Joy to the World
Psalm 98 December 29, 2019
Rev. David J. Clark
This year is the 300th anniversary of the writing of the song Joy to the World. It’s the song we sing on Christmas Eve as the high point of the Christmas Eve service, right after the reading about Jesus being born. In a nifty book by Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas Collins gives the history of Joy to the World.
Isaac Watts, who composed many hymns we still sing today, wrote it. Watts was a preacher’s kid who thought church music was boring so he complained to his father and dad told him that if he didn’t like the music, he should go ahead and write some himself.
That’s the way God works—if you have some passion around something that you know could be better, God may just use you to innovate rather than just being someone who complains. Maybe this year you could take stock of the things you complain about. Figure out how you can make a positive action. You know the old saying: light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
When Isaac grew up, he became a very popular minister—despite the flack he received from some people most of the people were ready for some innovation. He was especially interested in finding ways to make a message applicable to everyday experience. Some of his writings and hymns were published and they caught the eye of a young woman, Elizabeth Singer. She was so enraptured by what she read that she became his biggest fan and began corresponding with him and eventually in a letter, she proposed to him. And he said, “Yes.”
However, when she saw him face-to-face for the first time, she freaked out. She wrote, “He was only five feet tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheekbones, small eyes, and a deathlike color.” This was no happy ending Beauty and the Beast tale. She was unable to see beyond his appearance and walked away and that was the last he ever saw of her.
Heartbroken, he poured himself into his work and composed work that became timeless classics including We’re Marching to Zion and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Some of the most important contributions to art, music, science and human relations have come from broken-hearted people who didn’t give up but found ways of expressing themselves and others were inspired to find their own healing. If you have been feeling broken, fear not, as long as you hang in there and keep after it, God can use your efforts, your creativity, the simple acts of faithfulness in ways you would never imagine.
Watts is most remembered for his innovations in music. Instead of just transliterating Psalms into chanty music. He tried to make joyful music that related to the common person and personal experiences. He looked at all of scripture for inspiration. But it didn’t go over that well. Some accused him of being a tool of the devil. “We’ve never done it that way,” they grumbled. He didn’t get a lot of pats on the back, but God used his work and continues to use it to inspire us today. Watts’ innovations earned him the title, The Father of Hymnody and almost everything we sing today is due to his vision for what church music can be.
Remember this—your job in life is to be faithful to what God calls you to do—to what is in your heart. You may not achieve all the recognition that you are due, and some of your efforts may feel like failures, but God takes your faithful efforts and bring about results that you never dreamed possible. Your job is to be faithful, not successful. God judges success by a different rubric, has a longer vision than people on Facebook. When you step out in faith, it creates an opening for God. I’m glad that Isaac Watts wasn’t so worried about rejection or credit—or else we’d still be singing the same clunky hymns that Watts thought were boring 300 years ago.
Interestingly, Watts did not set out to compose a Christmas carol. Joy to the World wasn’t even a Christmas song. If you look at it, there is nothing particularly Christmassy about the song at all—no Mary, no Joseph, no baby Jesus.
He was simply trying to rewrite Psalm 98 into more contemporary language. It’s a Psalm that talks about all of the creation bursting into joyful song for the victories of God. The last verses talk about God’s reign and judgment—hence, “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove…”
The Psalm looks forward to the day when heaven and nature would sing because God fulfilled promises of salvation. Watts looked at that and said, “Hey, that’s already happened in Jesus.” So, he added one thought to the Psalm, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come.” Watts taught us to search scripture for the promises of God and say, “Hey, that’s already happened in Jesus Christ.”
Some people look at their lives and wish that God would act, “God I wish you would give me healing, God I wish you would do something about my family, God I wish you would help me get a new boss. . . .” No, you can start to say, “God has already given me health. There is something healthier in my spirit than any disease of the body. God has already done something about my family—He gave me one (and despite my fantasies of somehow being switched at birth with the family I deserve) it is the right one.
The key to seeing God’s hand in your life, to believing in God’s power to do a new thing, it to count your blessings and express gratitude for the positive things God has already done. When you believe in those things, it’s much easier to have a hopeful disposition and positive attitude where you keep on creating opportunities for grace and light.
I like that Watts wrote that the Lord is Come. It always sounds grammatically incorrect. Shouldn’t it be, “The Lord has come?” I noticed that they change it on the Hallmark Christmas movies to sound better. But I like the original present tense The Lord is come. Christ’s coming to the world was not a one-time event 2000 years ago. Christ comes into the world, into your life in this very moment. Right now Christ is as close to you as your very breathing. The question is, will you trust and allow him to work in your life?
Here is something surprising, Joy to the World never really caught until decades after Watts had died. Originally it was sung to the tune, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.
The tune that we sing it to was written by Lowell Mason decades after Isaac Watts died. Mason also knew rejection in his life. Worried that he couldn’t make a living in music, he became a banker in Savannah, Ga. He wrote a bunch of music and sent it to a publisher who matter-of-factly rejected his material because “the American public wanted new folk music, not classical standards.” He was crushed and poured his heart into playing the organ and teaching Sunday school at church. Then somehow 15 years after his rejection, a society devoted to Handel found his work and ordered 50,000 copies.
He started writing again and wrote more than 600 hymns including, My Faith Looks Up to Thee and Nearer My God to Thee. He loved playing around with Handel’s music and composed a melody based on music from Handel’s Messiah. Three years later he put his tune with Watts’ forgotten poem on Psalm 98 and Joy to the World as we know it was born.
In 1911, more than 100 years after it was written, Joy to the World was put on a record. The jubilant spirit made it feel like a Christmas song even though that is not how it was originally composed. Now it is hard to imagine Christmas without Joy to the World.
It’s a song for people who have a bit of a rebellious streak in them—going against the grain to make what they feel in their hearts.
It’s a song for broken-hearted people who don’t give up.
It’s a song for people who don’t get the recognition they deserve.
It’s a song for people who use their gifts and never realize how they are planting seeds that eventually bear fruit they may never see.
It’s a song for people who see God’s past promises as coming true in their lives in every moment. In rocks hills and plains.
It’s a song for people who need to know they can trust in the wonders of his love.
Maybe it’s a song for a rebel such as you!