Sunday – December 22, 2019
Word On Worship – Sunday – December 22, 2019
“Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
Isaac Watts was arguably the most prolific hymn writer of his day. He is known for writing such timeless hymns as “Jesus Shall Reign”, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” However, Watts is best known for writing the hymn “Joy to the World”—a song played worldwide during Christmas every year. But did you know that “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol? In its original form, it had nothing to do with Christmas. It wasn’t even written to be a song.
In 1719, Watts published a book of poems in which each poem was based on a psalm. But rather than just translate the original Old Testament texts, he adjusted them to refer more explicitly to the work of Jesus as it had been revealed in the New Testament. A century later, in 1848, a Boston music teacher named Lowell Mason discovered the poem and set it to the tune we are familiar with today. Because it was released at Christmastime, it quickly became a holiday favorite and went on to become the most published Christmas carol in America.
While he is much appreciated today, during his lifetime Watts was considered by many to be a disturbance of the status quo and even possibly a heretic for the lyrics he wrote. While he wasn’t a heretic, he was a revolutionary. Watts grew up in a world where the music in every worship service consisted only of psalms or sections of Scripture put to music. Watts found the practice monotonous. To him, there was a lack of joy and emotion among the congregants as they sang. He once famously said, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
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.