In episode 187 last week I talked about the back story behind “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Today I pull the curtain back to look at the history behind another well-known Christmas carol, this one going back to 1719.
It never started out to be a song, but before we get into all this, here’s a word from another Christmas Carol, one of my favorites, my boss, Carol Steward.
Welcome to You Were Made for This
If you find yourself wanting more from your relationships, you’ve come to the right place. Here you’ll discover practical principles you can use to experience the life-giving relationships you were made for.
I’m your host, John Certalic, award-winning author and relationship coach, here to help you find more joy in the relationships God designed for you. To access all past and future episodes, go to the bottom of this page, enter your name and email address, then click on the follow or subscribe button. The episodes are organized chronologically and are also searchable by topics, categories, and keywords.
I’ll start by talking about how “Joy to the World, one of the most famous Christmas Carols of all time,” came to be. It starts with the lyrics written in 1719 by hymn writer Isaac Watts.
While he is appreciated today in church music circles, 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 people in the pew as they sang. He described it like this,
“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.”
Yikes, this sounds like me many times.
A Christmas carol from a poem
I was surprised to learn that the lyrics for “Joy to the World” actually came out of a book of poetry Isaac Watts wrote, where each poem was based on a different psalm from the Bible. Rather than just translating the original Old Testament texts word for word, he adapted them to refer more explicitly to the work of Jesus as it had been revealed in the New Testament.
The poetry book was never a best-seller, and the only remnants of it anyone can find is the second part of Psalm 98, which became the basis for “Joy to the World.”
While meditating on Psalm 98, verse 4 gripped Watts:
“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!”
Watts had no intention of creating a hymn when he composed the verse for Psalm 98 as part of his book of poetry. But then in 1836 a man by the name of Lowell Mason composed a riveting melody for Watts’ lyrics, which eventually became quite popular in the church.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing! And heaven and nature sing . . . and heaven . . . and heaven . . . and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy . . repeat the sounding joy!
Repeat . . . repeat . . . the sounding joy!
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 . . fFar as the curse is found . . .
Far as . . . far as . . . the curse is found!
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love . . . and wonders of his love!
And wonders . . . wonders . . . of his love!
Hope for better days ahead
The intent of Psalm 98 is to bring joy to people. “Joy to the World” inspires us to look forward to the future when sin and sorrow no longer play a part in our lives. Where no thorn infests the ground, and where we are caught up in the grace, glory, and love of God.
So what does “Joy to the World” mean for you today
It’s been 300 years since the carol was written, but it still speaks to us today.
It speaks to creating room in our hearts for Jesus, as the third line of the song declares, “Let every heart prepare him room.” No easy task these days with all the distractions we have keeping us from considering our relationship with God and how we should live in light of that relationship.
The song speaks to the joy that is yours when you consider that God is in control, that he has defeated sin, and is making his blessings flow.
One other thing that “Joy to the World” means is that we can experience joy no matter our circumstances.
Yesterday morning I received a text from a missionary who has been serving in South America for many years. She wrote to tell me she just listened again to episode 155, “How to Find Joy No Matter What,” and that it blessed her again in the midst of the stresses of missionary life and relationships in general.
To listen to it yourself, just go to JohnCertalic.com/155.
Here’s the main takeaway I hope you remember from today’s episode
What better time than this Christmas season to reflect upon how God delivered joy to the world by sending us His son, Jesus. Our relationship with Him is the source of lasting joy worth singing about.
Relationship question of the month
If you have a relationship question you’d like me to answer in an upcoming episode, please go to JohnCertalic.com/question to record your question using your phone or computer.
With your question, please include your name and where you’re from. It’s that simple. If you’d rather submit a written question, just enter it in the Leave a Comment box at the bottom of the show notes.
In closing, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode. I hope your thinking was stimulated by today’s show to reflect upon the meaning of “Joy to the World.”
For when you do, it will help you experience the joy of relationships God desires for you. Because after all, You Were Made for This.
Well, that’s it for today. If there’s someone in your life you think might like to hear what you just heard, please forward this episode on to them. Scroll down to the bottom of the show notes and click on one of the options in the yellow “Share This” bar.
And don’t forget to spread a little relational sunshine around the people you meet this week. Inject a measure of Christmas joy into the lives of others. And I’ll see you again next time. Goodbye for now.
Other episodes or resources related to today’s show
The Gospdel Coalition. “Joy to the World: A Christmas Hymn Reconsidered”
Last week’s episode
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