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Songs of Christmas: Joy to the World

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Even though we are past Christmas, I thought it would be good to explore one more well-known Christmas song – “Joy to the World” – because it is actually not a song that was written for the Christmas season.

The Story
This song was written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, an English pastor who lived from 1674–1748. While Watts studied to be a pastor, he only briefly served as one because of health challenges and spent most of his life working as a private tutor. He is best known for his songwriting, as he wrote over 700 other hymns, including some that are still sung today such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Many of his songs were inspired by the Old Testament Book of Psalms; for example, “Our God, Our Help In Ages Past” was based on Psalm 90 and “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” is based on Psalm 72. 

The reason so many of his songs were based on the Psalms is that many churches in Watts’ time only sang the Old Testament Psalms (put into English verse and sung to various tunes). Watts did not think that the poetry and tunes of these songs were good, which led the people to not sing them well or with joy. In addition, Watts thought people should be singing new songs that were built upon and reflective of the Psalms, but in the language of the day and in recognition that the Psalms looked forward to Jesus coming while we now look back that he has come. 

These beliefs, as well as a challenge from his father, led Watts to put his gift of poetry into practice by writing songs and publishing them in numerous collections. One in particular was a book of songs based on the Psalms, published in 1719, called The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. The first appearance of “Joy to the World” is in this book, as it is a paraphrase of Psalm 98 in light of its fulfillment in the appearance of Jesus. While “Joy to the World” and many of his other songs are well-known and loved today, his project of writing new songs was not as popular in his time as many did not think people should sing these songs in church and others viewed him as a heretic.

The song became more popular over time, especially after it was put to a different tune by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), a banker who was also an influential music teacher and church musician. In addition to composing and arranging the tunes for many hymns (such as “Nearer My God to Thee”), he is also the one credited for the tune for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” His tune for “Joy to the World” seems to draw upon various parts of Handel’s “Messiah,” to the point that sometimes Handel is given some of the credit for this tune. Mason first published his tune for “Joy to the World” in 1839, with the tune that we know today being a slight revision of this tune that then was published in 1848. 

This background explains why the song does not mention Mary or Joseph, Jesus’s birth, shepherds watching their fields at night, or the angels proclaiming the good news about this child. But how and why did this song that was not written as a Christmas song and does not describe the events of Christmas become so associated with Christmas that it is often viewed as the most popular Christmas carol? 

I’ve heard some say that a possible reason for its link to Christmas is because its publication by Mason may have happened around Christmas. This would certainly help foster a connection, but it would seem a firmer reason is needed to explain the enduring association of this song with Christmas. Such a link can be found when you start to look at the Psalm that inspired it and the meaning behind the historical events that happened at Christmas.

Psalm 98 is a song of praise about the victorious king who comes to rule justly over all the earth and who is praised by all parts of creation. Christmas is the celebration of the arrival of this king in Jesus, so it is fitting to apply the words of Psalm 98 to Jesus. In addition to celebrating that Jesus has come, Christmas is also a time in which we remember that Jesus will come again and will fulfill the promise of a new heaven and a new earth and perfect and everlasting peace across the world. This song is thus a reminder of the joy that we have now, but also the hope and joy that awaits. Let us now explore how the song describes the cause and the manifestation of this joy.

The Song
The song is based on Psalm 98 in its content rather than its structure, and it makes no attempt to reference or parallel all the verses of this Psalm.

The title and opening words of this song reflect the fourth verses of the Psalm, as Psalm 98:4 says, “Let the whole earth shout to the Lord; be jubilant, shout for joy, and sing” (CSB). Direct reference to the coming of the Lord does not appear until the last verse of the Psalm that describes how the Lord “is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world righteously

and the peoples fairly” (98:9). The following line of “let Earth receive her King” has even less of a direct parallel in word; the Psalm references “our king” (98:6) and invites the earth to shout (98:4). “Let every heart prepare him room” would be an interpretative way to speak of the invitation featured through this psalm to praise and honor the king who comes. The famous phrase “and heaven and nature sing” would be found in concept, but not word, of this Psalm that calls for “whole earth” to shout, “the sea and all that fills it” to “resounds” (98:7), the “rivers” to “clap their hands” (98:8), and “the mountains” to “shout together for joy” (98:8).

The second verse continues the focus on joy found in the Psalm (98:4, 8). It then moves from the arrival of the Lord to the rule of the Savior (“the Savior reigns”), once again using words that you won’t find directly in the Psalm (neither “Savior” nor “reign” will appear in most modern translations) but are there in concept (as this king is victorious and rescues his people and will judge the world). The call for “men their songs to employ” reflects the repeated references to singing (98:1, 5) and making musical noises (98:6). Like the Psalm itself, reference of the songs of people then shifts to the songs of the creation world as “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy” (see 98:7-8). 

The third verse does not feature imagery from Psalm 98, as the Psalm does not reference things like “sins,” “sorrows,” or “the curse.” The language of this verse would go back to Genesis 3, as the sin of Adam and Eve leads to a curse on the earth and thorns infesting the ground (see Genesis 3:17-19). That said, it reflects the nature of the victory of the king and why there is rejoicing; he has saved and delivered his people not from the symptoms but from the root cause of all the pain. The Psalm speaks of the fact that the king will judge the earth and that the ends of the earth see His victory, pointing to the extent of the world of this king’s work in all parts and peoples of the world.

The song’s final verse reflects the Psalm’s emphasis in its final verse on the king coming to “judge the earth” and how he “will judge the world righteously and the peoples fairly” (98:9). Watts explains that in noting that “he rules the world with truth and grace.” There is also the call for the nations to worship found in the phrase, “and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness” (the word “prove” is being used in its old meaning of “experience”) that reflects God’s Word in revealing His righteousness to the nation (98:2-3). The final words that discuss the “wonders of His love” draws our attention back to 98:3, which notes that God’s work shows that He has “remembered His love” and faithfulness in saving His people. 

Even though it is not technically a “Christmas song,” I think it is great to sing “Joy to the World” at Christmastime for a number of reasons; I’ll highlight a couple that emerged from digging into the story and the song. One reason is that it shows us how Christ fulfilled the hopes and promises set forth in the Old Testament. Watt’s song shows us that we should read the Old Testament in light of its fulfillment of Christ. The other is that Christmas is a foretaste of the joy and victory that we will experience at his return. We should not forget the gift we have received in Jesus now, but also know that a bigger and even better gift awaits on his return. Christmas may be over and the gifts unwrapped, but let us remember the gift that awaits when the child born in a manger returns in glory on the clouds.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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