by Bruce Smith, Associate Director of Music Ministries
Christmas Carol Story: “Joy To The World”
“Let every heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing…”
It is one of the most exuberant carols that we sing. It is one of the most popular carols that we sing. It is also one of the most beloved carols that we sing. And yet, it is not actually a Christmas carol at all. In fact, though we sing and treat it this way, it is not even a song about Christmas; at least, not as its author intended. The song in question is none other than Isaac Watt’s famous work Joy To the World.
If the father of medicine was Hippocrates and the father of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell, then the father of English hymns was none other than Isaac Watts. Having written a massive collection of over 750 hymns, Watts’ work is still being printed in books, projected onto screens and sung by Christians worldwide. In stanzas 1 and 2, Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King.
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn— shout for joy before the Lord, the King.” Psalm 98:4-6
“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Psalm 96:11-12
Stanza 3 speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin and in stanza 4 celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations. The nations are called to celebrate because God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel has brought salvation to the world.
So how did this unrelated work become the most popular of all Christmas hymns? The opening line of Joy to the World is sometimes sung incorrectly as, “Joy the world! The Lord has come.” That is not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “The Lord is come.” Watts was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (the return of Jesus). The main point of Psalm 98 was not about the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, about His Second Coming! And that’s precisely what the song is about. It speaks of Jesus’ final coming to earth when “the Savior reigns” and when “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Watts longed for that glorious final day when the “nations (will) prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
Even though Watts may not have ever envisioned his song being sung at Christmas time, I think it is a wonderful tribute to his work. Indeed, the first advent of Jesus stands as a historical guarantee that His Second Advent is coming soon. Indeed, the birth of Jesus and the return of Jesus are the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people!” So this Christmas, let’s sing this “non-Christmas” carol with gusto, declaring..
“He rules the World with Truth and Grace, and makes the Nations prove The Glories of his Righteousness, and Wonders of his Love.”