Joy to the World, Psalm 98, & Isaac Watts

“Joy to the world!: Yes! But also, “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

Joy to the world

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

 

It was uplifting to read the third part of Albert Mohler’s The Briefing for Friday, December 20, 2019. He makes reference to “one of the most familiar of all the Christmas carols that turns out actually, to perhaps the puzzlement of many Christians, not to have been intended as a Christmas carol at all. I’m talking about the song by Isaac Watts that we call ‘Joy To The World.’ Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. The song we know as ‘Joy To The World’ is actually based upon the 98th Psalm, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge.” [1]

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

The LORD has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 98:1-2 ESV)

The NIV Faithflife Study Bible explains this Psalm:

In this Psalm of Yahweh’s kingship (or enthronement) the psalmist calls Israel to sing a new and joyful song to Yahweh because he has helped them. He then extends that call to all the people of the earth and eventually the earth itself (vs 4-6). The psalmist concludes by describing how all of creation joyfully anticipates the full establishment of Yahweh’s righteous reign.[2]

The call for a response of a new song extends to all of the nations, because ultimately, what God will do in saving act for His people Israel will also be the saving of the nations of the world.

Isaac Watts would have had enough insight to know that this will not be accomplished in the first coming of Christ as a baby in a manger. When this song first appeared in Watts’ hymnal in 1719, it was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Its ultimate fulfilment is in the Second Coming of Christ. It is then that what happened on the Cross as atonement will finally reap its harvest. And the fruits will be drawn from “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV)

This is a Psalm of Messianic victory. Thus, it is a Psalm of mission to the world and its ultimate discipleship of all nations.

So, is “Joy to the World” a wrong Christmas song to sing? It is a right song of welcome to the Saviour who first came as a baby in a manger. For even in welcome of that event, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14 ESV). With the birth of the Messiah, the shalom (peace) of redemption began to make its presence among sinners on earth. But the formal redemption is yet on the cross and its victory achieved in the resurrection. Finally, its harvest is in the second coming of Christ. This is what Psalm 98 ultimately celebrates.

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

That Isaac Watts was more focused on the Cross than on the manger, another of his hymns reveals:

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,

Or to defend His cause;

Maintain the honour of His Word,

The glory of His cross.

[1] Albert Mohler, The Briefieng; December 20, 2019; https://albertmohler.com/2019/12/20/briefing-12-20-19

[2] NIV Faithlife Study Bible: (Zondervan) 923

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