ADVENT 3, 2020
Joy to the World
Psalm 98 and Genesis 3:17-18
It is one of the most exuberant carols that we sing. It is one of the most popular carols that we sing. It is also one of the most beloved carols that we sing. And yet, as you will learn today, it is not actually a carol at all. In fact, though we sing and treat it this way, it is not even a song about Christmas; at least, not as its author intended. The song in question is none other than Isaac Watt’s famous work Joy to the World.
If the father of medicine was Hippocrates and the father of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell, then the father of English hymns was none other than Isaac Watts. Having written a massive collection of over 750 hymns, Watts’ work is still being printed in books, projected onto screens and sung by Christians worldwide.
Isaac Watts was born in 1674, in South Hampton, England. Raised in a deeply religious family, Watts’ earliest memories were of his father’s concrete convictions about religious liberty. His father even spent time in prison on two separate occasions for his outspoken Nonconformist views, in other words, rather than conforming to the Church of England, Nonconformists were typically Presbyterians or Baptists who wanted to worship in a government-free church.
Isaac Watt’ parents saw to it that their love for Christ and His word were passed on to their son.
As a child, Watts showed remarkable tendency for rhyme, much to his father’s annoyance. After the family prayer time, one day, the sober minded elder Watts confronted his young son about why he had opened his eyes mid-prayer. The boy Watts creatively explained that he had been distracted, saying:
A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.
Unamused by his son’s rhyming reply and wanting to discourage such juvenile behavior, his father spanked him for it. To which Watts cried out,
O father, father pity take, and I will no more verses make.
But, no amount of spankings could drive his love of verse, rhyme, poetry and music from his heart. His education eventually led him to pastor a large independent church in London. He quickly earned a reputation for his preaching skills even becoming a private tutor helping to train other preachers in the city. Throughout his years of ministry, Watts obsessively sought to put his Christian beliefs on paper so that other could join him in heartfelt worship and song.
Believe it or not Watts’ work, in his day, was not always well received. You see, Watts was boldly introducing (what was for his time, contemporary) “praise and worship” songs into the life of the church. Up until that point, the song selection in most Protestant churches was limited almost exclusively to the Psalms (they would take Psalms from the Bible and add music to them). When Watts came along, though, he began introducing poetry that was not in the Bible into his songs. To some, this was horrific. To others, it was a breath of fresh air.
Watts’ lyrical goal was to wed emotions and theological doctrine. Songs such as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God and O God, Our Help in Ages Past were a blend of personal reflection and emotional reaction wrapped in rich theological convictions. Isaac Watts was giving new life to church worship.
Let’s look at today’s hymn. The opening line of Joy to the World is sometimes sung incorrectly as, “Joy to the world! The Lord has come.” That is not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come.” Watts was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (the return of Jesus). The backdrop of this hymn is Psalm 98 and the main point of Psalm 98, was not about the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, His Second Coming! And that is precisely what the song is about. It speaks of Jesus’ final coming to earth when “the Savior reigns” and when “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Watts longed for that glorious final day when the “nations (will) prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
Even though Watts may not have ever envisioned his song being sung at Christmas time, I think it is a wonderful tribute to his work. Indeed, the first coming of Jesus stands as a historical guarantee that His Second coming is just around the corner. Indeed, the birth of Jesus and the return of Jesus are “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
Let’s take a look at the stanzas to see what Watts was talking about in this hymn:
1.The first stanza teaches: THERE IS JOY WHEN THE KING IS RECEIVEDJoy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King;
let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing,
Psalm 98 talks about the whole earth shouting for joy, singing for joy in the
presence of the Lord, our King. Let earth receive her King! This certainly refers to Jesus’ first coming, but can you imagine the joy there will be when Jesus comes to earth again! And let every heart be prepared. Is your heart prepared if Jesus should come today? Is there room in your heart for Him? Was there room in the hearts of the Jews when Jesus came to earth 2,000 years ago? For most, no there wasn’t. We need to be prepared!
2. The second stanza teaches: THERE IS JOY WHEN THE SAVIOR REIGNSJoy to the world! the Savior reigns; Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains; Repeat the sounding joy,
Receiving Christ is the important first step. When Jesus comes again, He will reign and we will sing about it; the fields, waters, rocks, hills and plains will also resound in joy that Jesus is reigning over all heaven and earth. But until then we must go on to let him Reign in our lives.
3. The third stanza teaches: THERE IS JOY WHEN THE SINNER REPENTSNo more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found,
What curse? Satan promised Adam and Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would make them wise. Instead, their sin brought a horrible curse and unending regret. That’s what the song talks about when it says, far as the curse is found. Sin always brings a bitter curse. But there is JOY when a sinner comes to Christ. When Jesus comes back again, those who have repented will find real joy and no more will sin and sorrow reign.
4. The last stanza teaches: THERE IS JOY WHEN THE TRUTH RULES WITH GRACEHe rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love,
The last verse tells why Jesus brings JOY. JOY comes because He will rule with a perfect balance of TRUTH and GRACE. You see, sometimes truth is not very gracious. When I hear someone say, “Well, I just told it like it was,” I know they probably just offended someone by going heavy on the TRUTH and light on the GRACE. Jesus brings joy because He is the perfect balance of truth and grace. He is the truth, the life, and the way.
Our daily and weekly worship is a foretaste of the eternal worship of the Lord before His throne, where we will for all eternity “repeat the sounding joy.” May your singing of this carol comfort and encourage you as you remember that your joy is in your Savior and Lord, now and forevermore.
I heard a story about a woman who was doing her last-minute Christmas shopping at a crowded mall. She was tired of fighting the crowds. She was tired of standing in lines. She was tired of fighting her way down long aisles looking for a gift that had sold out days before. Her arms were full of bulky packages when the Elevator door opened. It was full. The occupants of the Elevator grudgingly tightened ranks to allow a small space for her and her load. As the doors closed she blurted out, “Whoever is responsible for this whole Christmas thing ought to be arrested, strung up, and shot!” A few others nodded their heads or grunted in agreement. Then, from somewhere in the back of the elevator came a single voice that said, “Don’t worry. They already crucified him.”
So why do we sing this song at Christmas? It is clearly a song about Christ’s second coming—when the full expression of his glory will be revealed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Or does it? After all, there is no second coming without a first coming. This song is all about the fulfillment of what Christ came to do in the first place. Christmas is not only a time to look back at the grace accomplished in the past. Christmas is also a time to look forward to the grace that was accomplished for our future. When we sing these words, we are proclaiming the ultimate joy to be revealed. This is why we can sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas.
Let us pray.