“'Joy to the World' Isn't a Christmas Carol”Categories: Hymn Theory
Every shopping mall in America is wrong. Well, they’re wrong about lots of stuff, but they’re definitely wrong about this. I know that I’m trying to stop the tide from coming in here. No matter what I say, “Joy to the World” is going to continue to be used as a Christmas carol. However, its words have next to nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.
The religious background of its author is the first thing that should start to make us suspicious. Isaac Watts was a Nonconformist, one of the eighteenth-century descendants of the Puritans who settled New England and the Independents who had Charles I executed. Both of those groups had a deep and abiding suspicion of the observance of Christmas. They regarded it as a Catholic innovation that had nothing to do with genuine Christianity (as compared to contemporary Anglicans, who celebrated Christmas with gusto).
It’s true that this anti-Christmas bias started to die out in the eighteenth century (though Christmas remained formally outlawed in New England until 1815), but Watts lived early in this period and was known for the strength of his religious convictions (particularly the strength of his Calvinism, which back in the day was something of a marker for opposition to Catholicism). I’ve never been able to find any firm evidence on the subject, but it may well be true that Watts did not celebrate Christmas personally and would have objected to the use of his hymns in such a celebration.
Watts, then, is an unlikely carol-writer. Instead, “Joy to the World” is a product of one of his life’s great goals—the modernization of the psalmody of the church. Before Watts, dissenting churches in England followed Calvin in only using metrical paraphrases from the book of Psalms in their song worship.
Watts criticized these paraphrases for, among other things, missing the spirit of Christianity. The book of Psalms never mentions the name of Jesus, and He is certainly not central to its meaning the way that He is to the meaning of the New Testament. Christians whose hymnody was limited to psalmody could never fully glorify their Lord.
In response to this problem, Watts adopted two main strategies. The first was the writing of hymns that had nothing to do with the Psalms. He explains his purpose here in the first verse of what is reputedly the first hymn he ever wrote, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Before His Father’s throne!
Prepare new honors for His name
And songs before unknown!
Clearly, no “song before unknown” could be a psalm paraphrase.
However, Watts was interested in Psalm paraphrases too. In his paraphrases, he aimed to repair what he saw as the great defect of traditional psalmody by including Jesus in psalms that did not explicitly mention Him. “Joy to the World” is the best-known example of this part of his work.
As the above scan from my trusty copy of The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts shows, Watts wrote “Joy to the World” as a paraphrase of Psalm 98. On its face, this is not a Messianic psalm. Instead, it’s about the Israelite/Jewish conception of Jehovah coming in judgment. Today, when we think of this, we often think of the Day of Judgment (as though there were only one in Scripture), the end of the world, and so forth.
However, that’s not the way that the ancient Hebrews would have understood the psalm. So far as I know, there’s no evidence in the Old Testament that they anticipated the end of the world at all. Instead, they looked to the coming of the Lord as a time when He would bring about justice on earth, rewarding the righteous, punishing the wicked, and generally rebalancing the scales. Psalm 98 is about the rejoicing that will accompany the righteous judgments of the Lord.
Watts, then, takes this text about the coming of God in judgment and reworks it so that it would be about, in his own words, “The Messiah’s coming and kingdom.” Even though he did not feel strictly bound to the text of Psalm 98, none of Watts’ additions to the text involve mangers or stars or angels or any of the usual birth-of-Jesus trappings. If he is aiming at Christmas, he misses.
Instead, Watts alters the psalm in two main ways. First, he recasts it in terms of rulership rather than judgment. “Joy to the World” isn’t about an episode of scale-rebalancing. It’s about the continuing reign of Christ.
Second, even though the entire hymn pulls phrases and concepts from Psalm 98 rather than attempting to follow its structure, the third verse is a particular departure. Watts here has clearly decided to riff on the idea of nature praising God. He goes back to the curse God places on Adam in Genesis 3:17-19, which provides not only death as a punishment for sin, but also thorns and thistles to bedevil the farmer. Nature itself has been distorted by sin.
However, with the coming of Christ as the second Adam (see Romans 5:12-21), the effects of the Adamic curse have been reversed through His one righteous act. This took place, of course, not in the manger, but on the cross, so it’s still not about His birth. As a result of Christ’s victory, Watts looks forward to a thorn-free existence.
This may be millenarian language (working with Romans 8:19-22, for instance), but I think it’s more likely figurative. Watts merely means to show how completely the curse has been overturned in Jesus. This is, after all, a hymn in present tense. As “When I Can Read My Title Clear” shows, Watts had no trouble writing about future events in future tense. “Joy to the World”, however, regards the coming and reign of Christ as a fait accompli.
We can still find the subject matter of “Joy to the World” in the gospels. However, it doesn’t appear in Matthew 1 or Matthew 2. Instead, it appears in Matthew 28:18, where Jesus announces His Kingship by declaring, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” In the words of Hebrews 12:28, His is a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Today, in a world where so much is apparently going wrong, we can find great comfort in remembering and rejoicing that the Lord still reigns!