Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
Based on Psalm 98, “Joy to the World!” leads us in singing for joy because of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sin and sorrow are still very real, but the coming of the Son of God into this world has changed everything, even if we have yet to see his glory and rule as clearly as we will at his second coming.
In Psalm 98:4-6 we read, “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!” The opening verse of “Joy to the World!” echoes that call. Joy to the world, we sing, because the King, the Lord Jesus Christ is (has) come.
After mentioning the coming king, Psalm 98 goes on to declare in verses 7-8, “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….” Using that Psalm again as our guide, we sing, Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns. Therefore, let men use their songs to his praise, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.
In this third verse we sing of the end of sin and sorrow, specifically because of the Lord Jesus Christ and what he came to do. Adam’s rebellion brought the wrath and curse of God upon Adam and all his offspring, with consequences for all creation. Indeed, it is because of Adam’s rebellion, perpetuated by his offspring, that thorns infest the ground, making all human labor a mixture of blessing and frustration (Gen 3:17-18). With the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, “The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Ps 98:2-3). Jesus came to bless us with salvation as far as the curse is found!
The fourth and final verse looks ahead and leads us in rejoicing in Christ’s present and future rule: He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love. In the face of difficulties, trials, dangers, and even outright evil, this is unquestionably glorious. Jesus reigns (Matt 28:18), and does so for the sake of his body, the church (Eph 1:22-23). The wherefore and the why might not be clear to us today—or even at times the mere fact that he reigns—but he does, and even the people who reject him will acknowledge that on the day when he returns to “judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Ps 98:9). Needless to say, the joy of Christmas extends far beyond December 25! Does it for you?
Isaac Watts, the prolific 18th century English hymnwriter, wrote “Joy to the World” as a paraphrase of Psalm 98, interpreted in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ. Over a century later, the American musician Lowell Mason adapted a few melodies from Handel’s Messiah to create this tune. First published in 1836, the tune has become a favorite for Watts’ hymn.