Friday, December 21, 2018

Christmas Carol Contemplation: "Joy to the World"


The final entry in the Christmas Carol Contemplation series looks at “Joy to the World.” The words were not originally intended for the celebration of Christmas, which provides two valuable lessons. First, God can make great and unexpected use of our efforts. And second, the real purpose of the hymn is still suited to this holiday. It reminds us that Christ’s first coming will eventually lead to His second. The story does not end in the manger, or even on the cross, but in the glorious return of the King of Kings. That, above all else, is the reason to celebrate. And the celebration does not have to stop on December 25th. 

During the past few weeks, I published a series of articles looking at the meaning behind some classic Christmas carols. With Christmas just a few days away, it is time to wrap up with my absolute favorite. “Joy to the World” may not be a unique choice, but as I have pointed out in some of the other posts, I am not after esoteric entries. I simply enjoy it just like many other people do, and wanted to understand it better.

That being said, I saved it until last for a reason other than personal preference. I think this hymn provides a perfect capstone for the Christmas season. It is a reminder of the fact that the story does not end with the manger, and that our devotion does not end on the 26th of December.


“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Watts was an English minister and hymnist so well known for his music that he came to be called the “Godfather of English Hymnody.” Interestingly, though Watts was a writer of sacred songs, his best-known one is something he did not intend as a hymn.

Just as was the case with “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (essentially), “Joy to the World” was written as a poem. It was part of a collection Watts wrote to highlight the presence of Christ in the Psalms, with this one being specifically about Psalm 98. Watts published it and I am sure he was satisfied with it, so I do not mean to suggest it was a throwaway effort. Still, it was just one in 138 (which was as many as he completed of the 150 psalms). And though it has a meter for chanting, it was not really meant to be sung in the way we now do. That only came about in 1848, one hundred years after Watts had passed away, when Lowell Mason set it to the music we all know. Watts could not have guessed what an impact his words would have, or how they would have it. He just saw it as a simple expression of his devotion.

That is certainly food for thought. We cannot know what influence our words and actions will have in the long run. God does, though, and if we act faithfully, He can enlarge our impact beyond fathoming. The small ways we serve now can seem utterly inconsequential. However, they can change the course of lives long after we have left the world behind. That is not a guarantee, of course, but it is an encouraging reminder.

Original Purpose

In terms of the song, itself, however, what is interesting is that it is not really a Christmas song, either. Watts did not intend it specifically or exclusively for Advent. We use it that way because of this first stanza:

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 connection is pretty clear, of course. This is when we celebrate the Lord’s arrival, so obviously we should sing it at Christmas. Watts presumably would not be offended by that, but he might be disappointed that we restrict it to that. Given the actual content of Ps. 98, we are really looking at the wrong coming of Christ. It actually concerns His return to establish His reign at the end of the age.

Considered in that light, the meaning of the rest of the verses becomes clear:

Joy to the Earth, The Savior reigns;
Let Men their Songs employ;
While Fields & Floods, Rocks, Hills & Plains
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.
He rules the World with Truth and Grace,
And makes the Nations prove
The Glories of his Righteousness,
And Wonders of his Love.

The song, and the psalm, concern promises that extend beyond Christmas. God will one day come down to judge the earth. On that day all the world, all its nations and its creatures, will celebrate the end of suffering and death as the curse of Gen. 3:17–19 is finally lifted. In that new world, our joy will be complete and every vestige of sorrow will be wiped away (Rev. 21:1–5). This, rather than the nativity story, was the message Watts hoped to convey.

Connection to Christmas

“Joy to the World” is not about Christmas, then. But it is still the perfect Christmas carol. One of the great dangers of this season is the ease with which we can leave Jesus in the stable where He was born. We must be reminded that was not the end of the story. Not even His death and resurrection were. The reason we worship Him and celebrate His birth is not only because of what He has done, but also because of the promise of what He will still accomplish.

This song, when we take the time to consider its full meaning, is a wonderful capstone for the season. We have yet to see all God will do. Between the Lord’s first arrival and His second, we celebrate the fulfilled promises of the past to await those of the future. Christians sing because we know what is coming. We express our joy in order to draw others to those promises, and to be the prelude to the celebration that will occur at the end of everything.

That is the most excellent way to complete Christmas, because it carries its true spirit into the days, weeks, and years that may follow. “Joy to the World” makes us mindful of the fact that the birth in Bethlehem was just the beginning. The season may be coming to an end, but the Lord’s goodness never will. I hope this little reminder enhances your enjoyment of the holiday. Merry Christmas!

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