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HYMN 267 O Come, O Come, Emmanuel/The People who Walked in great Darkness from Handel's Messiah

Updated: Nov 27, 2021

Danish: O kom, o kom, Immanuel

Icelandic: Kom þú, vor Immanúel

Latin: Veni, veni, Emmanuel

Norwegian: Å kom, å kom, Immanuel

Swedish: Kom Jesus, kom Immanuel

Text: 7th or 8th century? Tune: 17th century French chant

Medieval manuscript illumination

1 O come, O come, Immanuel, And ransom captive Israel That mourns in lonely exile here Until the Son of God appear. R/Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel Shall come to you, O Israel.

2 O come, O Wisdom from on high, Who ordered all things mightily; To us the path of knowledge show And teach us in its ways to go. R/

3 O come, O come, great Lord of might, Who to your tribes on Sinai's height In ancient times did give the law In cloud and majesty and awe. R/

4 O come, O Branch of Jesse's stem, Unto your own and rescue them! From depths of hell your people save, And give them victory o'er the grave. R/

5 O come, O Key of David, come And open wide our heavenly home. Make safe for us the heavenward road And bar the way to death's abode. R/

6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star, And bring us comfort from afar! Dispel the shadows of the night And turn our darkness into light. R/

7 O come, O King of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind. Bid all our sad divisions cease And be yourself our King of Peace. R/ Tr. John Mason Neale


Illuminated manuscript of Medieval music

When you say Advent today, this is the hymn people expect to sing. It is among our oldest Advent songs, one that emerged sometime in the 7th century, scholars think. This means it began in the monastery. The tune can be traced to 17th century France. From what we know it was sung every night during Vespers from December 17th until Christmas Eve, when the eighth O antiphon "O Virgin of Virgins,"was sung before and after the Magnificat, Mary’s Song, the canticle always sung at Vespers. Each night during that week the community would add the next O antiphon. Those were titles for the coming Savior: Immanuel, Wisdom, Lord of Light, Branch of Jesse, Key of David, Bright and Morning Star, King of nations.

It comes to us through the work of John Mason Neale (1818-1868), the Anglican priest who spent his life translating Greek and Latin texts from the early and medieval church. Without him our hymns for the liturgical year would be scanty indeed. As the Christian church reeled from the French Revolution and its temporarily establishing Notre Dame as a Temple of Reason, many horrified Christians thought the church needed to reestablish its connection with the ancient church, anchoring itself more deeply in its tradition, some of which the Reformation had stripped away. In England there were two wings of the Anglican church at the beginning of the 19th century, the Evangelical or Low Church and what would be called the Broad church

When the winds of change from the French Revolution hit England, a new movement emerged called the Oxford Movement, which became known as the High Church wing of the church. It was led by John Henry Newman (1801-1890). His followers began restoring what they thought had been lost in the Reformation: the liturgical year, ancient hymnody, theological works, architecture, liturgical vestments.

John Mason Neale

Some of them, most significantly, Newman, left the Anglican church for Rome. Many stayed in the Anglican church, like Neale, changing it. Many of the leaders had been born into strong Evangelical homes but left for the Anglo-Catholics when they became adults. It was a lively and influential group. The movement spread throughout the Christian churches of the West. We would not recognize the churches in which many of us grew up if we could go back before these restorations were made.

It has continued its sweep in our liturgies and practices. A small example of the movement can be seen in the change for some of us Lutherans (more long in the tooth than others) in the tune for this hymn. Many of us knew it to the tune St. Petersburg, by Dmitry Stepanovich Bortniansky (1751-1825). It sounds like a typical Protestant hymn. When the Service Book and Hymnal came out in 1958, the Gregorian chants like this one were exotic fare.

It had been compiled by Lutherans such as Luther Dotterer Reed of Philadelphia Seminary who were deeply affected by the Anglo-Catholic revival so the SBH contained many things that were strange at first, but have now become required for Lutheran worship, so the Lutheran Church has become a liturgical church, more than a church with a liturgy as Conrad Bergendoff, the sage of Swedish Augustana once remarked

Illuminated manuscript of singing monks

Congregations had a hard time learning to sing Gregorian chants well in their services, but this one they learned. When I sing it, I am struck with the melancholy longing in it, its Scriptural sources, and its venerable tradition. It brings me back to a cold night in the dark of a European winter in the north, hearing this plaintive cry for the light which marks the evenings in December. Like people that walk in great darkness. The prayer for healing our divisions and difficulties has rarely seemed so necessary.


Although the hymn is known to be very old—dating from the 7th or 8th centuries—we cannot say much about its origin. We do know that its first printing was in the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum done in 1710. This preserved the Latin text. It was translated and included in the Hymnal Noted in 1851. (Noted means with music.) This tune was the one chosen. It was then printed in Hymns: Ancient and Modern which by the end of the century made the hymn text and tune popular. Neale had originally translated the first line as “Draw nigh, Draw nigh,” but by the 1861, it had been edited to "O Come, O Come."


Choir of King’s College Cambridge

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The Piano Guys/Piano and Cello/Lovely

Sovereign Grace/Acoustic Guitar and solo

Mótettukór Hallgrímskirkju Advent festival, see the lovely church

Mathias Eick/Norwegian version folk instruments


The air from the Messiah--it begins with the Accompagnatto, "For behold, Darkness shall cover the earth"

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light

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