Behind the Hymn: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

One of the most popular hymns sung around Christmas time for over a century has been “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”. Originally composed by Charles Wesley in 1744, the story behind the hymn is fascinating in its own right.

When the prolific Wesley (also responsible for works including "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing") was writing this hymn, he was surrounding by scenes of homelessness, orphans, and squalid poverty. Eighteenth-century England was wracked with weak religion, rampant sin, and very frequently a callous indifference to the suffering of the lower classes. Looking at Haggai 2:7 for inspiration, Wesley penned a work that expressed a dear hope for Christ to come again and set all things right. Initially written without a tune set to it, the hymn's usage ebbed and flowed, until a young preacher named Charles Spurgeon helped popularize it in the 1850s through one of his Christmas sermons. From there, it has made its way to the hymnals of many different denominations, and remains a popular selection in worship to this day.

The opening words of this hymn, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus”, look both forward and backwards. In one sense, mirroring Haggai and the Old Testament prophets, the opening words express the same hope that had comforted mankind since immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. From Genesis 3, we see this hope that one will come to crush Satan, to save mankind from ruin in sin, and be the head of a people brought into a glorious inheritance with the Messiah. The birth of Jesus Christ is the bringing forth of a hope that endured for thousands of years.

However, seeing beyond the manger, there is also a glorious future in this. For Christians, we have been made into new creations through Christ Jesus, and now we look forward to the time when Christ comes again, a triumphant warrior-king who will make all things new. The pain of loss, the poverty and sickness of this world, every rebellion against our Lord, has an expiration date, known but to God, but as definite and as sure as the truth of our Risen Lord. This is the sure hope to which Charles Wesley looked when he wrote this beloved work, and it is the same hope we share with all those in Christ today.

The beauty of a hymn such as “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is in its rich reference to the truths of Scripture. When we regard "from our sins and fears release us", we remember that only in Christ may we be regarded as righteous in the eyes of a holy God. When we sing "let us find our rest in thee", we know that we may rest not in our fruitless works, but in the accomplished, sufficient work of Jesus Christ in our salvation. When together we lift our voices in "hope of all the earth thou art", we know that Christ has come for the true, spiritual Israel--both Jew and Gentile, a redeemed people drawn from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9). 

Taken together, this hymn dismisses the focus of the immediate, the material madness of the holidays, and brings us back out to meditate upon the unbelievable scale of God’s redemptive designs. The coming of Jesus Christ is no isolated event; it is not the result of a hurried plan or the fruit of sentimental nonsense. It is nothing less than the God-Man, the Messiah, being born into the word to redeem a people chosen from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). We know the “joy of every longing heart”, as we ponder the riches of the gospel, and the beauty that comes from our deepest need fulfilled—the desperate necessity of a Savior—only in Jesus Christ, in fulfillment of a promise given long ago. In this and every season, we are able to rejoice, singing, “now thy gracious kingdom bring”, until our victorious King comes again.

You can enjoy a wonderful rendition of the hymn via the link below:

Zachary HoughtonComment