JOY TO THE WORLD! THE LORD IS COME!
Psalm 98:4-9 (NIV)
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.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
This was the Scripture passage that inspired Isaac Watts to pen the now popular carol, "Joy to the World" in 1719. The only thing is, that hymn was not originally written for Advent nor Christmas.
Isaac Watts, born in Southampton, England, was a prolific hymn writer who lived from 1675-1748. In fact, many would acknowledge him as the "Father of English Hymnody" and has more than 600 hymns attributed to his name, including "Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed", "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past", and "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" - just to list a few of the more famous ones. He started writing hymns since he was 20 years old, and in 1719 he wrote a collection of works which was called the Psalms of David Imitated. This comprised 138 psalms that were paraphrased through the lens of their fulfilment in the redemptive work of Christ - and "Joy to the World" was one of those psalms.
The theme that is portrayed in "Joy to the World", as in Psalm 98, is in fact a call to celebration at Christ's second coming, rather than an Advent or Christmas carol, and conveys the glorious message that Jesus saves. It traces God's salvation plan as it unfolds from the promise in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15) to Christ’s glorious return when the curse of sin (Genesis 3:16-19) will be destroyed forever.
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 (stanza 3)
When Christ returns, He will "rule the world with truth and grace" as the King of kings (Psalm 98:6), and He will come as a Judge that “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love" (Psalm 98:9).
After Isaac Watts published his work, "Joy to the World" remained obscure till 1836, some 117 years later, when the then music director of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, Lowell Mason, adapted and arranged this hymn into the melody that we are now familiar with. The tune itself can be attributed to George Frederick Handel (1742) and bears resemblance to phrases of his great oratorio, "Messiah". Notably the first four tones match the beginning of the chorus, "Lift Up Your Heads".
Mason was considered quite a radical in the music scene during his time and boldly changed the accepted format of church worship from that of professional choirs and orchestras to congregational singing accompanied by organ music. One can only imagine the exuberance of his congregation in 1836 when they were free to sing as one for the first time, "Joy to the World"!
Today, no Advent or Christmas Service will be complete without the singing of this carol. Although it was not originally composed for this season, its message remains powerfully appropriate. Even as we celebrate His incarnation as a baby born in a humble manger, we also celebrate His salvation bought for us by His death on the cross, His dwelling in our hearts by His Spirit, and His glorious return. These aspects are each portrayed so beautifully in Isaac Watts' hymn, and our most appropriate response has to be joy - overflowing joy!
Indeed, "Joy to the World" addresses Psalm 98's call to our ultimate and eternal purpose which is to joyfully worship the Lord with all of creation. John Piper succinctly expressed this truth as follows: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn't.”
May the singing of this carol in this Christmas, truly comfort and encourage us as we remember that our joy is in our Saviour and Lord, who has given us the wonderful privilege to "repeat the sounding joy" and share the "wonders of His love" now and forevermore! Amen!
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.
May God's Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love fill your hearts, and may Christ be the centre of your lives as we look forward in anticipation for His coming again.
Elder Aaron Tan