By Justin Rossow
Joy to the World, one of the best-loved Christmas hymns, wasn’t originally written for Christmas at all. At least, that’s what I heard on a Christmas special this year. I did a little research myself and discovered that Isaac Watts, the author of the hymn, was actually composing a set of psalm paraphrases. Our Christmas hymn is a rough approximation of the second half of Psalm 98:
Joy to the World
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 all their songs employ
while fields and floods,
rocks, hills, and plains,
repeat the sounding joy.
He rules the world
with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of
and wonders of his love,
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!
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 before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world
and the peoples with equity.
Yeah; it’s a pretty loose translation at some points, but give Isaac some credit: he was just trying to get down an easy-to-sing paraphrase that would help people engage the text in worship with more vim and vigor. Nicely done, Rev. Watts.
But where did the third verse come from? You know, the one about the thorns infesting the ground and the Jesus coming to make his blessing known “far as the curse is found?” While verse 3 of Joy to the World picks up on some imagery that runs from Genesis to Revelation with curses, thorns, and blessings, the composer appears to have left the confines of Psalm 98 and just made up some cool stuff. (And verse 3 is my favorite, so I’m glad Watts went off script!)
At first glance, Joy to the World wasn’t written for Christmas at all. It wasn’t even sung to the tune you know until about 100 years later. The tune appears to be cobbled together from some melody lines in the Christmas section on Handel’s Messiah; maybe that’s why we started singing it at Christmas?
The hymn was actually written as part of a collection of Psalm paraphrases. And Psalm 98 isn’t about Bethlehem, it’s about the Lord’s return in glory to subdue all nations and establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
So this hymn is less about Christ’s first Advent and more about his Second , when all creation will receive her King with joy, and the Lord’s rule will be visibly manifest on the whole earth. Only as a kind of echo, or foretaste, is Psalm 98 true of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It is fully true of the New Creation, and then, in a preliminary, hidden way, it’s also true of Christmas. Jesus IS the Lord God, our King coming into creation. And the angelic songs stand in for all of nature as a kind of dress rehearsal. The shepherds worship in the same way all nations will bend the knee when the King comes in glory.
So Psalm 98 (and therefore Joy to the World) can also be about Christmas, but only because Psalm 98 points to the Very End, and the Very End is already present, ahead of time, with Jesus in the manger.
That’s actually how most of the Old Testament prophesies work: they look forward to the Very End; the Final Victory of the Lord for the sake of the Lord’s people; the restoration and renewal of all creation; the end of all sin and struggle and death and shame.
And because the Very End is already present with Jesus, because in Jesus God’s End Times Victory is real and present ahead of time, all of the promises about the Very End are also promises about Bethlehem (and Nazareth, and Galilee, and Golgotha, and Jerusalem, and Emmaus).
Jesus brings God’s End Times promises forward to the middle of the story. Jesus is the Beginning of the End, the foretaste of the Eternal Christmas Feast to come.
For now, you get this foretaste wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger; bound to a Word of promise and forgiveness; mysteriously present in, with, and under bread and wine. It’s the same Jesus who came at Bethlehem, the same Jesus who is coming again in glory. And you have him already now by faith, ahead of time, in the middle of the story. At the End of the End, you will have him face to face.
And that’s why we sing a hymn that belongs to the New Creation at Christmas. The New Creation is already begun in Jesus, and one day Christmas will be fulfilled, and Joy to the World will come true:
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,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found!
Come quickly, Lord!