The hauntingly tender Christmas carol “O Holy Night” has a strange and fascinating history. Indeed, the version we have in our hymnbooks today was the result of a joint effort among individuals who would by no stretch be considered orthodox Christians.
The lyrics were written by a lapsed Catholic.
The score was written by a non-practicing Jew.
The piece was first sung in public by a popular opera singer.
The English translation came from a transcendentalist who denied basic biblical doctrine.
The official church hierarchy originally opposed the song even though congregations loved it and demanded that it be sung.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how this alluring carol came to our ears today. Yet for all the twists and turns in its strange and bumpy journey—not to mention its wildly loose translation into English—the result is truly beautiful. In fact, it’s just not a Christmas Eve service if we don’t sing “O Holy Night.”
The carol itself, then, can be seen as a helpful illustration of life itself. We, too, experience many zigs and zags on the way to our divinely intended destination. But God can take the broken pieces of our lives and shape them into a beautiful mosaic.
We do much the same with stained glass windows. We gather sharp and broken pieces of colored glass and fit them together with design and intentionality to tell the Jesus story. The God of the universe does the same with his people. He tells the story of Jesus and his love through the order and design he brings to our chaotic lives. God’s gracious work in us is “a thrill of hope” for which “the weary world rejoices.”
The Servant Song in Isaiah 53 was written 700 years before Jesus came, yet it reads like someone composed it while standing at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. But it was a prophetic prediction, not a historical reflection. Kyle Yates, an Old Testament Professor, has called this passage “the Mt. Everest of Old Testament prophecy.” Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th-century Baptist preacher called it “a Bible in miniature, the gospel in its essence.” Franz Delitzsch, an Old Testament scholar and commentator called it “the deepest, and the loftiest thing that…Old Testament prophecy…has ever achieved.” That’s high praise for a single passage of Scripture.
Structurally, the passage is a song or a poem of five stanzas with three verses each. Each stanza gets a little longer than the previous one, serving to heighten the dramatic impact of each as they build upon the previous one. Of whom does the prophet speak? Whoever it is, this “Servant of the Lord” experiences deep lows as well as lofty highs. He appears more ordinary than spectacular—even gruesome at one point. He is willing to sacrifice much for the sake of love. Indeed, the Servant of the Lord looks beyond the injustice of this world to the justice of God. And he maintains hope in the midst of it all by clinging to divine sovereignty in hardship. A simple walk through the text paints a portrait of this Servant and what he accomplishes:
He appeared to be totally insignificant. (1)
He appeared to be physically unimpressive. (2)
He appeared to be spiritually reprehensible. (3)
He bore our sickness and sorrows. (4)
He bore our piercings and punishment. (5)
He bore our lostness and lawlessness. (6)
His submission was total. (7)
His death was violent. (8)
His burial was notorious. (9)
He is crushed by God but is then vindicated by God. (10)
He suffers internally but is then satisfied by justifying many. (11)
He dies among the wicked but is then generous in sharing his victory. (12)
The central verse of the composition is v. 5, and it summarizes what the Servant achieves: “But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. And by his stripes we are healed.” That is, he was “pierced through” for our acts of rebellion. He was “pulverized” for our twistedness. The “punishment” that brought us well-being was upon him, and by his “scourgings,” we are healed. In other words, this Servant of the Lord takes our diseases and gives us health. He takes our punishment and gives us joy and freedom. He takes our wounds and gives us healing. In the end, the Servant of the Lord was crushed by sin so that crushed sinners could become servants of the Lord. That’s good news for us, but what about the poor Servant? Fortunately, he is eventually vindicated, too (Isa 53:10-12).
The early church applied this prophecy to Jesus (Acts 8:30-34). That’s because Jesus applied it to himself: “I am among you as one who serves. . . . It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:27, 37). On the night before his execution, Jesus was thinking about Isaiah 53 and applying it to his own ordeal and mission. He was saying, “Tomorrow on the cross, I will look totally insignificant, unimpressive, reprehensible—a bloody mess! But it’s all according to plan. It’s all for your benefit.” In that awful rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, when Pilate meets Jesus for the first time, he says:
Oh, so this is Jesus Christ I am really quite surprised You look so small Not a king at all
The rap on Jesus was this: “We know who you are and where you come from. You’re the carpenter’s son. We changed your diapers. We wiped your nose. You’re nothing special.” But this is the wisdom of God. As Bill Lane has said, “Their eyes could not penetrate the veil of ordinariness around them.” Do you know this Servant of the Lord by faith as your Savior and highest treasure in life? Have you ever trusted him—Jesus Christ—for your eternal salvation? Will you be one of “the many” referred to in v. 11 whom God will declare “not guilty”? Believe him. Receive him. Love him. Follow him. He was crushed for you.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.
A light snow has dusted southcentral Pennsylvania today, and it looks like shoveling will not be necessary. (I’m o.k. with that!) Is there anything more beautiful than nature’s white blanket covering our dead and dying trees and foliage? Isaiah’s image comes to mind whenever the white stuff falls from the sky:
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18b
Seven hundred years later, it all came to pass. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christmas, then, deals a death blow to both moralism and relativism.
Moralism says we can save ourselves through our own good works. That makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God the Son go to all the trouble of becoming a human being to live and die in our place if we could fulfill the requirements of divine righteousness ourselves? His sacrifical death on our behalf would have been totally wasted and therefore totally ridiculous.
Relativism, on the other hand, says no one is really “lost,” so we can all live by our own light and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sins are self-defined, so salvation can be self-achieved. Consequently, any higher power that might exist out there never would have bothered to be incarnated. Christmas is totally unnecessary in this scenario, too.
