Through the month of December last year, I began a tradition of researching and writing about the stories behind our most loved Christmas carols. For Part One of this year’s series, I’ve picked “Joy to the World.”
What would you do with your child if you noticed, between the ages of five and 13, he’d picked up Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew in addition to his mother-tongue? Would you suspect you had produced a linguistic genius? What might you expect from him? What would you do when you grew tired of him criticizing the music at church every Sunday? Would you dare him to come up with something better, since he thought he was so smart?
That’s what Isaac Watts’ father did when Isaac was 18 years old, and the boy responded to the challenge. The next Sunday, Isaac produced his first hymn, with enthusiastic response from the congregation. For the next two years, he wrote new hymn texts every Sunday and over 600 hymns in his lifetime. It’s no wonder he became known as “The Father of Hymns,” even though the religious establishment considered him an outcast. A nonconformist, Watts was banned from both Oxford and Cambridge, and received his education at Stoke Newington’s Dissenting Academy. Aside from hymn writing, he studied theology and philosophy. Watts wrote significant volumes which powerfully influenced English thinking.
One of the hymns Watts wrote was “Joy to the World.” Are you as surprised as I was to learn he never intended it as a Christmas song? If you look closely, you’ll notice it never mentions the baby Jesus, shepherds, wise men, angels, or any of the typical trappings associated with the nativity story.
So, what’s it about then?
Watts based his lyrics on Psalm 98, which is not about Messiah’s first coming, but about his second, when he comes to judge the earth. The psalm tells us all of nature will join in the singing when that great day comes. Christmas may not always be a joyful time, but when Jesus comes back to set everything right, even the rocks will sing!
And what about the musical portion of this song? Adapted and arranged by the American composer Lowell Mason, “Joy to the World” sounds suspiciously like portions of Handel’s Messiah in a number of places. Apparently, Mason felt plagued by the similarities all his life and paid homage to Handel by calling the melody “Antioch, from Handel.”
While it’s hard for us to imagine singing “Joy to the World” all year round, I hope we can let the lyrics point us to the reason Jesus came: to save the world. And to be ready, because He is coming again.
When you hear or sing it this year, think of it in that light and see what happens in your heart. May you find it preparing him a little more room.