We’re taking a break from the letter to the Hebrews as we enter the Advent season leading up to Christmas. But we are most certainly not taking a break from our focus on Jesus, the Son of God, come to earth to rescue His people and to open for them the possibility of entering His rest!
We’re going to look at the message of Christmas from some of the very familiar songs (or carols) that we hear all around us at this time of the year, and most likely will sing if we go to church. Each week, we’re picking a carol that will prepare us for the message we will hear in our worship service the following Sunday. This week, we are looking at 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.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
O come, thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, thou Key of David, come
and open wide our heav’nly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Wow – from one point of view, this looks like a strange song to be singing at a time of celebration, doesn’t it? You could read these words and become seriously depressed! The people speaking in these verses are in deep, deep trouble, and they know it. They know, also, that they cannot get themselves out of these difficulties, and they’re calling out to someone Who can help them. Let’s look at the awful situation they were in, the help they needed and the One they were calling to come to give that help – the only One qualified to do so. Spoiler alert – the problems these people were facing are problems shared by everyone born into this world. These are your problems too, so you need this One to come to your help as much as they did!
The awful situation Israel was in. We are in the same trouble ourselves by nature.
I have highlighted in red above the causes of the anxiety, grief and great need the people were conscious of:
- They were captive. Adam and Eve had been created free, but they had rebelled against God and their freedom was lost as they were justly placed under a curse by God. They soon discovered that all their descendants, including Israel, were bound under the same curse, which had several consequences addressed in this hymn:
- They were in lonely exile. After their rebellion, Adam and Eve were thrown out of God’s presence and lost their close communion with Him. Israel could not enter God’s presence easily either.
- Israel had been given the law by the Lord of Might, but they couldn’t keep it and so far from saving them, the law condemned them instead.
- They were under Satan’s tyranny. Adam and Eve became enemies of God. They soon found that all the promises Satan made them were lies. Instead of being like God, they had become captive to Satan – but not unwillingly, this was exactly what their now corrupted hearts wanted. Israel also had rebellious hearts that rejected God’s rule in favor of a life of sin and wickedness.
- They were destined (justly) to die eternally, sent to hell as a consequence of their rebellion and sins against God.
- They were in darkness, living under the clouds and in the shadows of death even as they lived.
- Their lives were being lived out in misery, and on a path to eternal misery.
Here’s the thing we need to understand from this sad and gloomy picture: we’re born into the world under exactly the same curse and facing exactly the same consequences. We are exiled from God, condemned by His law, children of Satan and not of God, justly condemned to death and destined for an eternity in hell. We’re incapable of keeping God’s law righteously, and are condemned by it as Israel was. We live in spiritual death, darkness and misery here and we face eternal and infinitely more painful misery and anguish when we leave this world. WE NEED HELP!
The Help Israel Needed. We Need That Help, Too.
I highlighted in green above the help that those in Israel who could see their problems realize they needed:
- To be ransomed. A ransom had to be paid to free them, corresponding to the infinite offences they had committed against God.
- The appearance of a Deliverer. It was beyond Israel’s ability to fix their problems
- To be freed from Satan’s tyranny
- To be saved from hell and granted victory over death
- To be brought out of darkness and gloom and into the light of life
- To be qualified to enter heaven, and to be brought safely there (rather than hell). It wouldn’t be enough simply to have their debt cleared. They needed to be kept from returning to sin and running up new debts. They needed to be protected from Satan, from whose clutches they would be released
The Only One Who Could Help Israel, and Who Can Help Us
Was there someone who could save them? Is there someone who could save us? Yes – there is! This is the message of Christmas.
On what basis did those in this hymn cry out for Helper? Was it just a fond wish that things might somehow get better and all these nightmarish problems might magically disappear? No! The people are calling out to God and pleading with Him to keep the many, many promises He had made (beginning as soon as Adam and Eve had rebelled in the garden) to send Someone who would set things right, Who would do for His people everything necessary to save them from their sin, from Satan and from death. But Who would this person be?
I have highlighted in Purple the names given to this Savior who is being called upon in this hymn to appear:
- Emmanuel. This name means “God with Us”. God had promised that He Himself would come to rescue His people.
- Son of God. When the angel visited Mary, she was told that the child to be born of her (Jesus) would be the Son of God (Luke 1:32, 35). So God was coming as a man to rescue fallen mankind
- Lord of Might, giver of the Law. This majestic Son of God and Son of Man would keep on behalf of His people the Law He gave them, and would receive on the cross in their place the infinite punishment their sins deserved. Then the justice of God would be satisfied, the condemnation of the law removed, the cause of death (the wages of sin) taken away.
- Rod of Jesse. A title given through the prophet Isaiah in Isa 11:1 (in the King James version of the Bible). According to this prophecy, this One would (among other things) strike the earth with the rod of His mouth and the breath of His lips, kill the wicked and usher in a time of unsurpassed, worldwide joy, peace and glory. Satan’s tyranny will most certainly be ended at that time!
- Dayspring. Zechariah prophesies at the birth of John the Baptist that John will prepare the way for this One who is coming (Luke 1:76-79), Who would be a spiritual sunrise for those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.
- Key of David. A reference from Isaiah 22:22, Which finds its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus (Revelation 3:7). It speaks of the unchallengeable authority of this coming One – what He opens, no-one will shut and what He shuts, no-one will open. So if this One opens the way to heaven, no-one will be able to close it again!
In summary, since we face the same spiritual crisis as Israel, and have the same need as they did for deliverance, we need to cry out to God for a Savior, as they did.
The big difference between Israel’s situation and ours, though, is that they had to look forward and to plead with God to keep all the promises He had made to send the Savior in the future. These promises were to be a cause of hope, and of rejoicing to them (as the hymn notes in the refrain) that they could be delivered by trusting in the One Who would come according to the promise of God. On the other hand, we can look back and see that God has indeed kept His promise and has sent the promised Deliverer – His only Son, Jesus, our Emmanuel! We can be delivered by trusting Jesus to pay the ransom for us on the cross to set us free; to deliver us from sin, from death, from hell, from Satan, and resting in Him completely to keep us unfailingly until we arrive in heaven!
It is the coming of this Savior, Jesus, and the amazing work He did on earth that we celebrate at Christmas, and that is why this is such a wonderful hymn to sing at this time!