Hymn Project: Joy To The World
When you read the lyrics to the song “Joy to the World” you cannot help but start humming along. Joy To the World is one of the most recognizable Christmas songs of all time, but it actually wasn’t written to be a Christmas song at all. If Christmas is about Jesus’ first advent, Joy to the World is really about Jesus’ second advent. As the old saying goes, ‘if the shoe fits, wear it,’ and Joy to the World wears the Christmas shoe quite well.
The lyrics were written by Isaac Watts, who is considered to be the Father of English hymn writing. From a young age, his brilliance was noted. He gave himself to ministry, becoming a pastor in the early 1700’s, but it is his songwriting he’s most known for. His lyrics carry with it a rare combination of clarity, power and hope. His songwriting was rooted in a deep study of the Bible and a lifetime of suffering that led to a deeply intimate relationship with God.
- He suffered religiously, as he was the son of a non-conformist, meaning, they broke from the Church of England due to what they perceived as corruption and deep compromises within it.
- He suffered physically, as he was weak bodied, small in stature and had a disproportionately large head. This was known as one of the main reasons that the girl he proposed to spurned him for marriage.
- He suffered mentally, as he was plagued by a psychiatric illness much of his adult life.
- He suffered spiritually. Watts longed to see people sing the truth of the Word with more passion. It pained him so much, he gave his life to writing hymns to change the narrative.
His suffering led him to write songs from the Psalms, but through the lens of Jesus. These songs were Published in 1719 under the title: The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, And applied to the Christian State and Worship. Joy to the World is Watts’ interpretation of Psalm 98 in light of the Gospel.
This interpretation requires you to understand the context of Psalm 98. The Psalms have 5 sections or ‘books’ that tell the story of Israel. Book I highlights the rise of the monarchy, Book II highlights the fall of the Kingdom, Book III wrestles with the experience of exile and suffering, Book IV is the theological response to the exile, that GOD REIGNS and Book V concludes with life in the kingdom, but through this transformed lens of exile and suffering. Psalm 98 is located in the center of Book IV where the proclamation that GOD REIGNS is the answer to the theological crisis in Book III. The faith in, and proclamation of, the rule of God, both and now and forevermore, transforms the experience of suffering here and now.
Joy to the World is then a call to all of creation to receive the King of the World: Jesus! Let every person, and everything in heaven and on earth SING! The most profound verse, verse 3, sings about the effects the coming of Jesus has on all creation. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve rebel against God, God comes to them and gives them a promise that a savior would be born that would reverse the curse of sin, per se. What Watts does in verse 3 is brilliant because in effect, he says that Jesus’ arrival is to bring blessing to every aspect of creation, as “far as the curse is found!” That’s GOOD news!
The last stanza brings out Psalm 98:9, that Jesus rules, and will rule, with truth and grace and that the nations will come up under His Kingship. His kingdom isn’t one of forcible violence though; it is the Kingdom we all long for, a Kingdom of righteousness, wonder and love.
As we proclaim “let every heart, prepare Him room”, we affirm that Jesus is the Christ and that He has shown us the power and rule of God in a ministry of suffering servanthood. We join with saints throughout history and the world, greeting Jesus as Lord, recognizing His sovereign claim on our lives and over all creation, and commit ourselves to serving and suffering for the sake of the Kingdom.