Far as the Curse is Found

By Justin Rossow

When Isaac Watts published the text for the now-famous hymn Joy to the World in 1719, he was actually paraphrasing Psalm 98:4-9. (Read more.) Watts pushes poetic license pretty hard in his loose translation, but that could perhaps be expected in a volume titled Psalms of David Imitated. Watts wasn’t trying to translate directly, but one verse in particular doesn’t seem to come from Psalm 98 at all, really:

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!

You can check, but that’s not even a loose paraphrase of Psalm 98; it’s more like some really cool theology you might be reminded of while thinking about the ramifications of Psalm 98. I’m sure Isaac must have had Genesis 3 in mind:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.

(Genesis 3:17-18, ESV)

That original curse in the Garden of Eden is echoed when the LORD looks for good fruit in the vineyard of Israel, but finds only bad. The sin of God’s people meant God would let the results of sin and sorrow grow:

I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.

(Isaiah 5:6, NIV)

Certainly, the promise that this curse would ultimately be removed must have shaped the text of the hymn. Revelation 22, perhaps, was in view:

No longer will there be anything accursed,
but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it,
and his servants will worship him.

(Revelation 22:3, ESV)

You can tell just from Joy to the World that Isaac Watts had a flare for the dramatic, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Galatians 3 and Matthew 28 were also penciled in the margin of his original manuscript:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law
by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 
Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

(Galatians 3:13, ESV)

Twisting together a crown of thorns,
they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand.
And kneeling before him, they mocked him,
saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
(Matthew 27:29)

Joy to the World might be based loosely on Psalm 98, but verse 3 takes its language and imagery from verses stretching from Genesis to Revelation; maybe that’s why verse 3 is my favorite.

I only recently dug into some of the background on Joy to the World. I was getting ready for a podcast on that hymn and I thought I would see if I could connect Isaac Watts with my friend Conrad Gempf (who was my guest for that podcast episode). It turns out, Watts is buried about an hour from where Conrad teaches New Testament at the London School of Theology. That Fun Fact never made its way into the podcast, but the history of Isaac Watts’ final resting place seems appropriate for the man who wrote Joy to the World.

Bunhill Fields is situated in the Islington district of London. Today, the memorial park provides some relief from the surrounding urban development, but during the Great Plague of London (1665-66), when the land was designated as a plague pit, Bunhill Fields would have been north of the City of London and well away from the mass of people living under the threat of a devastating pandemic. Plagues and pandemics are evidence of the curse that Watts wrote about; a sure sign that nature has turned against herself and our human relationship with creation is perverted, distorted, even dangerous.

There’s no clear evidence this site was ever actually used to dispose of bubonic corpses, but we do have an idea about how the burial ground got its name some 150 years earlier. Once the Reformation reached England and anything too closely associated with the papacy was frowned upon, the Roman Catholic practice of storing bones in a charnel house fell into disfavor. Perhaps a thousand cartloads of bones associated with St. Paul’s Cathedral, London were dumped in this conveniently open space north of the city.

Accounts from the time report that the bones were piled high and covered with a thin layer of dirt. The result was a mound so expansive, they were able to erect three windmills on the site. “Bunhill” it seems is derived from “Bone Hill,” and apt name for this gruesome Golgotha. I wonder if churchmen or farmers looked in the evening light and saw the shadows of three crosses on that prominence; the green hill where those windmills slowly and methodically churned.

Again, the curse is found: division within the Church; flesh decaying from bones; a mountain of death that bears no good fruit, only bad.

But the curse, the division, doesn’t end there. Since the ground of Bunhill Fields had never been hallowed by the Church, it became one of the burial sites for Nonconformists, those who opposed both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. Rev. Isaac Watts was one of the Nonconformists buried in Bunhill Fields. There are others. If you take the hour-long pilgrimage from the London School of Theology, you will see the tombs of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, and William Blake, along with Isaac Watts and some 122, 000 others buried in a surprisingly small area.

The Bone Hill no longer stands, nor do the windmills, and Bunhill Fields now lie in the center of the sprawling megalopolis that is modern London. It’s not clear when the bones were removed, but we do know that the site had to be rebuilt after it took massive damage during the bombing of London in WWII; the field even hosted an anti-aircraft gun. As planes dropped their payload on the populated city and large canons returned fire, the ground shook with the curse: nature turned in on itself; humanity turned in on itself; death the seeming victor, and to the victor go the spoils.

I guess that’s why it seems so appropriate to me that the man who penned Joy to the World is buried in Bunhill Fields. His dead body is a silent witness that nature is no longer the Garden God intended. But the words of that hymn–the words of Psalm 98 and Genesis 3, of Galatians 3 and Revelation 22–those words point not only to Christmas, but to Good Friday, and Resurrection Sunday, and the Return in Glory.

Time may slowly churn in what feels like a methodical gristmill of curse and decay, but the cycle has already been broken. Death has already been defeated. The New Creation will make all things new, and Bone Hill will be a Garden once more.

Jesus came as the babe of Bethlehem. Jesus was crowned with thorns and hung on a tree at Golgotha. Jesus broke the curse of sin and death when he walked out of the garden tomb. And Jesus is coming again in glory: the trumpet will sound, and the dead shall be raised, and we will be changed.

Then the song we sing to celebrate the Lord’s first Advent will become the chorus of the New Creation:

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!

The featured image on this blog was actually taken at Bunhill Fields, London. I used several webpages for research; by far the most helpful was: https://flickeringlamps.com/2014/06/25/the-hill-of-bones-the-story-of-bunhill-fields/. I also consulted https://hymnary.org/text/joy_to_the_world_the_lord_is_come and https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001713, among others. Joy to the World is the topic of Chapter 9 in Light in the Darkness: A Hymn Journal for Advent & Christmas from Justin Rossow and Next Step Press.


Leave a Reply