This one doesn’t make the all-time list of favorite hymns or carols. In fact, I own a ton of Christmas albums, but only one of them includes this hymn. If it’s unfamiliar to you, click HERE to listen to the melody.
Originating in Germany in the 16th century in the Catholic church, and including as many as 23 stanzas, it was written as an ode to the Virgin Mary. Following the Reformation, Protestants altered some of the text, changing the focus to Jesus Christ.
The first stanza is included here, as it is the most familiar:
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-spent was the night.
The scriptural basis for this text is one of the messianic prophecies found in Isaiah 11:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
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.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
(Isaiah 11:1-3 ESV)
In this chapter of Isaiah, the prophet is predicting the demise of the nation of Israel for her unfaithfulness to God. He is rightly predicting the coming of two mighty nations to wipe out Israel: the Assyrians in the 7th century BC, and the Babylonians in the 6th century BC.
The ensuing period of exile for Israel would be like a cold winter, like the middle of a long, cold night. Thus this picture in the lyrics of the hymn.
However, Isaiah also promises that God will not abandon his people entirely. While they may seem completely forgotten, God will preserve a remnant. Like a seemingly dead stump that produces a small, fresh shoot, so God will restore and save his people.
The “stump of Jesse” in Isaiah 11:1 refers to the royal lineage of King David – Jesse was David’s father – from whom the Messiah would come. That is, when the Messiah finally comes, he will come from the lineage of David.
Luke confirms Jesus as this promised one in chapter one of his gospel:
(The Angel Gabriel said to Mary), “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33 ESV)
It’s a shame that this hymn is so unfamiliar. There is perhaps as much biblical depth and godly comfort contained in this one short stanza as in any Christmas hymn or carol ever written. It stands as a constant and powerful reminder that God always keeps his promises, no matter how cold or dark the winter nights might get.
That is what Christmas is truly all about.