When declining health forced Isaac Watts to cut back on his preaching, he turned to another task, Christianizing the Psalms. At the age of forty-five, he sat under a favorite tree on the Abney estate-property of the close friends with whom he lived-and penned the now famous words of "Joy to the World." His 1719 hymnal, Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, included the words under his original title for the poetry: "The Messiah's Coming and Kingdom."
As part of his effort to bring New Testament meanings to the Old Testament psalms, Watts based "Joy to the World" on the last half of Psalm 98: "Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth, . . . Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth." (vs. 4, 8).
Psalm 98 celebrated God's protection and restoration of his chosen people. Watts' carol rejoices in the same, as it expresses praise for the salvation that began when God became man. Both the psalm and the hymn also look ahead, to Christ coming again to reign: "He will judge the world with righteousness" (v. 9)
"Joy to the World" includes references to other Bible verses as well, including Gen. 3:17, Rom. 5:20, and Luke 2:10. Yet despite its lack of reference to Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, wise men, or the manger, it became one of the most loved Christmas carols. In a season for celebrating our Savior's birth, Watts' hymn beautifully expresses our joy at the coming of our Savior.
It's that time of year again-the time of busy shopping days, holiday baking, and twinkling lights. The time when schedules overflow with parties and events. The time to send out cards to family and friends. It's supposed to be the season of "holiday cheer." But in the weeks before we celebrate our Savior's birth, so often we feel anxiety and stress instead.
Years ago, Isaac Watts wrote "Joy to the World," the well-loved hymn often sung during this busy Christmas season. Ironically, Watts never intended his hymn for Christmas use. Instead, he simply intended to paraphrase the words of Psalm 98: "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth . . . for he comes. . ." (vs. 4, 9).
Amidst his poetry about Christ's second coming, however, Watts also provides fitting words for our Christmas frenzy: "Joy to the world! the Lord is come . . . Let every heart prepare him room." Prepare him room-significant words for any time of year. Yet perhaps we need to hear them the most at Christmastime, when so many things can distract us from our faith. .
This year, as the hectic Christmas season approaches, take the time to prepare your heart. Remember Christ's first coming, as a humble King and Savior. Reflect on the certainty of his return, as Judge over all. And as you think on these precious truths, you'll probably experience the best holiday feeling of all-the joy of knowing "the Lord is come" into your heart.
Lyricist: Isaac Watts
Lyrics Date: 1719
Arranger: Lowell Mason
Theme: Christmas, Christ's birth
Composer: G. F. Handel
Music Date: 1742
Arranged Date: 1836
Tune Title: ANTIOCH
Scripture: Psalm 98
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