The hymnody of Advent is exceedingly rich. Among this richness is the classic “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” As you open your Lutheran Service Book to this hymn (357), you will also find the Great “O” Antiphons. These ancient prayers have long been used to count down the days until Christmas. As you can see, each begins by addressing the Lord with a different phrase: “O Wisdom,” “O Key of David,” “O Emmanuel,” and so on.
Originally written in Latin, the Great “O” Antiphons create a reverse acrostic with these names of God that begin each prayer. They spell out ero cras; that is, “Tomorrow I will be” (cras means “tomorrow,” while ero is a first-person singular future form of the verb “to be”) or perhaps, “I will be there tomorrow” or “I come tomorrow.”
There is a lot of depth to these seven prayers. I would like dive into some of the many biblical references in these prayers. This is by no means exhaustive, but I hope you will find it helpful.
O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Two passages that stand out to me as references in this prayer are Isaiah 11:2 and Proverbs 8:12. Isaiah 11:2 says, “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” The “Him” being referenced is Jesus (who is called the root of Jesse later in the chapter). When Jesus comes, He ushers in a renewal of creation. He pervades and permeates all creation with His mighty re-ordering of the world that will one day no longer be infected with sin.
Much of Proverbs is about wisdom, occasionally even wisdom personified. In Proverbs 8:12, wisdom speaks, saying, “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion.” Not only does wisdom dwell with prudence, but in Jesus we also see that He is Wisdom come to dwell with us and teach us His way of prudence.
O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.
The most obvious references here are to the Book of Exodus. In Exodus 3, Moses meets God as He appears in the burning bush and sends Moses back to Egypt with the promise of deliverance for Israel. In Exodus 20, on Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb), God writes the Ten Commandments, the Law that God’s people are to live by, on tablets of stone and gives them to Moses.
The other Exodus reference here is Exodus 6:6, in which God commands Moses, saying, “Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.’”
God fulfills His Word to Israel and redeems them. In Jesus, God redeems all people in a new and even more amazing way.
O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us.
We go back to Isaiah 11 to find the reference to the root of Jesse. In verse 10, we see this root of Jesse referenced as a signal or ensign for the people and learn that the nations shall inquire of him. Here is the full verse: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of Him shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious.”
Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 in Romans 15:12 to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah for the Gentiles (though Paul seems to be quoting from the Septuagint).
As the eternal Son of God, Jesus is the root and source of Jesse’s line, realized in David the King. As the incarnate Word made flesh, Jesus is also the shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Jesus is both the rightful heir to the throne of David and the root that supplied strength and power to that line of kings in the first place.
O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, You open and no one can close, You close and no one can open: Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.
We don’t typically use “Key of David” as a way to refer to Jesus, but this is once again Isaiah’s language. Isaiah 22:22 says, “And I 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.” In context, when Isaiah refers to the key of David, it sounds like an object that will be given to Eliakim the son of Hilkiah.
We see John reference Isaiah’s key of David in Revelation 3:7, which says, “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.’” This holy and true one is, of course, Jesus. He possesses this incomparable key of David and, as we see in this very prayer, we might also say that Jesus is the Key of David. Since the fall, death had locked us humans in, but by His resurrection, Jesus unlocked death forever and opened to us the way of everlasting life.
O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
“Dayspring” is an old way of saying “dawn.” Dayspring is used twice in the King James Version of the Bible, once in Job 38:12 and once in Luke 1:78. “Shadow of death” is used more often in the Scriptures; most familiar to many is its use in Psalm 23:4.
The clearest biblical reference of this prayer, though, is Isaiah 9:2, which says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
As we look ahead to Christmas, we also see a connection to that classic Christmas Day Gospel reading from John 1 and these words in verse 5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Throughout Advent, we see Jesus bringing His light into our darkness when we light a new candle each week to mark His nearness.
O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: Come and save us all whom You formed out of clay.
As with each of these prayers, this one is based on several biblical references. I’d like to highlight two more Isaiah passages and a psalm. Isaiah 28:16 says, “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: Whoever believes will not be in haste.’”
Likewise, in Psalm 118:22, we read of such a cornerstone: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Jesus quotes this psalm in reference to Himself in the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33–44; Mark 12:1–11; and Luke 20:9–18. Peter likewise references this psalm in connection with Jesus in a sermon in Acts 4:11 and in 1 Peter 2:7. Jesus is the cornerstone who is rejected and crucified, yet in that rejection He unites all people by His blood.
Although several passages use the metaphor of God as the potter and we as they clay, Isaiah 64:8 perhaps says it best: “But now, O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand.”
O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Although this prayer gets moved to the front of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” it is the final “O” Antiphon prayer before Christmas Eve. The reference to Emmanuel (or Immanuel; there is no difference) draws our eyes to Isaiah 7:14, which says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Matthew quotes this verse in 1:23 and translates Immanuel for us: “which means, God with us.”
Jesus is Emmanuel. He is God with us. As we journey through this Advent season, may we remember that we are not alone. Jesus is with us as Light in the darkness, as Wisdom, Lord, King, Root of Jesse, and Key of David. Now and always, we pray these prayers fervently, calling on Jesus to come among us.
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