“Songs for the Season: Joy to the World”

December 15, 2019


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Dec. 15, 2019

“Songs for the Season: Joy to the World”
Psalm 98

Joy to the World is one of the best-known Christmas carols. This year it is celebrating its 300th birthday! Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts, who was a prolific hymn writer, and also wrote:
• Oh God our Help in Ages Past
• When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
• This is the Day the Lord Hath Made
• I Sing the Mighty Power of God
• Come Ye That Love the Lord
and many other well-loved hymns. Watts was known to his contemporaries as a revolutionary hymn writer. At the time, most of the songs sung during worship were just scriptures put to music. Watts found this practice to be monotonous and without joy or any emotion. He once famously said, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

So, Watts decided to write his own lyrics with the idea of celebrating Jesus and his redemptive work. This was not always appreciated by congregations and some even labeled him as a heretic – to think outside the box and write things other than the scriptural text to music – oh, my! You would have thought they were singing praise music on a screen!

Joy to the World is a perfect example of his work and is based on Psalm 23 – a text not about Jesus’ birth at all but taken from the Hebrew Bible.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98 NRSV

Isaac Watts wasn’t always a prolific hymn writer, although he seemed to always be a poet, much to his father’s chagrin. The story is told… that after the family prayer time one day the sober minded elder Watts confronted his young son about why he had opened his eyes mid-prayer. The boy Watts creatively explained that he had been distracted, saying:
A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Unamused by his son’s rhyming reply and wanting to discourage such juvenile behavior, his father spanked him for it. To which Watts cried out,

O father, father pity take, and I will no more verses make.

No amount of spankings, though, could drive his love of verse, rhyme, poetry and music from his heart. His education eventually led him to pastor a large independent church in London. Watch out for surly wayward children – we often grow up to become ministers!

Much to the surprise of many, Joy to the World is not about the birth of Jesus. It is about the so-called 2nd coming of Jesus. You will notice that the first line includes the words: “The Lord is come.” It seems odd. Some people would like to sing “the Lord has come.” But that is not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “The Lord is come.” Watts was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (the return of Jesus).
Joy to the World’s 2nd and 3rd verses speak of Jesus’ final coming to earth when “the Savior reigns” and when “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Watts longed for that glorious final day when the “nations (will) prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
Take a moment to think about what brings you joy. What really and truly warms you deep down into the cockles of your heart? What causes you to go to bed at night with a smile on your face and sleep peacefully? Take a minute to think about that… and turn to someone near you and tell them. And then listen to what brings them true joy!
I don’t know about you, but coming in this sanctuary this morning and seeing the decorations, listening to the music, and seeing all of you made my heart soar. And two things this week specifically brought joy to me:
• FaceTiming with my new granddaughter
• Serving dinner to, and joking with, the homeless men and the overflow shelter
Take time this week to find and give joy. And sing! There’s nothing like the 300th anniversary to sing Joy to the World. Sing it 300 times if you must – because then it might just warm up the very corners of your soul.

Resources Used:
Poblete, Alyssa. “Joy to the World: A Christmas Hymn Reconsidered”. Dec. 22, 2014. The Gospel Coalition U.S. Edition.
Scarlett, Tyler. “The Story Behind the Carol ‘Joy to the World’” Dec. 15, 2013. Forest Baptist Church.