It’s hard to find complaints about the holiday season. Anything that combines family, friends, presents, sweater weather, and apple cider is worthy of celebration. However, one thing about the holiday season that does bug me is how numb I have become to some of the songs we sing. I realized this sad situation when, for the first time, I was struck by the lyrics of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
When you slow down and think about these lyrics, they become quite puzzling.
Emmanuel is a Hebrew word that means “God is with us.” Most of us know that. We hear it every year when Linus reads the story of Jesus’ birth in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. It appears in the New Testament in the gospel of Matthew when an angel appears to Joseph to explain who this child is that his wife is carrying. The gospel writer explains that Jesus and his life on earth was the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah chapter 7 that said “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel” (Matt 1:23).
When you break down the word Emmanuel, you can make sense of it. “Im” is a Hebrew preposition that means with (this is why the word should really be spelled Immanuel, but my spellchecker makes a fuss about it so I’ll leave it). “Nu” or “Anu” is a pronoun meaning we, or us. “El” is a shortened version of the Hebrew word “Elohim,” which means God. From this we get a full sentence: God is with us.
So when we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we are asking for “God with us” to come and be with us. It’s like sitting at the dinner table and asking a family member to pass you your fork. So is this song just totally clueless about a simple, well known Hebrew word? Or is there something more powerful going on here? What would it mean for us to ask an imminent, ever-present God to be with us?
In his book, Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes that “we need never shout across the spaces to an absent God. He is nearer than our own soul, closer than our most secret thoughts.” This is what it means to have Emmanuel (God with us). To sing Emmanuel is to proclaim to our own souls and all our hearers that Yahweh is a God who is here; right here, right now.
Tozer adds: “To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love.” We have God here, Emmanuel, and yet we long for Him and pursue him with all that we are. My prayer is that as we sing this song, we would recognize the powerful presence of God, giving us breath to sing in the first place. Our world would transform if every believer knew that Emmanuel; God is with us. So why must we still sing “O Come” if Emmanuel (God is with us)? Why is it so terribly hard to feel the reality of Emmanuel?
A glorious, and painful thing is shown to us when we look back to the passage in Isaiah chapter 7 where the word Emmanuel first appears. When Ahaz was king of Judah, things were not going well. The Syrians and their allies were parked outside Jerusalem’s door, ready to wage war. We read that the hearts of King Ahaz and his people “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”
Emmanuel (God is with us) was not feeling very true. God sent Isaiah the prophet to king Ahaz in his fear and said “if you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” And he tells Ahaz that God will send him a sign of his presence, to comfort the people. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” So God promised to send a son to his people, to show his presence.
The problem comes in the rest of the chapter. With a promise like “God will show you his presence,” you would expect life to get better. But it doesn’t. “In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns” (Isaiah 7:23).
God sends a sign of his presence to his people not to relieve all their suffering, but to strengthen them to embrace it.
Jesus is God’s presence in our world, and many wonder why all the world’s problems aren’t solved. That wasn’t the purpose of the coming of Emmanuel. The purpose was hope, strength, and purpose. We live in the messy time of hoping in the promise of a salvation that isn’t yet final; and when you can’t pay your medical bills or lose a family member or watch as your family is torn away from you in a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the nearness of Emmanuel can fade into nothing.
If Christmas is to be anything, it is to be a difficult and refreshing reminder that through the briers and thorns, God is with us. As you grit your teeth walking into work on another Monday morning, or as you find yourself dry of tears at the death of a spouse, remember Emmanuel; God is with us. Press your heart against that song this season. Feel the presence of an ever-present God. Ask for the Emmanuel to come to you in your sufferings, and strengthen you in the hope of Christ’s salvation.