Many Christmas songs are solely exalting, rejoicing, and celebrating – full of holly and jolly, fa la la la la’s, and jingle bells. But this Latin hymn, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, doesn’t give us a one-sided view of life; it holds a beautiful tension between sorrowing and rejoicing. The song reminds us that we are in the already, but not yet of God’s redemptive plan. Our Savior has come, but he is coming again, so we wait and long. He has paid the penalty for our sin, but the effects of sin are still active in our hearts and in our world.
The hymn itself is mournful and dark sounding, because of its lower, richer tones. The beat is slow and methodical. The lyrics open with the people of Israel waiting in “lonely exile”. Scripture is clear about their exile in Egypt and then in Babylon, but their physical exile was, and still is, a picture of their spiritual exile. God allowed them to be taken captive, because he was punishing them. The Israelites needed to repent, but they never seemed to learn their lesson. They were like sheep without a Shepherd; wandering and lost. Their physical exile was meant to point them to a deeper need in their hearts; a need to be ransomed from their dark inner captivity.
Today, we are not like the Israelites, in the sense that our Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”) has already come. We already have the hope that the Israelites longed to see. The Son of God has appeared to us. He was with us in bodily form on this earth and crushed his body on a tree to redeem our whole being. Though he cried out, “It is finished!” it’s clearly evident that things still aren’t perfect. So we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Our Emmanuel has come and fully secured our eternal salvation. But we still wait for our final deliverance: for everything to be made right, for our sin and tears to be gone, for the banishment of suffering and pain, for our bodies to be resurrected, for the earth to be made new.
We can still cry out with the Israelites in our own earthly exile, because we still wait for the day when we’ll see him face to face and be with him forever. We wait for “death’s dark shadow to be put to flight” completely and finally. We yearn for the day when “our sad divisions cease” and the King of Peace will complete his full plan of redemption. We have reason to lift up our eyes and rejoice, because he will come. He did it once, and he’ll do it again.
This translation of an anonymous Latin hymn doubles as a prayer for the first and second coming of Christ. It takes us into the mind of old Israel, longing for the first coming of the Messiah. And it goes beyond that longing by voicing the yearning of the church of Christ for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, to consummate the history of redemption. – John Piper
This is one of the short devotional meditations found in the free e-book Emmanuel: Readings for the Advent Season.