‘Joy to the World’ – The Story Behind the Hymn
The majestic words of Psalm 98:4-9 ring with exulting joy:
“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 dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
While we may have read these verses before, few would identify them as the source of one of the Christmas season’s most recognizable hymns. After all, where is the stable? Where is the star? Where are the angels and the sleigh bells jing-jing-jingling all the way?
Interestingly, one of the church’s most prominent Yuletide tunes is not even a song about Christmas.
In 1719, Isaac Watts sat down to pen a poetic paraphrase of one of his favorite psalms, Psalm 98. He broke the psalm into two parts and summarized verses 4-9 under the name, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”
For Watts, the psalms were a direct link to the New Testament. Reading the words of liberation, musical instrumentation and nature’s vibrant exaltation of its Maker brought to mind the ideas expressed in verses like Romans 8:19-21, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
This liberation of all creation at the arrival of the conquering King led Watts to the closing chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21 celebrates Jesus’ triumphant return as a new heaven and earth replace our decaying cosmos of sin, and the One who has come to judge the earth with righteousness proclaims, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
The Christmas song known today as, “Joy to the World,” was originally an apocalyptic paraphrase of Psalm 98.
Joined by Lowell Mason in 1836 to a melodic portion of Handel’s Messiah, the poem came to be known in its present form as a joyful song of the King’s arrival. Since we commemorate the breaking through of the Light into the darkness at Christmas with Jesus’ first coming, the church has celebrated these two arrivals almost synonymously through the song for centuries.
At Advent, we anticipate the final arrival of Christ the King as the early Jews awaited the first arrival of the Messiah. We long with the thrill of hope for the weary world to rejoice at the revelation of its Savior.
“Joy to the World” is a particularly appropriate song during the season of Advent. We celebrate the coming of the King in the manger; yet we anticipate the arrival of the King on the clouds.
Joy to the World; the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King:
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns;
let men their songs employ;
while fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains
repeat the sounding joy.
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.