Hymn of the week: O come, O come Immanuel

Advent begins early this year, the consequence of Christmas Day being on a Sunday.  This week’s hymn is one of the most familiar Advent hymns and I will be using it twice in worship on Sunday; in morning worship we shall be singing it as one of the congregational hymns, while in the evening at Café Worship and we will be listening to a more contemporary version by Kristen Graves.

“O come O come Emmanuel” has a long and complicated history. It is based on a series of seven prayers called the Advent Antiphons. An antiphon is a psalm or canticle sung or chanted in a call-and-response manner, and these particular antiphons were sung at the evening service of Vespers in the week preceding Christmas Eve, one verse being recited before and after the singing of the Magnificat.

Each antiphon addresses Jesus by one of his messianic titles, drawn from the Bible and in particular the book of Isaiah. Originally of course they were sung in Latin, but in English they begin as follows:

  1. O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High…
  2. O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel…
  3. O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples…
  4. O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel…
  5. O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness…
  6. O King of the nations, and their desire…
  7. O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver…

(From the version of the Advent Antiphons in Common Worship.)

Note that the first verse of the modern day hymn is actually the seventh of the Advent Antiphons.

Because each begins with the letter O they were also known as the ‘Seven Os’.

The origin of these prayers is lost in time. They go back at least to the 8th century and possibly earlier. At some stage in their history they were combined in a single hymn and acquired the refrain

Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel;
Shall come to thee, O Israel

A metrical form first appeared in a publication dated 1710 and consisted of five of the seven antiphons. It was this version that was translated into English by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), an Anglican clergyman of high church leanings who devoted his life to the study of ancient hymns and liturgy and translated many hymns from Latin and Greek. (Other hymns translated and versified by Neale include ‘Good Christians all rejoice’, ‘All glory, laud and honour’, ‘The day of resurrection’ and ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’.)

Early on a number of alterations were made to Neale’s hymn by various publishers and compilers and it has sometimes been combined with verses translated by others. The version in Hymns and Psalms/Singing the Faith is that of the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).

The tune is also ancient. The oldest copy we have is contained in a 15th century missal originating from a French convent. But the verse, which is written in the style of Plainchant, may be much older. Search for ‘O come, O come Immanuel’ on a music download site such as Amazon and you will find that it has been recorded in an astonishing variety of versions: acappella or with lush orchestral instrumentation, folk, gospel and even heavy rock. Often it is sung to a slow, somewhat ponderous tempo, but in my opinion it is better sung more quickly allowing the Plainsong elements to flow smoothly. (In this respect it is interesting to note that the value of each note has changed from a minim in the Methodist Hymn Book to a crochet in Hymns and Psalms to a quaver in Singing the Faith.) I wonder how many of those who sing the hymn today are aware of its origins of the hymn in the mediaeval liturgy of the church?

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 thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times did’st 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 victory o’er the grave:

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:

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.

John Mason Neale (1818-1866)



About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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