hymnal (Gray)

16 thoughts on “Church History: A Hymn”

  1. Rich rich history for a hymn of the ages.
    Thanks G.W.
    It was one of the first Christmas hymns I chose to learn on Piano when a kid. It reminded me of the world we live in with a hope that cannot be taken away.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post really cheered my heart, G.W. Thinking about the history and then reading through the verses with the refrain (singing them in my head, actually) really brightened my spirit. May the Lord bless you and yours this Christmas season.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Lord bless you, Craig. I did the same while I was writing it, and it cheered my heart too!
      I pray you are doing well. May the Lord richly bless you and yours and a very Merry Christmas, indeed! Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s it GW! You’ve put to words the reason why some hymns and praise songs we sing stir my soul and bolster my faith while others leave me more weary for having sung it. “The many that clearly describe the triune God the Father, Savior, and the Spirit translate the biblical message in caresses of melody within my spirit. It invigorates a tired soul as it paints a portrait of God on the inner canvas of a welcoming weary mind.” Thank you for sharing the history of O Come, O Come Emmanuel. For Christmas, a friend gave me an advent book called “Hosanna In Excelsis” by David and Barbara Leeman. Each day has an old or modern Christmas hymn with the history of the text and tune and a brief devotional. It has been a wonderful addition to this advent season. Blessings to you GW!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh goodness, Beth! I do believe you gave me an unexpected Christmas gift by way of the title and authors of the book your friend so thoughtfully gave to you! I do believe I will search out a copy for myself. I don’t believe I will ever be too old to go a little deeper still in seeking more of our Savior. Thank you so much, my very kind friend! And thank you for your very thoughtful comment! Richest blessings to you, as well Beth!

      Liked by 1 person


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