Published December 15, 2009

Paul's Epistle...
"Joy To The World"

For almost three centuries, Isaac Watts' classic song "Joy To The World" has been a Christmas favorite, beloved by generations of Christians, cherished by both young and old. It always ranks among the favorite and best-known of traditional Christmas carols. It's a mainstay for Christmas caroling, for it is universally accepted as the quintessential Christmas carol.

But is that really what it is?

Where are the references to Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or the angels? What about the wise men or the manger or the star? What about the Baby Jesus?  They're just not there!

About as close as we come to the Christmas story is in the first line: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" Indeed, when the wise men saw His star, they "rejoiced with exceedingly great joy" (Matt. 2:10). The angel described his message to the shepherds as "good tidings of great joy" (Luke 2:10). And the Lord has, indeed, come (Matt. 18:11, Luke 19:10).

But did Isaac Watts actually have something else in mind when he wrote this song?

When Watts wrote this hymn – first published in 1719 – it was part of a larger work entitled "Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament." And this particular song was based on Psalm 98.

For example, Psalm 98:4-8 says,

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
Sing to the Lord with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn; Shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell in it,
Let the rivers clap their hands; Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord.

It's easy to see how such verses translate into lines in "Joy To The World" such as,

And heaven and nature sing...
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy...

Is the Lord's incarnation – the birth we celebrate at Christmastime – a time of joy? Yes, indeed. Absolutely! But the real clue to what Isaac Watts actually had in mind is found in the last verse of the 98th Psalm:

"For He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, And the peoples with equity."

There's the clue. This song was not meant to be a Christmas song – as appropriate as it is and as widely sung as it is at Christmas. This song was meant to celebrate the Lord's second coming when, indeed, earth would "receive her King." In fact, Watts' original title for the song was, "The Messiah's Coming and Kingdom."

This is a song about Christ's return and millennial reign: "Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!" Only then will it be truly appropriate to say,

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...

Although "Christ has redeemed us [as believers] from the curse" (Gal. 3:13) — the curse which came into the world with sin — only in Christ's millennial kingdom will the curse be lifted from the whole world. (See Isaiah 11:6-9.)

In the millennium, believers will live and reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4). All the kings of all the nations of the earth will worship Christ at Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24; cf. Gen. 49:10, Isaiah 12:4-5). He will truly be King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14). And, in a line famously included in Handel's "Messiah" from Rev. 11:15, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!"

Only then will these lines from "Joy To The World" apply fully:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, and wonders, of His love.

So.... Should we, then, stop singing "Joy To The World" at Christmas?  No way!  This song does, indeed, celebrate God's intentional and loving interaction with His people, an interaction which went to a whole new level at that first Christmas with the incarnation and birth of Christ. And we can truly rejoice in that.

But we need to see both parts of the story. While we celebrate the Lord's coming two thousand years ago to live among us and ultimately die for our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins, we can also celebrate the fact that the Lord will soon return to complete His plans.

Only then will we truly see all the awesome blessings celebrated in "Joy To The World!"

- Paul

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