“I hope that you will sing and celebrate not only Jesus’s birth, but Christ’s triumphant return with a loud voice and a joyful noise!”
Oh, the songs of Christmas! Whether it is “Joy to the World,” “The 12 Days of Christmas,” or “Grandma got run over by a reindeer,” there is something about Christmas music that can instantly put a smile on our faces! Now, I have run into a couple of Scrooges here and there who don’t like Christmas music at all! (How is that even possible?) As for the rest of us, we can all think of memories or experiences tied to different songs of the season. Christmas music can take us to the North Pole or to grandma’s house. Maybe you think of the traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service at church. For some, it’s gathering around the piano laughing and singing with a glass of wassail or caroling from door to door. We pretty much know all the songs and carols of Christmas, but what we don’t know is that there is a story behind each song. I have always been fascinated by those stories, so this week I am going to share some of those with you! You will hear stories you’ve never heard, meet people you’ve never met, and, hopefully, when you sing these songs of Christmas you will sing them all the richer! So, let’s get started!
The most widely recognized and published Christmas song in the world is “Joy to the World,” which is actually a hymn, not a Christmas carol. It wasn’t even meant to be a Christmas song! It was written by nonconformist English minister Isaac Watts who is regarded as “The Father of English Hymnody.” He alone penned over 750 hymns. “Joy to the World” was originally intended to be sung for Easter. Watts published it in his collection of hymns and spiritual songs entitled, “The Psalms of David” in 1719. There is more to the story, but let’s sing it first before we go on. Although most people only know the first verse, I have included all four, so we can see what he meant when he wrote it. For those of you listening to the podcast, I have a special treat for you today! We’re going to sing it with you!
“JOY TO THE WORLD” by Isacc Watts
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 world! The Savior Reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hill, 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 wonder, wonders of His love.
And now, (as Paul Harvey used to say…) the rest… of the story… What does “Joy to the World” really mean? What did Isaac Watts mean when he wrote it? Most people think this is a Christmas carol, but instead of celebrating the birth of Jesus, this hymn is about Christ’s triumphant return — His second coming! Watts wrote “and heaven and nature sing” because he believed that everyone and everything should celebrate Christ’s return with a joyful noise! That means sing, and sing loud!
Some composers write lyrics, some write melodies, and some write both. Isaac Watts was known for his wonderful lyrics. There was a man by the name of Lowell Mason (who was a key figure in American music) that took the melody “Antioch” and put it with Watts’ text. He made a few changes to it, and the rest is history! Mason was inspired by Handel’s “Messiah.” If you listen carefully, the first four notes of “Joy to the World” are the same as the first four notes in the Messiah’s chorus “Lift up your heads,” and the hymns third line can be heard in the song “Comfort Ye.”
But wait… there’s more! When Isaac Watts wrote the lyrics to “Joy to the World,” his inspiration was Psalm 98 from the Bible. I was so excited when I found that out! Psalm 98 was the Psalm we chose to have read at our wedding in 1989. It is so special to us, that when you come into our house the first thing you see are the words “Sing to the Lord a new song” written on the curved wall under the banister.
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 His salvation know and revealed His righteousness to the nations,
He has remembered His love and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.
Make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn-shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy.
Let them sing before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
As you sing “Joy to the World” and read Psalm 98 this week, I hope that you will sing and celebrate not only Jesus’s birth, but Christ’s triumphant return with a loud voice and a joyful noise! We have a saying at the Swanson house: “Go big, or go home!” I guess we could say the same thing about “Joy to the World.” Sing it loud, or go home! Let’s join with heaven and earth and sing a new song this Christmas, for He has done marvelous things!