Joy to the World: A Reflection on Advent

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One of the most popular and well-beloved hymns of the Christmas season is Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World.” Not only is it common in the weeks surrounding Christmas to hear the song played on the radio and sung in the church, but the words “Joy to the World” are also frequently found imprinted on Christmas cards, displayed on banners, and woven in Christmas sweaters. Undeniably, it is difficult to find better words that sum up the jubilant celebration of Christ’s incarnation than “Joy to the world!” Yet, as wonderful and fitting as the words are, the song was not originally written as an observance on Christmas.

The hymn, “Joy to the World” first appeared in 1719 in a hymnbook of psalms for congregational singing published by Isaac Watts entitled The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. Much of the congregational singing during Watts’ time was limited exclusively to metrical paraphrases of the Psalms. This practice was established by John Calvin, who, during the Reformation, translated the Psalms into the common language of the people to foster congregational singing. Watts was not satisfied with the practice of psalm-singing, however, and felt a lack of joy and emotion among congregants as they sang. His father therefore offered him a challenge – write a different hymnody for the church. Taking up the challenge, Watts began a lifelong practice of composing lyrics that wed personal and emotional subjectivity with theological and doctrinal objectivity. 

Isaac Watts’ inspiration for “Joy to the World” came via a Christological meditation on Psalm 98. Verse 4 of the psalm especially grabbed his attention: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” As Watts thought about how the verse could be understood through the person and work of Jesus Christ, he believed the psalm was to be rightfully interpreted through the lens of Christ’s second coming rather than his first. Particularly, Watts believed verses 8 and 9 frame the psalm in a future-orientation rather than a past event: “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.”

Take a moment and read through the lyrics of the hymn (which are provided below). Note that the opening line is not, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come,” as if Watts was talking about a past act, but rather “Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” Also note that none of the typical Christmas imagery is present. There is no explicit focus on Christ’s incarnation or birth. Rather, the lyrics speak more about Christ’s rule and reign. Not that the reign of Christ is an unfitting topic for the Christmas season – see Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” for example – but it is also a very fitting topic for another season in the church calendar, the season of Advent, a time of anticipating Christ’s final rule and victory.

Advent is a season focused on preparing for the coming of Emmanuel. It is both a beginning and an end to the Church’s pilgrimage through the life of Christ – a time to recall the world’s expectation and longing for the first coming of Jesus Christ into our humanity and a time to anticipate his second coming in final victory.

Take a moment and read through the lyrics again. Think about them in light of Christ’s second coming. When interpreted primarily through the final chapters of Revelation instead of the first chapters of the Gospel of Luke, the lyrics take on a different dynamic meaning for the church today. The words bring hope in the midst of darkness, trial, and tribulation. They anticipate the joy that Christ’s reign will bring. They proclaim the cosmic doxology that will occur when heaven comes to earth. They remind us that sin will be eradicated and truth and grace shall rule.

May these words find their way into our eyes, ears, mouths, and minds this Advent and Christmas season. And may we all be filled with joy as we look forward with hope, as did God’s people long ago, to the coming of Emmanuel.

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 and floods, rocks, hills, and 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.

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Jonathan serves with his wife, Faith, and daughter, Audrey, as the director of student ministries for World Gospel Mission at Asbury University. Jonathan is also an adjunct professor of worship at both Asbury University and Asbury Theological Seminary, and assists with musical leadership and worship design in the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church, Lexington, KY. In 2013, he received a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL. Jonathan is the author of 12 Days of Christmas Sermons, and co-author with Jason Jackson and Teddy Ray of Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Tradition, both published by Seedbed.

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