the story behind come thou long-expected jesus

Christmas: The Story Behind "Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

Hi, friends. This is the second installment in this year’s Christmas hymn series, and as with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” I’ll detail some of the song’s history and connect it to the theme “the expectation of a messiah in Israel.”

History of the hymn

Charles Wesley was the brother of John Wesley, and the two men started the Methodist denomination together; John was the preacher and primary leader, while Charles is best remembered as a prolific hymn writer. [My post on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” provides more background on him.] In 1744, (Charles) Wesley was inspired by the scripture Haggai 2:7 along with class divisions in Great Britian to pen this prayer:

The Nativity at Night by Sint Jans, circa 1490

“Born Your people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now Your gracious kingdom bring. By Your own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone; by Your all sufficient merit, raise us to Your glorious throne. Amen.”

I speculate that when Wesley said, “rule in all our hearts alone,” the implication was, “don’t let forces of evil like greed and apathy to suffering rule in our hearts.”

He adapted the prayer into a hymn anticipating both the nativity story and Christ’s second coming, publishing it in a hymnal the same year. Oddly enough, part of what catalyzed the song’s popularity was its adoption into a sermon by the famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon.

The hymn has been paired with various tunes, and it is unknown what tune Wesley wanted. Two popular tunes for the hymn are “Stuttgart” by Christian Friedrich Witt (1710) and “Hyfrydol” by Rowland Hugh Prichard (1800’s). My Methodist church uses Hyfrydol, which we also sing with Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.”

Connecting the hymn to the theme

Jesus, with a crown and a dove of peace, pacifies two fighters, Berlin Cathedral, circa 1900

Wesley understands that Israel is expecting a messiah (“Israel’s strength and consolation”), but he also knows Jesus came to save all peoples (“Hope of all the world thou art”). During the Babylonian Exile and later under Roman rule, the Hebrews need a source of joy, hope and freedom, all of which are referenced in the first verse. The second verse goes on to explain what Jesus has, can, and/or will do as the savior of the world.

I’m fascinated that Wesley used the terms “strength and consolation” to describe Israel’s messiah. Though they assumed their messiah would be strong in a literal sense to overthrow their earthly enemies, Jesus defies that expectation with a compassionate ministry and a humiliating death. Yet, ironically, He accomplished something the strongest man on earth couldn’t–defeating sin and death. Also, He showed that strength in the fruits of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control–is more powerful and far more honorable than a mighty fist.

Lyrics:

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart. 

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne. 

The tune is different here, but I just discovered this version, and I adore it. Give it a listen, and thanks for reading! Are you ready for Christmas? Let me know in the comments.

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