Do You Know What You Are Singing?

Four carolers singing with questions marks and snow

It’s that time of year again when almost everywhere you go you hear Christmas music. Why songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Let It Snow” don’t get airplay all winter long, I don’t know, but some things are just the way they are.

Christmas carols, a subset of Christmas music, are not all created equal. I accept that one’s preferences are their own and often have to do with sentimental associations rooted in childhood. Growing up in a Jewish milieu, I nonetheless enjoyed the sounds of Christmas. But that’s more to do with its general joyous mood rather than anything to do with the content. To me, at that time, “Hark the Herald” and “Rudolph” had more in common with each other than not. They were both happy and festive even though the festive aspects had little to do with me, my family, and our community. But how I loved going to downtown Montreal in December. The decorations, the sounds, and (unless it was my imagination) the unusual general happiness of the crowds and merchants was a delight.

After coming to know the Lord at age 19, my relationship to Christmas carols understandably changed. “Their” songs had now become “my” songs, or at least they were supposed to. No longer simply a cultural expression of holidays and happiness held at arm’s length due to my naturally acquired Jewish apprehension, the content of these age-old songs was now being validated as legitimate expressions of biblical truth in my newly embraced Gentile-dominated faith community.

The theological perspective of the crowd I was first a part of claimed to be strongly biblical. It would take some time for me to realize that simply claiming biblical authenticity doesn’t automatically inoculate anyone from the influence and control of tradition. Ironically, the stronger the claim to biblical accuracy, the greater the tendency to confuse tradition with what is authentically biblical. This becomes more and more difficult to see when biblical concepts have been obscured through redefinition and misapplication over a long period of time.

Such is the case with the great carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Few songs, Christmas or otherwise, possess such a high level of biblical referencing. Dating back as perhaps as early as the 5th century, it is most likely derived from “O Antiphons” a series of antiphonies (responsive singing) used during Vespers (evening services) on the last seven days of Advent in the Western Christian tradition.

I get very emotional every time I hear, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I want to both weep and scream at the same time! I want to cry because it so vividly captures the hope of ancient Israel, longing for Messiah’s coming. As a member of remnant Israel myself, my heart resonates with these well-crafted divine words set to a beautifully haunting melody and it also breaks for my people who continue in alienation from our King:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
Who mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

On the other hand, I want to scream, because when this song is sung, I am most often among those, who, for the most part, completely skew its meaning.

The four remaining verses of the original version continues in a similar vein, using Old Testament references to pray for Israel’s salvation:

  • That the Rod of Jesse would free Israel from Satan’s control and break the power of death.
  • That the Dayspring would bring joy, dispersing the cloudy gloom of death’s shadow.
  • That the Key of David would secure our access to heaven and end all misery.
  • That (in a verse rarely sung) Adonai (the traditional Jewish reference to God in prayer) who gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai would come to Israel again.

But who is Israel? When you sing this song, who are you singing about?

Historically, “O Antiphons” may have been written for Advent as a retelling of the period of anticipation for Messiah’s coming. The carol then should teleport you back in time to feel the hearts of those such as Anna and Simeon who longed for God’s day of redemption (Luke 2:21-38). But the redemption of whom? Certainly, Anna and Simeon didn’t foresee the full extent of Abrahamic fulfilment of the Gospel – the blessing to the nations that the early followers of Yeshua had to grapple with and eventually implement. To them and other faithful Israelites, Messiah’s coming was primarily for Israel.

Yet how many people around the world singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” see it solely fulfilled in themselves as if the redemption of Israel is equivalent to the Church? Certainly, the nations can relate to concepts expressed in the song, as they too were in a state of darkness in desperate need of Emmanuel’s rescue. But while the fulfilment of God’s ancient promises to Israel are the foundation of salvation for all peoples, the biblical specifics of the anticipatory cry expressed through this song is Israel’s alone. For not only are they the original objects of these promises, the anticipation continues until they are fully realized in them.

