As one of the most popular and loved hymns of Christmas, it should come as little surprise that “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has origins of old. Though this hymn has stood the test of time, the origins are rather obscure. Who wrote it? What did it first sound like? When was it composed? How? The history of this beloved hymn is as complex as it is beautiful, and I will attempt to give it justice in my summary.
To begin, no one actually knows who first wrote “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” because it did not begin as a hymn. Furthermore, the author of the source material is up for debate. For sure, the text was derived from a Latin version of the O Antiphons. The O Antiphons are associated with the Magnificat and sung just before at vespers during the preparation for Christmas, though they pertain much more to prophesy from Isaiah. An antiphon is a verse sung responsively. Thus, these are verses sung responsively but had the added “O” because of the Latin vocative found at the beginning of each verse.
Each of these verses correspond to a different title for the Christ: Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex Gentium, and Emmanuel. These translate to: Wisdom, Lord, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of Nations, and God with Us. While the translation obscures it, an additional meaning is found in the Latin. By having the verses arranged in this way, if one were to read the first letter of the titles backwards, one would have the Latin phrase Ero Cras. This means ‘Tomorrow, I will come.” When is tomorrow? Well, the Antiphons, from Sapientia to Emmanuel, are sung each day from the 17th to 23rd of December. And what is the 24th? The Eve of Christ’s Mass and the beginning of Vespers for Christmas. Thus, each of these verses lead up to the coming of Christ, which is what the season of Advent celebrates.
But who arranged them in such a way? It is assumed that Benedictine monks arranged them and added them to the liturgy by the 8th century. Then again, perhaps this is just happenstance that they spell out such a phrase. The O Antiphons had been sung for centuries before. Though the origins seem to be lost to us, they were certainly mentioned by Boethius in the 6th century, with the implication that they had been in use long before that time.
How, then, did these Latin verses for Vespers become the hymn that most know them as today? After all, there are multiple other English translations of the O Antiphons that are not identical to the hymn. For example, an 800’s poet named Cynewulf wrote a series of lyrics now known as the Christ I or the Advent Lyrics, found in the Exeter Book. Written in a dialect of Old English, these lyrics expound upon the seven O Antiphons, also known as the Greater Antiphons, though in a different order and within hundreds of lines. He also added a few more verses, including: Virgo viginum, Gabriel, Rex pacifice, Mundi Domina, Hierusalem. Some of these extra verses have found their way into some modern lyrics of the hymn.
The version most known today is not exactly derived from this Old English “version.” As stated previously, the text came from the Latin. The translator to which the hymn is often credited is John Neale. He claims to have derived his translation from a 12th century Latin poem of the O Antiphons, only there were only five of the original seven. These were: Emmanuel, Jesse virgula, Oriens, Clavis Davidica, and Adonai. However, I have not been able to find whatever happened to this text. Instead, the earliest attestation of the Latin text is from around the 17th and 18th centuries.
The first identifiable text comes from the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholiarum, published in 1710. This German hymnal was first compiled by a man named Johannes Heringsdorf, a Jesuit from the early 1600’s. Though from Germany, the hymns were preserved in Latin. Unlike the original Antiphons, however, this text included the “Gaude” or “Rejoice!” refrain. Later, another German hymnologist would both expound upon and preserve this earlier hymn book. Hermann Daniel included the “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” in his 1844 Thesaurus Hymnologicus. It is from this copy that John Neale composed his translation.
John Neale was not only the one to translate this beloved hymn into English, but he was the first, and it is his version that has stuck around the longest. Neale published his version of the hymn in his own 1851 book the Hymni Ecclesiae. Even though this is the version most known today, the lyrics were somewhat different. For example, instead of writing “O Come,” he wrote “Draw nigh” in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences. But ten years later, he published the common lyrics in Hymns Ancient and Modern.
Two more verses would be composed for this hymn in 1878, found in the Cantiones Sacrae. Joseph Mohr added the Sapientia and Rex Gentium to the song, but he also rearranged the lyrics, perhaps to better reflect the original O Antiphons. Even so, they would not be added to the English translation until Henry Coffin translated and added them to Neale’s verses in the early 1900’s. Other English versions have modified the lyrics somewhat, and some hymnals utilize versions other than Neale’s.
What tune should we sing this hymn to? The one we know today, called the VENI EMMANUEL can be found alongside Neale’s 1851 translation, though in a different hymnal called the Hymnal Noted by Thomas Helmore. But the tune itself came from a couple of centuries before. Though some have attributed its adapter Thomas Helmore to be the tune’s composer, the VENI IMMANUEL was written in the 15th century for a Franciscan requiem mass from France. Other tunes have been paired with the text, not to mentioned whatever chants were and are sung with the O Antiphons, but it is Helmore’s combination that has lasted longest in the minds of listeners.
Though tune, text, and language have changed from over the years, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a treasured favorite of Christians in the season of Advent. It is also a beautiful addition to the collection of other Christmastime songs sung throughout the winter season. But whatever the form, this hymn is a reminder to Christians of the coming Christ, what He has done, who He is, and our desire for Him to come again.
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.
