‘Joy to the World’ is one of my favourite carols – yet it was written as a poem, not a song and not even for Christmas!
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) the pastor hymn writer was tired of the church’s dullness in the sung worship of his day which consisted solely of Old Testament Psalms set to ill-fitting tunes. He believed worship should also be sung in the light of gospel joy. In his lifetime he is credited with writing around 750 ‘Hymns and Spiritual Songs’. He was a revolutionary and received criticism from the establishment who called his hymns ‘whims’. Of course, he did love Psalms, so in response, he wrote a collection of poems entitled ‘Psalms of David – Imitated in New Testament Language, and Applied to Christian Worship and State’! One of these poems is ‘Joy to the World’ written in 1719, based on Psalm 98, but interpreted from a gospel perspective. Parts of the tune we sing, ‘Antioch’, is credited to Georg Friedrich Händel, arranged by Lowell Mason and published in 1839.
One look at our world today and it’s plain to see there is much more sorrow and suffering than joy.
As Jesus predicted, wars, famines, earthquakes and pandemics will continue till the end (Luke 21:10-11). In our current crisis of climate change and environmental degradation, Nature seems to be groaning not singing (Romans 8:22). We sing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ but today, as at his birth, few give him room. When Isaac Watts wrote of Christ’s coming and ruling the nations in verse 4 he was envisioning his return in glory, rather than his incarnation.
Yet, it is appropriate to sing this song at Christmas. The angel announced to the shepherds ‘Good News of a great joy for all people’ and heaven broke out in song. Jesus the Saviour’s birth was the start of his mission to rescue the world through his life, death and resurrection and some day he will return to claim complete victory over evil. Christmas looks back to the manger in that outhouse in Bethlehem, but also forward to the fullness of his coming Kingdom when as verse 3 of the song says, sin and sorrow will be no more and instead of thorns, the cursed earth will flow with his blessings. His comings are interconnected as each makes the other meaningful. Christ is sovereign now, but when he comes again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, he will judge the nations and put everything right.
The shepherds’ response to finding Christ that first Christmas night was one of unspeakable joy. They spread the good news of his birth as announced by the angels and praised and glorified God. To them, to you and to me, to all peoples to the ends of the earth, this child is born, the Son is given and he is Christ the Lord. Let’s celebrate this Christmas by ‘repeating the sounding joy of the wonders of his love’ as we respond with faith and gratitude and look forward with hope.