But how can the revelation of Emmanuel dawn upon the people to whom these promises were given, when the great majority of his followers today intentionally or unintentionally obscure the meaning of the song by continuing to misappropriate God’s promise’s by claiming to be Israel? Sure, God can do it himself, but he has chosen to bring messianic mercy to Israel through non-Jewish believers (Romans 11:31). The ongoing arrogance of treating the church as a new Israel not only puts a wedge between Abraham’s descendants and their God-given inheritance, it prevents believers of other nationalities from experiencing their unique place in God’s plan and purposes, one of which is to be God’s conduit of restoration to Israel. You can begin to do that this month by singing an old song in a new way – as a prayer for Israel’s redemption.

3 thoughts on “Do You Know What You Are Singing?

  1. In response to Alan Gilman’s post on email regarding the Carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I have the following observations.
    “I think the common interpretation of “O Come” is as Alan describes. As he suggests a slight mind-shift for the salvation of Israel in the flesh puts it all right. When they come into their inheritance we gentiles who believe come into ours. In some streams of Reformed and R. C. theology the replacement element is quite strong in contrast to the beliefs of the Puritans and Columbus.”

    However, Gal 6:16 says circumcision is not important but a new creation and then calls all the new people of faith, “the Israel of God”. And in Gal. 3:7 it says, “Understand then, that those who believe are children of Abraham” and adds that “All nations will be blessed through you,(Abraham). Rom 11 warns the Gentiles not to boast against the root. But Various streams of the Gentile church have been unwilling to recognize the election of Israel after the flesh. Later in time Paul says in Romans 9:6 “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel”. So the flesh is not the determining factor in being the people of God or the ground for being identified among “the saints”. In Rom. 9:24 Paul says that “the called” are from among the the Jews and the Gentiles and that this is the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy “I will call them my people who are not my people”. So then in v30 he writes, “…the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.”

    My conclusion is this. In the same way Hagar and Ishmael could not accept God’s choice in making Isaac the chosen Covenant bearer and mocked Sarah and Isaac, so the Gentile church has in many branches mocked those who brought the Covenant blessings coming to them through the Jews who believed. Accordingly, like Sarah and Isaac they wish to put the Gentiles, represented by Hagar the fertile Egyptian and Ishmael, the mocking teenager, out of Abraham’s house. Abraham reluctantly agreed but loved them nonetheless. God promised blessings to the Gentile part of the family but gave the Promised son His eternal Covenant. So the Gentiles who stand by faith have a right to sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on their own behalf in light of Messiah’s second coming and on behalf of the chosen in the family of Israel after the flesh. But they must not fail to recognize that the Covenant comes to them through the Jews into whose root they have been grafted and through whom they have been brought into the family as Ruth, the Gentile, was brought in. In this way a grateful Gentile people and a loving Jewish remnant are brought together as “one new man” and as the new people of God.

    Some of the carols we sing at Advent really are pointing to the Second Advent. “O Come” is one and “Joy to the World” is another. Hence they speak of the final redemption of all the people of God.

  2. In response to Ken Hall’s comments, first, it isn’t necessary to assume that Paul’s reference to the “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 is some sort of “New Israel” rather than natural Israel. While believers of all nations are part of one people of God, we are a transnational community, including remnant Israel (see Romans 11). For more on my understanding of Israel in Romans 11 (including dealing with chapter 9 that Ken references), see my book “God Did Not Reject His People: The Identity of Israel in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 11” (

    As for the history of the carol in question, it is clear that it was originally designed as an Advent prayer recalling the messianic prophesies to Israel about the coming of the Messiah. In keeping with the spirit of the song, it is most appropriate to view it either as simply historical (recalling the ancient anticipation of Messiah’s coming) or as something still yet to be fufilled as pertaining to “captive Israel.” Just the other day (after I had written this post), I was in a service where it was sung. As expected the people were encouraged to “think of themselves as Israel.” Even if it is clarified that Gentile believers are part of Israel in a grafted-in sense, they are not “captive Israel.” That is why I request this song be sung as a prayer.

  3. When I sing this song, I do sing it as a prayer for Israel’s redemption, but as a Gentile believer, I also am able to anticipate the fulfilment of some of the promises in the song (“from depths of hell thy people save and give them victory o’er the grave”) that are clearly extended to Gentiles through the new Covenant. This does not remove my appreciation for the unique role and destiny of Israel. We Gentile believers have been grafted into the vine, and while some promises are specific to Israel, some now pertain to us as well.

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