One can easily see why this verse was originally at the end of the O Antiphons and why it was also moved to the front of the hymn. What does Immanuel mean? God with us. This is one of the titles of Christ, which we learn in the Prophets and the Gospels (Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23). So why place it first? Because we desire, as we had at first, to have God dwell with man and walk with us. Israel longed for the Messiah since the beginning Abraham was first promised that such a blessing would come through him (Gen. 12:3). And what of their history? Israel was almost constantly under the oppression of a foreign ruler, either in their home or abroad. So they “mourned in exile” until God appeared. But as lost sinners in this world, we also longed for and needed a savior. We were separated from God because of our sin. Therefore, we begged for His coming, mourned as Israel did, because we needed the Son of God to be with us. But all is not lost. The reason why we rejoice before and at the end of each verse is because the Messiah shall come, and indeed, has come to us.
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.
The second verse, though once the first, is another title of Christ: wisdom. Why do we ask for this? Because we know that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and such wisdom and knowledge can only come from God (Prov. 1:7). We ask for this Wisdom from God to come and be with us, for it is beyond our comprehension (1 Cor. 1:18-25, Job. 38-41, Rom. 11:33). We know that God in His wisdom not only created and ordered the world, He also, in His wisdom, foresaw our need for a savior and promised to send one – the Immanuel (Gen. 3:15, Prov. 8:22-31, Isa. 9:6, 11:2-3). Thus, we ask for Him, this Wisdom, to come and lead us in the truth and show us the path to walk in (Psa. 86:11, Jhn. 14:6)
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.
This third verse reflects the Adonai portion of the O Antiphons, the title of Lord. The Lord is the one who gives us direction, protection, and as mentioned before, order (Isa. 30:19-21, 33:22). This verse reflects the giving of the law on Sinai. This event was terrifying to all present, and the thought of it should still be incredible to us. Awe is the proper word here, for the Lord of hosts, of all power, came down to instruct man in the way he should go. Similarly, the Immanuel came down to dwell with us and save us from our shortcomings, our rebellion, our sin, because we could not walk a perfect life. Though this hymn reflects longing for the first coming of Christ, we also should still be longing for His Word and law in our hearts until His second coming (Psa. 119: 9-16, 174).
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.
This verse reflects the earthly heritage of Christ. He was foretold to be of Jesse’s branch, of his lineage (Rth. 4:22, Mic. 5:2). This is often compared to a branch or root of a tree. And what was this Branch to do? This Branch was to reach out and save Israel and all nations (Isa. 9:7, 11:1-10, 52:10, Jer. 23:5-6, Rom. 15:12). We were saved from sin, death, and the devil (1 Cor. 15:16-22, 54-57). Literally, we were saved from the depths of hell and the power of the dominion of darkness and brought into God’s kingdom (Col. 1:13-20). This is reason enough to rejoice! It is also a reflection of what is to come: Holy Week.
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.
This verse appears to be based on either or both verses from Isaiah and Revelation (Isa. 22:22, Rev. 3:7). As the Branch of Jesse is to bring salvation, so too does this Key of David open up heaven to mankind. Before the Christ came, we were separated from God and could not be in His presence. But now, not only has this separation been torn and the bridge crossed, Jesus has also prepared a place for us to live with Him in His heavenly kingdom (Isa. 42:7, Matt. 27:51, Jhn. 14:1-4, Rom. 8:1-4, 1 Tim. 2:5-6). Thus, we ask that He might protect us while we are still in our earthly dwelling, keeping us from the eternal clutches of death, until we can join Him and praise Him forever in life eternal (2 Cor. 5:1-9).
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.
We then ask for the Light from heaven to come and brighten our lives and souls. As light first shone on creation, so too do we want that light to shine in our hearts. We were a people walking in darkness, in the depths of sin (Isa. 9:2). But this light and word that was from the beginning came down to shine on us so that we might dwell with Him, that we might inherit salvation, the word of truth, and wisdom (Mal. 4:2, Jhn. 1:1-5, Rev. 22:16). We ask for the Immanuel to come that we might have comfort in this dark world (Jhn. 8:12, 16:33, 2 Pet. 1:19, Isa. 40:1-5).
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.
Finally, we ask for our King of glory, of the whole world, to bring all the nations under His feet in unity and reverence towards the Lord (Isa. 9:1, 11:10, 12:4, 51:4-5). We desire that the Lord return and make us one in purpose and devotion. No longer do we want to go after other earthly things, so dividing the honor that should be solely for our King and Savior (Psa. 86:9, Jer. 10:7, Rev. 7:9-10). The Lord is the ruler of our hearts, minds, and bodies. He rules us and where we live. Though His kingdom is at hand, we ask that the dominion of darkness is this world might cease that we might fully enjoy the peace that comes from our King (Jhn. 14:27, Isa. 9:6). Thus, we ask now that our Immanuel come again and fulfill all that He has promised to us and bring us to dwell in peace forever with Him.
Blessings to you and yours,
Bower, Peter. The Companion to the Book of Common Worship. 102.
“Christ A, B, C.” (Old English Christ I)
Cynewulf & Charles Whitman. The Christ of Cynewulf.
Hymns Ancient and Modern. 40-41.
Lapidge & Gneuss. Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England. 333.
Liturgical Year: The Worship of God. 285.
Mohr, Joseph. Cantiones Sacrae.
Peterson, William. What Are We Waiting For?. 52-53.
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