The Story Behind “Joy to the World”

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
    with the lyre and the sound of melody!
 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
    make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
    let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
    to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
    and the peoples with equity.

Such are the words of Psalm 98:4-9, ESV. These are the words that inspired Isaac Watts to write the now famous Christmas song, Joy to the World

One could say that this song began to be written back when Watts was a teenager.  It was then that he had a special talk with his dad.  They were on their way home from worship service, when young Isaac flatly stated that he thought the songs in the service were boring and antiquated.  His dad, as many dads would do, challenged him not just to complain, but do something about it. If Isaac thought he could do better, then he should.  Isaac Watts took that challenge and wrote a new hymn every week (initially), mostly based on the Psalms.  In all, Watts wrote northward of 750 hymns.

Incidentally, Charles Spurgeon’s mother challenged him to memorize Watts’ hymns. For every one Charles memorized, she’d give him a dime (10 pence). He put to heart so many of them that his mother had to cut her promise in half, a nickel for each one. This is where Spurgeon most likely got his gift of poetry, which is displayed in nearly every sermon he preached.

Because of this challenge from Watts’ father, Joy to the World eventually came into existence. Isaac was 45 when he wrote this gem (1719).

Interestingly enough, Isaac Watts and Frederic Handel (Handel’s Messiah) were friends. Though they didn’t collaborate on Joy to the World, the version that we typically sing in America comes from Messiah. A musician by the name of Lowell Mason took Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates and rearranged it, calling the tune ANTIOCH, putting a 19th Century spin on both the tune and the words (the repeats at the end of each verse were Mason’s doing, not Watts’).

If one is paying attention, he will notice that the third verse is not found in Psalm 98. That’s true. It actually comes from Genesis 3 and Revelation 21-22. The curse of the fall will be reversed when Christ sets up His eternal reign and there will be a new heaven and earth.  That is what this entire Christmas song is about: the new heaven and earth. For that reason, I would consider this more of an Advent song than a Christmas song, but to each his own.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n and nature sing,
and heav’n, and heav’n 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,
far 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.

For more “the story behind” Christmas songs, you can click/tap on the links below.

Good Christian Men, Rejoice
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Silent Night, Holy Night

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