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Bringing Clarity To The Confusion Of Christmas Songs

It’s that time of year again where the band starts rolling out the ever-adored Christmas tunes. This is always a bittersweet time for me each year. It’s sweet because so many of these songs are bursting at the seams with rich theology and potent gospel proclamation. Yet, the bitter part of the equation is simply the fact that we only get to dust off these gems a few weeks out of the year. It’s still special. I’m thankful. I love it every year.

However, there is an undeniable element of confusion and bewilderment for many of us as we sing these songs of Advent. Have you ever noticed all the obscure Old Testament references mentioned in these songs? Have you been tripped up by the mysterious mentions of the ancient prophetic writings of Scripture? I definitely have. In my personal experience, I’ve attended Christmas Eve services where we belt out O Come O Come Emmanuel while I’m simultaneously thinking, “God, thank You for cheering my spirit and dispersing gloom and putting the shadows of death to flight...but...I have absolutely no idea what a Dayspring is.”  

Do you have to be an Old Testament scholar to comprehend these songs of Christmas? No. Does it fuel our worship of Jesus to be familiar with the Old Testament references contained in these songs? Absolutely. Starting in Genesis 3 and continuing throughout the rest of the Old Testament, God promised to send Jesus to be the servant king to rescue His people. Here in this Christmas season we celebrate His long expected arrival. He is FINALLY here!

So, with that in mind, let’s plow through this timeless classic O Come O Come Emmanuel and dig up some much needed context for all these confusing lines.

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

Rejoice, rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel

Right off the bat, the thought may pop into your head like it did mine, “Is it Emmanuel or Immanuel?” It’s a good question. Both of these spellings are transliterations of Greek and Hebrew words. The Greek spelling begins with an “E” and the Hebrew spelling with an “I.” So, whether the lyrics on your church’s projector screen say “Emmanuel” or “Immanuel,” the main point is that we celebrate the meaning of this name — “God with us.”

O come Thou Dayspring come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight

Here’s the infamous “Dayspring” that had me so tripped up earlier. It sounds like the name of an earthy spa in the mountains of Colorado, yet it has somehow worked its way into a Christmas song. “Dayspring” is a word from the King James translation that means dawn or sunrise. In the first chapter of Luke, a priest named Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophecies that his son John the Baptist would prepare the way for Jesus — the Dayspring — who will come to give light to those in darkness and guide them into peace.

Here are Zechariah's words...

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise [Dayspring KJV] shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79 ESV).

With this in mind, the next time you wake up early on your beach vacation to watch the Dayspring, remember that Jesus is the light that illuminates the darkness and brings peace.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse,
Free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

For starters don’t let “rod” lead you down a rabbit trail of auto parts, fishing tackle, or objects that channel high voltage. This “rod” is more along the lines of tree terminology — branches, stems, shoots and roots. More specifically, think in terms of a family tree.

The prophet Isaiah writes,

There shall come forth a shoot [rod KJV] from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him (Isaiah 11:1 ESV).

Alright, so who is Jesse? Jesse was the father of David — King David the giant slayer. Isaiah prophesies that from the stump of Jesse a branch will come forth. Jesus, from the line of David (Jesse’s son), would be the ultimate King coming to free His people from Satan’s tyranny and give them victory over the grave. Good news!

In the last chapter of the Bible we see this idea come full circle as the Apostle John quotes Jesus,  saying:

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16 ESV).

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.

In these lyrics the “Key of David” would open the way to heaven and close the path of misery. This is a key of incredible significance. It has the ability to open and close very important things.

Back to the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 22 there is a man named Shebna who is a “steward over the household.” God replaces Shebna with a new steward named Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah. Hello? Are you still awake? Welcome ladies and gentlemen, we are officially deep into the weeds! So, back to this new steward Eliakim, God says that He 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 22:22).

This connects with a more popular Christmas prophecy in Isaiah, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder.” (Isaiah 9:6).

Let’s try to put these pieces together. It was prophesied that Jesus would be born as a child with the type of authority and ability to have the government rest upon His shoulder. In a similar way, God would “place upon [Eliakim’s] shoulder the key of the house of David,'' giving him full authority to open and shut the doors of the household. Along the same lines, Joseph ruled over Egypt with authority as the steward of Pharaoh’s kingdom. This “Key of David” in our song would be the One who has ultimate authority, even over things such as heaven and hell.

Once again, as the Bible often does, this idea comes full circle to the person of Jesus as he speaks again to the Apostle John:

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: The words of 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” (Revelation 3:7).

Jesus tells John directly that He has the “Key of David” and when he opens doors, no one can shut them. And when he shuts doors, no one can open them. Pastor John Piper eloquently wrote, “As the Key of David, [Jesus] rescues us from hell, locks the door behind us, unlocks the door of heaven, and brings us home.” What an amazing truth!

Well, that’s the nuts and bolts of this powerful song that the church has been singing for centuries. My hope is that this song, along with the context of Scripture, will give us a deeper understanding and appreciation of our long expected King who burst onto the scene to deliver us and bring us peace. I also hope that I have cleared up some confusion that will enable you to sing this song loudly with great joy.

Merry Christmas.

1 Comment

Cameron Barham - December 18th, 2020 at 8:30am

Excellent explanation of the glorious truths contained in an Advent favorite! Good work and writing, Malloy!