'Joy to the World' has been sung as a beloved Christmas carol for over 300 years. Usually sung as the final hymn of most seasonal services, the room floods with light as the candles are lit and voices sing out the message of Christmas: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King.”
But Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the writer of the song and renowned father of English hymnody, didn’t intend the song to be sung only at Christmas; it was originally written to be sung all year round.
The words are not simply focused on the joy we experience as we look back and celebrate the incarnation, they also encourage us to look forward, to discover the joy we can find by reflecting on our future hope, the second coming of Christ.
Watts, a prolific hymn writer famous for his metrical rendering of the Psalms, used Psalm 98:4, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,” as the basis for the song.
Watts’ believed that all of Scripture points to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44) and this influenced the way he wrote his hymns, particularly those based on the Psalms; he wanted to make David "sound like a Christian", with a New Testament perspective on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Throughout both the Old and New Testament it is Christ who is the cause of celebration, the one who elicits all the earth to “shout for joy”.
One of the reasons the song has become a Christmas classic is because the first verse announces the birth of Christ. And then, in the line, “let every heart prepare him room”, we hear an echo of the innkeeper who had no room for Mary when labour was nearing, (Luke 2:7). We rightly sing this lyric to our own hearts and to others’ as an invitation to prepare room in each of us for the good news of the Saviour’s birth.
The second verse is replete with the reminder that the praise of God should always be on our hearts and on our lips. We are commanded to sing songs of the Saviour and his rule and reign. The line “let men their songs employ” brings to mind four specific songs, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, that proclaim and delight in the birth of Jesus. Mary magnifies and rejoices in the mercy of God; Zechariah sings a song of prophecy that Jesus would fulfill God’s promise; the angels ‘sing’ the pronouncement of the coming of Christ, and Simeon sings a prayer declaring that he can depart in peace now that his eyes have seen the coming of the Christ. Each of these accounts resound with the joy of singing the gospel of Christ.
The third verse is probably unfamiliar to many of us, perhaps for good reason as the imagery of ‘the curse’ doesn’t fit well with our inclusion of the song as part of our Christmas festivities.
“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
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as, the curse is found”
But without the presence of the curse (Genesis 3:16-19), the promise of deliverance loses its power (Genesis 3:15). These lines point us to the day when God’s blessing (Genesis 3:17) flows "as far as the curse is found".
In the final triumphant verse, we are reminded that while the sting of sin is great, there is a hope that is greater: Jesus Christ who rules the world with truth and grace. It is this grace that causes hearts dead in sin to come alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). The final two lines of our hymn call us to continue marvelling in “The glories of his righteousness, And wonders of his love”.
Together, all four verses, encourage us to rejoice as we look back on what God has done for us through the incarnation, and to rejoice as we look forward to what God has promised in the future; the now and the not yet of our faith.
Let’s release this song from its seasonal chains and recognise it’s worth as a hymn that needs to be resounding in our churches throughout the year. Let's be a people who love and sing and wonder with this kind of unshakable joy every day!
Keith Getty and his wife, Kristyn, are globally recognised for their modern hymn-writing. Matt Boswell is pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.
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