12 Days of Christmas Carols- Joy to the World

watts-santaToday we’re going to cover what is perhaps the most popular carol, “Joy to the World.”  But did you know that it actually isn’t a Christmas carol at all?  Written by Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” originally appeared in his 1719 The Psalms of David, and it was Watts’s unique take on Psalm 98.  The full title of Watts’s song book is The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship, which sounds like a noble effort, but in reality most of the words bear only a slight resemblance to the Biblical text.  Watts began his project in a time when many Puritans only allowed for the use of the Psalms in worship music (no other songs of any kind), and his title makes it clear that the goal was to “Christianize” the psalms, making the person of the Savior explicit.  In retrospect, Watts actually managed to supplant the use of Psalms in worship altogether, as most of his hymns are paraphrases at best and their popularity cleared the way for even less-textually based worship songs in the future.  As an extended result, there aren’t many psalm-singing churches left at all, not even among the Presbyterians.  But that is another conversation for a less happy occasion.  Today we’ll stick to the fun stuff.

“Joy to the World,” when viewed in its original context, is actually a sort of sequel to Psalm 98.  There is a forgotten first part which matches the Biblical text more closely.  Its three stanzas are:

To our almighty Maker, God,
New honours be addrest;
His great salvation shines abroad,
And makes the nations blest,

He spake the word to Abraham first;
His truth fulfils the grace;
The Gentiles make his name their trust,
And learn his righteousness.

Let the whole earth his love proclaim,
With all her different tongues;
And spread the honours of his name
In melody and songs.

I don’t know if these words were ever set to the now-famous tune, “Antioch,” since it was paired with the text a whole 120 years later, but I suppose you could do so if you wanted.  As you can see, these stanzas do resemble the text of Psalm 98 or at least the first eight verses of it.  What we now call “Joy to the World” was originally an extension of verse nine, making explicit what the Lord’s coming would mean.  “For He is coming to judge the earth.  With righteousness He shall judge the world, And the peoples with equity.”

That means that “Joy to the World” is about Christ’s second coming (with some relation to the first, of course), and that’s another reason why it isn’t actually a Christmas carol.  We already have a liturgical season focused on the relationship of the first coming of Christ to His second– it’s called Advent!  The original subtitle for Watts’s Psalm 98 part 2 makes this very clear: “The messiah’s coming and kingdom.”  So for all of you strict calendarists out there, unable to sing any of those great Christmas carols until December 25th, here’s your consolation.  You can sing the most widely-published Christmas carol in the English language and do so with a fully clear conscience.  Thanks be to God!

Of course, I’m on record as being a liturgical libertine, flaunting the restrictions of the Church calendar as it suits me, and as such, I hereby grant you readers permission to use “Joy to the World” during Advent and Christmas.  Sing away!  The now-inseparable tune may have some historical connection with George Frideric Handel, but it’s Lowell Mason who gets the final credit, as he fatefully arranged it to be set to Watts’s lyrics.  A triumphant sound for the triumphant words, Christ’s return marks His victory and the establishment of His perfect kingdom on this earth.

Even though we said that the lyrics don’t stick to the text of Psalm 98, “Joy to the World” is still a profoundly biblical song, influenced by a sort of whole-bible hermeneutics which spans from Genesis to Revelation.  Christ is king, both of heaven and earth, and all of creation –rocks, hills, plains, and even fields and floods– sings songs of joy in response to his return.  Jesus breaks the curses of Genesis 3:16-19: sin and sorrow are banished, as well as the thorns and thistles which currently “infest the ground.”  As much as was lost in the Fall is retrieved by Christ’s victory.  Some of my friends joke that this makes “Joy to the World” a postmillennial song.  That’s not entirely true, since all of these blessings are simply attached to Christ’s 2nd coming, with little explanation as to the exact ordering of events, but I suppose the fact that creational life is still going on in the heavenly kingdom, “nations” and all, does rule out certain brands of amillennialism which envision a full obliteration of this world and the common-grace natural order.  I’ll leave it to their worship committees and advisory boards to figure out what to do with “Joy to the World.”  For the rest of us, I say enjoy your eschatology as you sing this great song:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, 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.

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.

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.


One thought on “12 Days of Christmas Carols- Joy to the World

  1. The 1549 Prayer Book orders Psalm 98 as the Introit for the first communion of Christmas Day (the Introit for the second is Psalm 8). One could easily transition from thence to this hymn before or after the sermon.

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