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Watts’ Joy to the World

December 24, 2009

The famous Christmas hymn, Joy to the World, didn’t start out as a Christmas song. The hymn was written by Isaac Watts, a famous 18th century preacher turned hymn writer. With his health in steep decline, he turned from the pulpit to the pen, composing around 750 hymns.

Christ-centered Hymnody

Watts diverged from the traditional church practice of strictly adapting Scripture to song, by adding his own lyrical reflections to Scripture inspired hymns. Mike Cosper notes: “Isaac Watts recognized that people needed to see the gospel in the psalms and hymns of the church, and they needed to sing them in language and metaphors that they understood. In this, he became not only the father of the modern hymn, but the pace-setter for contextualizing the gospel for the people of God.” Joy to the World was included in Watts’ 1719 hymnal, Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.

Origins of “Joy to the World”

Joy to the World was a poetic reflection on Psalm 98. Reflecting on this psalm, Watts bridged Davidic joy in the Lord to its prophetic fulfillment in Christ (the Lord). The original title of the song was “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” His aim was “to show David as a Christian” by revealing the Christ-centered character of Davidic psalms.

Joy in the Story of Scripture

Using the larger Story of Scripture as an interpretive guide, Watts locates “the joy of the world” among the various chapters Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation (Genesis to Revelation). He weaves a redemptive thread that begins on the fateful day of Adam’s fall and finishes at the future return of the Christ:

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

In his first coming—Christmas—the Second Adam relaxes the curse by redeeming human hearts. In his second coming, all of heaven and nature will joy the song of redemption. The joy of salvation is for both creature and creation:

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,

Every person and nation will be called to account for their response to the “good news of great joy”. God is gracious but he is also just. Those that respond to his grace will be spared his judgment and enter into an everlasting joy to the world that forever glories in his righteousness.

He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,

May our hearts receive Jesus as King with fresh joy and exultation this Season, as we join the refrain of all creation singing: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”

Check out the music of Sojourn in the Isaac Watts Project.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2009 6:39 pm

    Very nice piece, about a great Christian, and the “Father of English Hymnody”, and a fair logician also, with John Locke’s influence. May he not be neglected.

  2. Erin permalink
    December 24, 2009 6:50 pm

    Loved reading the history of one of my favorite hymns. Thank you for sharing!

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