But Christmas is a thing because we need it to be a thing. God the Son did put skin on two thousand years ago. Indeed, God ignored our silly notions of moralism and relativism and came anyway. Thank God for that! I’m looking forward to the kind of weather that allows for sleigh rides—not because I have the equipment to go dashing though the snow in such a manner. I just like to contemplate Isaiah’s image when the snow extends as far as the eye can see.
Speaking of sleigh rides, the first Christian album I ever bought after coming to faith in Christ back in college was Amy Grant’s Age to Age. Many of us went on to collect the rest of her albums, too, including her Christmas albums. Here’s a little gem of hers that gets me thinking about the joy of Christmas snow.
Here’s another Advent gem that we sang this morning—Michael Card’s “Immanuel.” I never make it through this one, either, without breaking down at some point. It’s simple, tender, and true. Above all, it’s filled with hope for those of us who know we’re broken deep down and stand in need of a Savior.
Below is a rendition by a collection of school choirs from Cheshire and the Wirral (a peninsula in North West England) joining their voices in Chester Cathedral to celebrate the Incarnation and the Epiphany. A wonderful song is made even more special by the young voices who sing it. The opening line is from Isaiah 7:14, the famous prophecy about a virginal conception and the surprising name given to the resulting child.
im = the Hebrew word for “with” anu = the Hebrew word for “us” El = a shortened form of the Hebrew word Elohim, “God”
Jesus is the “with-us God.” And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Be blessed by this choral arrangement of Michael Card’s modern classic—especially if you’ve stumbled in the darkness. We’re the reason he came.
A sign shall be given A virgin will conceive A human baby bearing Undiminished deity The Glory of the nations A Light for all to see And Hope for all who will embrace His warm reality
Immanuel, our God is with us And if God is with us Who could stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel
For all those who live in the shadow of death A glorious Light has dawned For all those who stumble in the darkness Behold your Light has come
So, what will be your answer; O will you hear the call? Of Him who did not spare His Son, But gave Him for us all On earth there is no power, There is no depth or height That could ever separate us from The love of God in Christ
Time to go set up some more Christmas trees. They’re beautiful reminders that “a glorious Light has dawned.”
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
There’s something pitiable about the person who lives in exile. To be in a faraway place when your heart is back home can be a severe discouragement. We can’t help feeling sorry for people who’ve been evicted or evacuated against their will. To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Have you ever felt like an exile? It’s a miserable sensation. The child going away for summer camp, or the teenager going away to college for the first time might have a sense of exile. So might the missionary who heads off to a strange and hostile land after years of being cloistered in a Christian subculture.
To be separated from the comforts of loved ones and familiar surroundings is to be assaulted by loneliness, fear, anxiety, and possibly even despair.
Indeed, exiles come in many forms—the military spouse who gets dragged all over the globe; the chronically ill patient who’s confined to a hospital bed; the success-driven businessperson who gets strapped into a plane seat yet again; the incarcerated man who can do nothing but hang his wrists on the iron bars all day long.
Then there are those who may be physically in their homes, but they, too, feel like exiles: the widow separated from her beloved husband, now living in a quiet house with echoes of poignant memories flooding her soul; the teen athlete who desperately wants to compete but has to stay cloistered in her house while a pandemic runs its course; the child whose parents are emotionally absent and unavailable to provide support and affirmation in those critical, formative years.
All of them can feel like exiles, and all of them desperately want to go “home.”
The people of Isaiah’s day knew that feeling well. Theirs was the plight of the exile. They’re a long way from home, and they have “miles to go before they sleep.” But Isaiah 25 is a song of liberation—an Old Testament Magnificat that anticipates real hope for a bright and glorious future. The hymn breaks into the text unexpected, celebrating the end of the tyranny and shame that have befallen the Jews for so long. God is clearly on the move, having subdued the enemies of Israel and having promised to restore them to a place of peace and prominence once again.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. Verses 6-8 in particular celebrate the end of darkness and death for the covenant people. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
As is often the case with Old Testament prophecies, the divine Author could see more than the earthly author (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12). It’s not difficult to capture glimpses of a greater resurrection in this passage—the bodily resurrection that awaits all believers at the end of the age.
With God, even the worst exile is only temporary. The marvelous truth is that Israel as a nation will rise again from the dead.
In fact, when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:54 that “death is swallowed up in victory,” he’s citing Isaiah 25:8. When John writes in Revelation 7:17 that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” and again in 21:4 that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more,” he’s surely alluding to the same prophecy. Isaiah’s original vision exceeds all expectations.
Indeed, humanity’s exile to this sin-scarred planet of crime, cruelty, injustice, and death will one day come to an end. Like Israel of old, the church may continue to fail God in many ways, but God is still God, and he will keep his promises:
• He will prepare an eschatological feast for his people (6).
• He will destroy the corpse’s shroud that enfolds us all (7).
• He will swallow up death forever (8a).
• He will wipe away the tears from our faces (8b).
• And he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth (8c).
In other words, death itself will be exiled forever, and the people of God will finally be home. And the authority for such a great hope is that the Lord himself has said it will happen (8d).
Thank you, God, for your power over death and the hope that it brings. As we journey through this life—sometimes feeling like strangers and exiles—encourage our spirits by helping us to remember that you will keep your resurrection promises. In the midst of our many failures, disappointments, disillusionments, and inadequacies, help us to stay focused on the glorious future that awaits the people of God. We’re eager to see you, Lord, and have you dry our tears. Until then, help us to hope. Amen.