Keith Getty on the Christmas Hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’

Hymn writer Keith Getty analyzes the Christmas Hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” in part 1 of a series. Submitted photo

Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern hymn writers whose compositions are sung the world over. For more information on Getty Music and the Sing! initiative, visit www.gettymusic.com.


“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is one of the most perfect hymn melodies ever written. Dating from the 8th or 9th Century, it was originally a medieval Latin antiphon, a short Psalm chanted in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain. It reminds us of the power of singing in the Dorian mode and allows us to participate in a 1200-year-old sacred Advent ritual.

Music and lyrics combine beautifully in this hymn to express a deep sense of longing and lament; the waiting for and the anticipation of God’s promised Messiah permeates every line.

The opening verse places us at the heart of the Israelites’ captivity, reminding us of their sense of loss and distress, as they cry out to God to rescue and redeem them.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel

And ransom captive Israel

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear”

While most of the more modern Advent and Christmas carols focus on the joy of God’s promise being fulfilled, here we are reminded of a nation, God’s people, in mourning for their sin and rebellion against God, of their resulting captivity and their desperate longing for God to save them.

It might seem strange to talk about the importance of lament in the Christmas period, but the book of Psalms is full of psalms of lament, and these were originally meant to be sung corporately rather than read privately! And while celebration and excited anticipation is a central theme of Advent, we shouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to sing songs of lament, to recognize the sin in our lives that leads to the need for God’s salvation and, ultimately, Jesus’ birth and sacrifice.

So, what can this hymn teach us about how the themes of the Advent carols can inspire our faith throughout the year?

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Source: Baptist Press