Lyrics of famous Christmas hymn not understood by many

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By Charles Gardner —

Anglican priest John Mason Neale as depicted in a stained glass window at St Swithuns East Grinstead



As churches prepare for Christmas here in Yorkshire, the atmosphere has been enriched by that great hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” — and ransom captive Israel.

How apt for today with the Jewish nation under vicious attack, and many of their people still held hostage by Hamas. Emmanuel, of course, means God with us, and refers to the babe of Bethlehem who came to tabernacle with his people (see Micah 5:2).

However, this beautiful Advent carol speaks more of the Second Coming than the First, though I wonder how many Christians are really aware of what they’re singing.
The first verse, in full, reads:

O come, O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Like so many of his 19th century contemporaries, the hymn’s author John Mason Neale (1818-1866) evidently believed that the Jewish people, dispersed and despised throughout the world at the time, would – as Messiah’s return approached – be ransomed from captivity to inhabit their ancient land once more.

Though of ‘high church’ (Anglo-Catholic) sympathies, for which he came under much opposition, Neale was of Puritan descent and seems to have inherited their understanding of Israel’s vital place in God’s purposes.

It was 19th century evangelical Christians for the most part who had a particularly profound influence on the government of the day, leading to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 promising to do all in its power to resettle God’s ancient people in the Promised Land.

And through the subsequent international treaty at San Remo in 1920, all the land ‘from the river to the sea’ (including the so-called occupied West Bank) was earmarked for a Jewish homeland, in accordance with the biblical promise of Genesis 17:8.

Why then, do so many Brits believe this land – representing only one-tenth of one per cent of Arab territory in the Middle East – has been stolen from the Arabs?

The short answer is that the UK Church has lost its way, its voice, and its influence. It is no longer a light shining in the darkness. Many have been taken in by the heretical doctrine that the Church is the new Israel.

So when Christians find themselves singing this much-loved carol, they assume that the Israel referred to is just a synonym for the Church. Very little, if any, teaching is given on our responsibility to Israel, laid out very clearly in the Scriptures, and particularly by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9-11.

And so, through generations of such non-teaching (in some cases more blatant ‘replacement theology’), far too many otherwise passionate Christians are ignorant of the full scope of God’s redemption plan.

Part of the motivation for reaching out to the Jews with the gospel among pioneers like William Wilberforce was that, according to the Scriptures, there would come a day when they would “look upon the one they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10) and “all Israel would be saved” (Romans 11:26). This leaves Gentile believers with the responsibility for making Jesus known to our Jewish brethren, who first shared the gospel with us.

The British government is currently in chaos and confusion – not just the fault of the party in charge, but because we have turned our backs on the Judeo-Christian foundations of our civilization. Two of our major cities – Birmingham and Nottingham – have been declared bankrupt! We are witnessing the collapse of our culture, economy, social fabric and infrastructure.

At the root of our modern problem is a failure to bless Israel (see Genesis 12:3), who are currently fighting for the free world. The urgency of the Church’s need to call for prayer and repentance over our national betrayal of Israel cannot be overstated. If we took the scripture just referenced more seriously, especially with Hamas terror in mind, we might well sing the second verse of the aforementioned carol with greater understanding:

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

With hearts thus freshly inspired by a revelation of the divine glory in store for Israel, we could surely sing the chorus with renewed passion: Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel.

There are many in Israel today who long for the coming of Messiah to their rescue. And there are multiple millions of Gentiles around the globe – many of them also suffering greatly – who patiently await the return of the one who first appeared to the adoring shepherds and Wise Men from the east.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel! A view of Jerusalem’s Old City wall, looking towards Jaffa Gate. Photo: Charles Gardner

In reality, he is one and the same person, and all this will be revealed – perhaps sooner than we expect.

Jesus wept over Jerusalem after his confrontation with the hypocritical religious leaders who emphasized form and ritual rather than the heart, promising: “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.” (Matthew 23:39, quoting Psalm 118:26)

1 COMMENT

  1. Yes. May all Christians stand with Israel. Because of Christ (a Jew), all Christians today have been grafted in as sons of Abraham. At the last battle, Christ will return — to Israel. Not to Palestine. Israel. What is happening in the international news today is very relevant to Biblical prophecy. Thank you for this very poetic reminder.

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