CHRISTMAS HYMN STUDY: JOY TO THE WORLD
The words to the hymn were written by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). The music was written or arranged by Lowell Mason (1792-1872) to the tune named “Antioch”. Antioch was the city where believers were first called Christians. He lists “G.F. Handel” as a music writer, but Handel did not write it.
Watts was a child prodigy. He learned Greek, Latin, French and Hebrew before he was 13. He studied theology and philosophy. He wrote books on logic and theology.
When he was 18, he criticized the Psalms sung at his church. His father told him to write something better. He brought a newly written hymn to church the next Sunday. His congregation loved it. For the next two years he wrote new hymns for each Sunday. He then published 210 hymns in a book called “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”. All in all, he wrote 600 hymns. He is called the father of English hymns. He wrote “Our God our Help In Ages Past”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “I sing the Mighty Power of God”.
Watts wrote the hymn for his hymnal “Psalms of David Imitated in the language of the New Testament”. He wanted to give the Psalms a New Testament meaning and style. It was common at the time for all worship songs to be rhymed versions of the Psalms. Watts wanted to update the songs.
“Joy To The World” is Watts’ reflection on Psalm 98:4-9. That Psalm rejoices in God’s protection and guidance for his people. It anticipates the time when God will be the God of the whole earth and his law obeyed by all people. Watts interpreted it as praise for the coming of Christ in his kingdom. The original title Watts gave it was “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.
Psalm 98 in the King James Version reads as follows:
O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.
2 The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.
3 He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
5 Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
6 With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
8 Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
9 Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.
Verses 4-9, which inspired the hymn, call for joyful praise to God with voices and instruments. Also, the sea and rivers and hills all praise God with joy.
Finally, verse 9 speaks of the Lord coming to judge the world with justice.
So, the flow of thought in Psalm 98 is that God has done great things for Israel, all people on earth should praise him for he is the rightful king of the earth, the creation should also praise him as it looks forward to his rule when God will be the judge of the earth.
Evidently, the use of the word “joy” and speaking of the coming of the Lord, made people think of the birth of Jesus. So they began to sing it as a Christmas hymn. However, Watts did not write it as a Christmas hymn. It is a song looking for ward to God’s coming at the end of the age to judge the earth and restore it.
But you could still sing it at Christmas as long as you do it meaning that Jesus comes to spread God’s praise to the Gentiles and bring his kingdom to the whole earth.
This hymn is sometimes called a postmillennial hymn. Postmillennialism is the view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized, and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the ‘Millennium.’
Postmillennialis believe the second coming of Christ will be followed immediately by the general resurrection, the general judgment, and the introduction of heaven and hell in their fullness.
Postmillennialists see the millennium as a golden age of spiritual prosperity during the Church age, the time between the first and second coming of Christ. They believe it will be brought about through forces now active in the world. It is an indefinitely long period of time, perhaps much longer than a literal one thousand years.
The changed character of many people who come to Christ will be reflected in a God centered social, economic, political and cultural life of humanity on the earth.
The world will then enjoy a state of righteousness such as at the present time has never known in any world wide sense.
Every person will not be a Christian during the millennium, nor will sin will be completely abolished. But evil will be negligible, Christian principles will be the rule, and Christ will return to a Christian world. Most Protestants were postmillennialists during Watts’ lifetime.
The first stanza of the hymn is:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing.
The words of the first stanza, “Joy to the Lord” reflect the words of verse Psalm 98:4: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.”
So, as Psalm 98 expresses joy at God’s coming to rule the world, Watts applied it to Christ’s second coming to reign in the millennium. The Christianized world would welcome him with great joy. Earth would receive it king.
Watts picked up the theme by singing “joy to the world”. He meant the world would rejoice at the appearance of Christ. It would receive him as king because, as a postmillennialist, he believed most of the world would be Christians when Christ returned.
Even if you are not a postmillennialist, you can sing that the world should have received Christ as king at his first coming. In Luke 2, the angel says he had good news of great joy for all people, that one was born who was Christ the Lord. The Messiah, or Christ, would be the Davidic king and would rule. The Wise Men also thought Jesus would be a king. They asked “where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1-2)
I have always thought the wise men came because they read the Book of Daniel. They were from the East and may have been Medes in the Persian Empire. Daniel had prophesied about a “son of man” who was given a kingdom. (Daniel 7) Jesus would later identify himself as the son of man. He claimed the office of king and messiah in his trial before the council, as recorded in Mark 14:61-62.
Yet, Jesus did not establish a visible kingdom on earth during his first appearance. The kingdom was inaugurated when Jesus came the first time. He preached that the kingdom was at hand. In Mark 1:14, Jesus says “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel”. But it will not be consummated until he returns as king, as shown in Revelation 19:11-16. But Watts was looking forward to the time of Christ’s return, believing he would come and reign on earth.
So, the first stanza pictures Christ returning to the welcome of his people and the rejoicing of all of creature, heaven and earth.
Here is the second stanza:
Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
The second stanza pictures Christ reigning on earth. Men sing because they are glad to be under the reign of a just and righteous king. Creation sings also. Why does creation sing? It sings because it has been released from bondage to the sin of mankind.
The third stanza speaks specifically to this:
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
Genesis 3 tells us that, because of Adam’s sin, the ground was cursed. Thorns and Thistles grow on it. You know this if you have ever planted a garden or raised crops on a farm.
Romans 8:19-22 says:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
So,Watts says Christ will remove the curse and bring blessing. Psalm 98 does not deal with this issue specifically, but Watts was expanding the Psalm with New Testament teaching.
I personally do not think creation will be released from the curse of man’s sin until it is remade in the new heavens and earth. Peter wrote that the heavens and earth that now exist are kept until the day of judgment. (2 Peter 3:7) We, then, wait for the new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13) Revelation 22:3 says “no longer will there be anything accursed….”
I also think this is true of sins and sorrows. They will only cease in the new creation.
The Fourth stanza reads:
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
This stanza reflects Psalm 98:9
Before the Lord, for he comes
To judge the earth
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.
The Old Testament contains many references to God judging the nations. The New Testament shows us that the Father has given that authority to the Son. When Peter preached the first sermon to the Gentiles, speaking to Cornelius and his household, he said “And he (the Father) commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God (the Father) to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42) Paul wrote “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus”. (Romans 2:16)
Revelation pictures Jesus as the one who judges mankind. In chapter 5, the scroll is presented which is sealed with seven seals. (5:1) The scroll contains all of the judgments that will be poured out on mankind. Only Jesus is able to open it and break the seals. (5:5)
Matthew 25:31-46 speaks of Jesus judging mankind when he returns.
Watts wrote that Jesus will judge with righteousness. There will be no partiality. Each person is either in Christ or in rebellion against him. Those who are in Christ are described as having their names written in the book of life. These inherit eternal life. The others are judged for what they have done. The words of Romans 6:23 are shown to be true: the wages of sin is death. These are cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
This is our vindication. It will be a cause for rejoicing. Christ is exalted.
So, this might not really be the best choice for a Christmas hymn, but is a Christ exalting hymn. Regardless of your eschatological position, you may look forward to the coming of Christ and the consummation of the kingdom. You may also rejoice that the birth of Christ began the work of the kingdom on earth. His kingdom exists today, though not fully realized on earth. That is why he told us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
Joy to the world! The Lord had come and is coming. He will come and take us to be with him for eternity. You can rejoice in that.