For hundreds of years, this hymn was sung as plainchant, meaning unison melody and not all the “parts” or harmonization that were added to melodies in “hymnal” style in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps the stark clarity of these rising and falling lines more freely and evocatively expresses the longing of the text and the Advent season itself.
Unlike Israel, though, we have the glorious hope of having seen the first advent of our Lord. Christ is not only transcendent beyond the heavens, coequal and coeternal with the Father, but also (praise be to God) immanent—with us. The Word was incarnate—“made flesh”—dwelling among us, robed with humanity, experiencing human life with its joys, its necessities, its labors, its frustrations, and even its sorrows so that Jesus could understand our weakness, our temptation, and our suffering. Because of this wonder, we have seen His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Only a prophet like Moses saw God’s glory, and his face shone with the brilliance of the experience, yet Christ’s disciples lived, breathed, ate, and walked with this visible “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). We who did not have the privilege of hearing, seeing, and touching the living Word (1 John 1:1–3) nevertheless have the record of those who did, and like Moses, our faces shine with the unveiled glory of the Lord through the work of the Spirit in us (2 Cor. 3). Even Peter, who personally heard the voice of the Father proclaiming His love for the Son, could say (to you and me) that we have “the prophetic word more fully confirmed” in the written Word (2 Peter 1:16–21).
And we, followers of the Word incarnate and the written Word, have seen the atonement. Christ’s death has indeed ransomed us, as the hymn pleads, from the captivity and penalty of our sin, and His resurrection has defeated death and raised us to new resurrection life. We mourn the brokenness of this fallen world, but not as those who have no hope. And even in the Advent season, as we embrace the waiting and longing, we rejoice in glorious hope of our Immanuel who has come and will come again.
At my church, we sing one stanza of this hymn each week of Advent as we let the weight of waiting in darkness settle on us. But on the last Sunday of Advent, as we approach Christmas, we finish on a surprise major chord (a Picardy third, for the music theorists among us), picturing that ray of hope: Christ, our Immanuel, with us, as our light, our ransom, and our redemption.
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!