Christmas Carols: Joy to the World
The popular carol Joy to the World was penned by Isaac Watts in his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Watts paraphrased 138 psalms through the lens of their fulfillment in the redemptive work of Christ.
Though Watts never intended for the hymn to be sung merely during Advent and Christmas, most hymnals properly list it as an Advent carol. During Advent we celebrate the threefold advent of Christ in His incarnation, His dwelling in our hearts by His Spirit, and His glorious return at the last day. These three aspects are each portrayed in Watts’ hymn, Joy to the World.
This famous hymn is one of my favorite carols because it faithfully conveys the resounding message in Psalm 98 that Jesus saves. Salvation is completely of the Lord. Christ is our Victorious Warrior whose “right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory” (Psalm 98:1). He is our Savior who, in fulfilling His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17), “remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel” (vs. 2) and blessed all nations. “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (vs. 3). He is the Prophet who reveals His Father’s will. “The LORD has made known His salvation”(vs. 2). He is our King (vs. 6) and Judge (vs. 9). He saves us from the penalty, pollution, power, and ultimately, the presence, of sin.
Joy to the World traces the redemption story throughout history, from the promise in the garden (Genesis 3:15) to Christ’s glorious return. “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” (st. 3). Tremper Longman III rightly summarizes Psalm 98’s expression of God’s salvation in three movements, which are fulfilled in Christ our Savior, King, Judge: “Israel is to praise God for saving them in the past” (1 – 3). “All the earth is to praise God for being King in the present (4 – 6). “The entire universe is to praise God for coming to judge in the future” (7 – 9).”
We can learn from Joy to the World and Psalm 98 not to sentimentalize Christmas by merely seeing Christ as a helpless baby apart from His mission. Christ our Savior must also be our Victorious Warrior and Judge. He fulfills the psalmist’s prayer for God to “deliver me in Your righteousness” (Psalm 31:1). He “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love” (st. 4). He has won the bloody battle. He has put enmity between the serpent and the woman (Genesis 3:15). “His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory” (Psalm 98:1). “God’s salvation accomplishes all that His holy righteousness requires” (J. A. Motyer).
Joy to the World and Psalm 98 instruct us in our response to such a great salvation. For the believer, Joy to the World is a message of joy. Joy is a central motif of the entire Advent season, indeed of the entire Christian life. Our joy is in the finished work of the Lord, whom we glorify and enjoy forever. Psalm 98 is replete with references to joy—“Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth in song, rejoice…Shout joyfully to the LORD, the King…Let the hills be joyful together before the LORD.”
This beloved carol echoes Psalm 98’s command to joyfully proclaim God’s great deeds to all the earth. Just as God has openly displayed His salvation, righteousness, reign, and judgment in the sight of all nations, so also God’s covenant people, all nations, and all creation, must burst forth in praise to Him.
Joy to the World addresses Psalm 98’s theme that our ultimate eternal purpose is to joyfully worship the Lord. “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church; worship is” (John Piper). Christ’s redemptive work always results in an outpouring of praise, a praise which deepens as it approaches the complete fulfillment of God’s redemptive work. Tremper Longman III notes that the believer “sings to the LORD a new song” (vs. 1), which intensifies to “Shout joyfully to the LORD all the earth; break forth in song” (4) to all creation praising God. “The sea roars, the rivers clap their hands, the hills are joyful” (7, 8).
Our daily and weekly worship is a foretaste of the eternal worship of the Lord before His throne, where we will for all eternity “repeat the sounding joy.” May your singing of this carol comfort and encourage you as your remember that your joy is in your Savior and Lord, who has given you the delightful duty to “repeat the sounding joy” of the “wonders of His love” now and forevermore.