Today’s devotional is by James Farmer.
"I love this Christmas carol, which celebrates Jesus’ first coming and expresses a longing for His return. It displays a thoroughly Christ-centred focus, with an appreciation for the ‘big picture’ of God’s saving plan. Just the kind of thing we need to keep in mind when we think about Jesus, especially at Christmas time.
In the ‘Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861)’ English version [translated from the original Latin version], various titles describe Jesus in the different verses. Each one emphasises an aspect of His person and works. Spending a few moments to unpack some of them is a wonderful treat for our souls, so let’s begin…
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear”
The opening line of this carol draws our attention to the amazing truth right at the heart of Christian Christmas celebrations. In one sense, the birth of Mary’s child in Bethlehem was just like any other, and yet, at the same time, it is totally unique, for in the birth of Jesus we have the arrival of ‘God with us’, Emmanuel. Matthew’s Gospel witness shows that the prophet’s promise of old (Isaiah 7:14) finds ultimate fulfilment in the arrival of Mary’s miraculous first-born:
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
God was bodily present on earth in the person of His Son, Jesus. To echo the language of John’s Gospel, the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The only Son of God came to provide the only ransom that brings freedom from the captivity of sin.
“O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave”
The second verse of our carol connects Jesus with the royal line of Israel’s King David. God had determined that one of Jesse’s sons would be His chosen King for the people (1 Samuel 16:1-13). When David eventually ascended to the throne, God promised him a family line that would receive an eternal rule (2 Samuel 7:16). In Israel’s history, this promise became associated with hope for God’s coming Messiah, His Anointed One. The Prophet Isaiah was moved to declare, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). The rest of God’s message through Isaiah, recorded in chapter 11 of his prophecy, escalated expectations and broadened the scope of what was to come. The descendent of Jesse would be One in whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest. One marked out by righteousness and faithfulness, who would usher in an era of unimaginable peace, when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. For the rule of Jesse’s descendent would not pertain to Israel only, He shall stand as a signal for peoples and nations. The only One who can deliver His people from death to life.
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight”
As the rising of the sun signals the beginning of a new day, so the arrival of Jesus marks a new era in God’s saving plan. Just as the risen sun in the sky illuminates the day, the coming of Jesus shines light upon the way of true life for those who have eyes to see it. The authorized version of Luke’s Gospel, from which this part of our carol draws inspiration, records the words of Zechariah so often rehearsed each Christmas season, regarding the privileged ministry his son John would fulfil:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people
by the remission of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God;
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Jesus, the Dayspring, the Light of the World, has come because of God’s tender mercy. There can be no greater gift worthy of celebration at Christmas time, or any other time for that matter. His coming pierces the gloomy shadows of despair and death with hope-filled light and life.
“O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.”
Once again, a strong tone of fulfilment is found in our carol through the recognition of Jesus as the Key of David. In the Scriptures, this phrase is initially used in Isaiah 22 to describe the ministry of God’s chosen leader Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. He was raised up by God to replace Shebna’s faulty leadership which was not at all in tune with God’s desires. Unlike Shebna, God said of Eliakim: “he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:21b-22). Our Christmas carol is fully in tune with God’s will, however, when this phrase is applied to Jesus also. As we sing these words, we follow the pattern of ultimate fulfilment in God’s plan that is centred upon His Son, for in Revelation 3:7 Jesus is revealed as “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens”. God’s plan for a time raised up Eliakim; God’s plan for all time has raised up Jesus. He alone holds the ultimate key. What was promised to David’s family line finds eternal fulfilment in Jesus. The door of heaven has been opened wide in and through Jesus, for He is the way, the truth and the life.
In rehearsing these wonderful truths connected with Jesus’s first coming, our Christmas carol also sings out with great hope and longing for His return. The great request, “O come,” will one day be fulfilled, for Emmanuel shall indeed come to His people once again. In that day, “victory o’er the grave” will be fully realised, death’s dark shadows will be forever put to flight, and the path to misery will be finally closed. O come, O come, Lord Jesus."