This week, in anticipation of Christmas, I plan to do some “bonus” Reading the Hymns posts. How else can I put a dent in my list of favorite Christmas hymns?
Tonight’s post highlights “Joy to the World.” It is one of the songs that often comes up in the more civic/secular observances of the holiday, even with the rather un-secular lyrics. Because of this, it is often necessary to push past the haze of familiarity to actually hear the words.
Isaac Watts first published “Joy to the World” in 1719 in a volume of Psalm paraphrases. It is based on Psalm 98, in which the Psalmist rejoices over God’s covenant faithfulness, work of salvation, and the judgment of the nations. Watts interprets it as an ode to the revelation of Christ. Given the immediate tone of a lot of his language about Jesus’ rule, it can just as easily be taken as a song about the Second Coming.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.
A delightfully bold and direct opening! The Lord has come! Jesus is the King of the world! Right now! When he says “let… heaven and nature sing,” that is a reference to the very effusive language of the Psalm. “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and all those who in it!” (v. 7)
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy.
Jesus’ coming, and His work of redemption, is also for the renewal of the earth itself. The whole of creation groans and is subject to futility, and whole of creation will be renewed when He returns. Thus, Watts repeats the words of the Psalmist: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (v. 4a)
He likewise follows the Psalmist in assigning an earthy choir to echo the human song of joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together.” (v. 8 )
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.
Jesus, the Second Adam, has begun to undo the curse that rests on the whole of creation due. Remember, in Genesis 3 as part of the punishment for human sin, God declares that thorns will grow on the earth. Thus, Watts links the end of sin and the soothing of sorrow with the end of thorny infestation. Redemption will swallow up curse, because the merits of Christ outweigh the demerits of sin. And thus, Jesus’ blessing goes forth as far as the blight that it undoes.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love.
Here is Watts’ parallel to Psalmist’s praise of God’s righteous judgment: “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Watts links the joyful song of man and river with the judgment of the nations. This is surprising. I for one am more inclined to sobriety than joy over the revelation of Christ’s judgment. I think of Amos, “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord… It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him.” (Amos 5:18-19) When Amos says “Let justice roll down like waters,” (5:24) it is a frightening word. Because all that is bad will be wiped away.
I think Watts is reminding us of the flipside of that image. Of the uncountable multitude from every tribe and nation, praising God forever. The Flood is a horror, wiping away the wicked of the world. But, as the Apostle said, baptism is its counterpart, being the flood that wipes away our wickedness, “as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” (1 Peter 3:21) Christ’s judgment rules the world. He calls forth the nations, and declares His people from all nations to be vindicated on account of His righteousness. The nations prove the glories of His righteousness, because His righteousness brings healing to the nations.
So let the earth rejoice! God has joined us! The Son of God became one of us! Look to him in faith, hope, and love, for He brings the renewal of all things! Praise Him, O nations, for when His rule is complete your healing will be the proof of His love!