Joy to the world!
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing.
Joy to the World has a unique place amongst traditional Christmas carols, for many different reasons. It also has a special place in my heart. I can remember back to childhood when Faith and I would memorize every line of every Christmas carol on which we could get our hands. Joy to the World spoke to my heart; I loved the melody, the jubilant air, the powerful lyrics. It was so unlike other traditional hymns, such as The First Noel or Silent Night, some other favorites.
When I learned how to play the song on the piano, I was overjoyed, spending an entire Christmas Eve seated on the bench, pounding black and white keys to my heart’s content. I remember when I first learned a harmony part to the carol, and then my high school choir sang a gut-wrenching version of the song.
Needless to say, Joy to the World holds a special place in my heart, and I hope that, by the end of this blog post, it will hold a special one in yours as well.
History of the Hymn
Joy to the World is perhaps an unlikely popular Christmas hymn. First, it finds its roots in Hebrew poetry and specifically, draws its initial inspiration from Psalm 98. Second, the carol celebrates Christ’s second coming at the end of the ages, rather than the first coming of the Incarnation described in the narrative of Luke 2.
Furthermore, the hymn is actually the result of a collaboration between at least three individuals.
The first collaborator was the English poet and dissenting clergyman, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts attended Nonconformist Academy at Stoke Newington and was an ordained pastor of an Independent congregation. He wrote many hymns and carols. In 1728, the University of Edinburgh awarded him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.
During this period in history, most hymns sung in European church services were the Old Testament Psalms. Although Watts loved the Scriptures, he believed that the modern-day English translations made these songs feel unnatural and strained.
The story goes that one Sunday, after service, 15-year-old Isaac complained about the “atrocious worship.” A deacon overheard the youth and challenged him to “Give us something better, young man” Isaac took the dare, went home, and penned his first hymn. The love of hymn-writing would remain with him for the rest of his life.
In 1719, Watts published his book, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, not as a new paraphrase of David, but as an imitation of him in New Testament language. Watts, imitating the style of the Hebrew poets, write his own Psalms bursting forth in their complete prophetic and joyful fulfillment. For Watts, the psalms should not to considered as biblical material in their own right but had value only inasmuch as they pointed toward the New Testament and the fulfilling of Old Testament prophecies in Christ.
Commenting on his paraphrase of the psalm, Watts notes, “In these two hymns I have formed out of the 98th Psalm I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief Sense of the Holy Scriptures.”
Thus, authored in 1719, Joy to the World is the “imitation” of the last half of Psalm 98, verses 4-9, a section entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Watts transformed the ancient Jewish psalm of praise for historic deliverance into a song of rejoicing for the salvation of God begun when the Jesus came “to make his blessing flow/far as the curse is found.”
George Frideric Handel
The second individual who contributed to the composition of Joy to the World was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), the popular German-born composer residing in London, although it was an unwitting collaboration. Though contemporaries in England, Watts and Handel did not collaborate on this hymn. Another individual actually pieced together portions of Handel’s famous Messiah to create the tune that we sing in North America today.
The opening bars for the chorus, “Lift up your heads,” was adapted to the incipit “Joy to the world!” Similarly, an instrumental portion of the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye,” provides a basis for the text “heav’n and nature sing.” Such borrowings were common, the aesthetic notion being that the music of great musicians had in itself an innate beauty. Even a crude pastiche of “great music” implied that the result would also be of high quality.
Thus we arrive at our third hymn collaborator, the man who assured that the tune and text would appear together in the United States: Lowell Mason (1782-1872), a Boston music educator of significant influence in his day.
It was Mason who published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836), naming the tune Antioch. While not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one. Interestingly, the tune remains virtually unknown in Great Britain.
Nevertheless, the result is a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States. Quite an origin story, if I do say so myself.
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ.
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
Musicality of the Hymn
As mentioned, Mason arranged pieces of Handel’s Messiah to create the unique tune for Joy to the World.
Worthy of note is that, when sung to Antioch, the text is repeated in the second section, reflecting a particular early American treatment of the melody known as a “fuging tune.” A fuging tune was a compositional device initiated by American-born composer William Billings (1746-1800) where voice parts enter one after the other in rapid succession, usually repeating the same words–think the chorus of It Is Well With My Soul.
The result of the fuging tune section is quite effective for the first stanza—“heav’n and nature sing”—and the second stanza—“repeat the sounding joy”—and the fourth stanza, “wonders of his love.” However, in the third stanza, with the text “far as the curse is found” echoing the words of Genesis 3:17-18 and Romans 5:20, the fuging compositional device feels a bit rollicking.
Nevertheless, the music fits the lyrics: joyful, buoyant, bordering on a martial victory cry at the return of the King to claim the full extent of His rightful inheritance in the Kingdom of God.
Theology of the Hymn
A comparison between Watts’s psalm and the original verses in the King James translation of Psalm 98:4-9 demonstrates considerable freedom (perhaps we might term it ‘poetic license;).
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.”
Then again, we must remember that Watts is merely imitating the Davidic poems–written in anticipation of the Messiah–writing them again after the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation for his people. Thus, we do see many intense parallels between the language and themes of Psalm 98 and Joy to the World.
Curiously, stanza three is the exception. It is not based on Psalm 98 and is sometimes omitted:
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.
The “curse” is a reference to Genesis 3:17, when God says to Adam following the eating of the apple from the tree, “Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (KJV). As a part of the Five Points of Calvinism, namely, the “total depravity of man,” the curse is a significant part of classic Reformed theology, the perspective to which Isaac Watts held. It is fitting, then, that he added this verse into the song, drawing upon OT references and creating in the singer/listener’s mind the image spoken of in Revelation 21:1-5.
Although The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) retains the original text, the hymnal of the United Reformed Church in the UK, Rejoice and Sing (1991), altered the stanza as follows:
No more let thorns infest the ground,
or sins and sorrows grow;
wherever pain and death are found
he makes his blessings flow.
Everything said Joy to the World is not a song about the Christmas narrative of Luke 2. Instead, it is explicitly about the second coming and revelation of the King arrayed in the full expression of His Glory, Majesty, and Strength.
So, why do we sing this song at Christmas? The hymn has nothing to do with shepherds, silent nights, magi bearing gifts, mangers, or swaddling clothes. Or does it?
After all, one cannot have a second coming with the first coming.
Joy to the World is all about the fulfillment of what Christ came to do in the first place. Christmas is not only a time to look back at the grace accomplished in the past but is also a time to look forward to the grace accomplished for our future. When we sing the words of this beautiful carol, we are proclaiming the ultimate joy to be revealed.
Therefore, while there is no historical reference explaining why Joy to the World has evolved into a Christmas song, it is easy to understand as you listen to it. This song is filled with the positive and uplifting message about the return of Christ. The emphasis in the lyrics of the word joy, with its exclamation mark, enhances the celebratory nature of the song, making it a perfect fit for the Christmas season.
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, wonders of his love.