Joy to the World is the most-recognized and most-published Christmas hymn in America. Since its writing in 1719, Isaac Watts’ tune has become a holiday necessity at sacred – and even secular – gatherings.
But ironically, Watts never intended the song to be about Christ’s birth; in fact, he had a very different occasion in mind.
Even as a child, Watts showed signs of genius; before he turned 13, he had mastered at least four other languages besides his native English. But this brilliant child was highly critical of his church’s music, so one Sunday, his father, a nonconformist pastor, challenged him to produce his own hymns. By the following Sunday, he had done so.
The history of worship would be changed forever.
Joy to the World was first released in Watts’ book entitled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The familiar song was based on the last half of Psalm 98 which is about the final triumph of God’s King, or as we know it today, the Second Coming of Christ. Take a look:
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. (Psalm 98:4-9)
Did you catch all that!?!? Compare Psalm 98 with Watts’ paraphrasing found in the first verse of Joy to the World.
Shout for joy (Joy to the world)
Let the sea, world, rivers, and mountains sing before the LORD. (And heaven and nature sing)
But it gets even better! Why does the world sing for joy? According to verse two of the hymn, because it now has a righteous King!
He comes to judge the earth in righteousness with equity (Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns)
While Jesus was King at His birth – according to the testimony of the wise men who visited Herod – He was also crucified mercilessly on a cross as a sacrificial Lamb. But when He returns to Earth, He will not come as a meek lamb, but rather as the triumphant Lion of the Tribe of Judah! This Messiah – prophesied as early as Genesis 3 – has finally broken the curse and pain of sin. And that’s why Watt’s concludes his marvelous hymn with these words in verses three and four:
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.
See…this hymn from Watts has no “Babe in a manger,” no “heralding angels,” not even “three kings from the Orient” to tie it to Christmas. You know what this means, right?
Yep. We can now sing Joy to the World in July!
Isaac Watts, Hymnographer by Harry Escott. Independent Press, 1962, Page 164.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)