The favorite Christmas carol that isn’t about Christmas at all

“Joy to the World” is one of the most popular of all Christmas carols. In fact, according to a survey on Hymnary.org, it is the most published Christmas hymn of all time.
“Joy to the World” is synonymous with Christmas, but it wasn’t meant to be.
If you look closely at the hymn, there is no mention of shepherds, angelic choruses or wise men. There is no mention of Bethlehem, Mary, or even the Baby Jesus. That’s because Isaac Watts, the author of this hymn, based the stanzas on Psalm 98, not on the Christmas narrative in Luke 2.
Isaac Watts is one of the most prolific of all Christian hymn writers. He has written over 750 hymns published in numerous hymnals throughout Christendom. That’s why he is commonly referred to as “The Father of Hymns.”
Watts was an Englishman who lived from 1674 to 1748. During the 18th century, only Psalms were allowed to be sung in the Church of England. So, Watts created most of his hymns as Psalms metrically set to music.
“Joy to the World” is one such hymn based on a Psalm. The verses of Psalm 98 read, “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” (Psalm98:4-9).
Psalm 98 speaks of the joy that the entire creation will experience upon Christ’s return. The seas, rivers, mountains will all sing together for joy. Christ will come as King upon the earth. That’s exactly what Watts wrote in the first two stanzas of “Joy to the World.”
1  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.
2  Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat the sounding joy, Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
All of creation joins in praising the King who is coming to rule upon the new heaven and the new earth. The fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains cannot contain their excitement that the Savior is coming to reign upon the earth. The King brings joy to the world! The Savior brings joy to the earth!
Jesus came as God incarnate – God in human flesh – as the Babe of Bethlehem. He was the Messiah promised at the fall of creation to undo what Adam and Eve had done. Because they gave into the serpent’s temptation, thorns and thistles infested the ground. All of creation became cursed. Anger, hostility, fear, bloodshed, and death became a part of fallen creation.
But the Babe of Bethlehem grew up to become the Savior on the cross. Jesus moved from the manger to the wooden crossbeams in order to reverse the curse that Satan brought upon God’s beautiful creation. There on the cross, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head. He conquered sin. He undid the effects of death.
That’s why Watts exclaims in stanza three: 3  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.
Jesus’ beaten and bloody corpse was placed into a tomb on Friday afternoon. After three days in the grave, Jesus miraculously and majestically rose from the dead on Easter morning. Christ’s resurrection proves that He really has beaten sin, death, and the devil.
Forty days later after His resurrection, Jesus climbed to the top of a mountain with His disciples. From that mountaintop, Jesus then ascended into heaven to sit at God the Father’s right hand. From His throne in heaven, He rules the world with truth and grace. He has been ruling and reigning from heaven’s throne for almost two thousand years. But at any moment, Jesus could return.
Stanza four explains: 4  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.
Christmas wasn’t always a joyful time. Mary and Joseph struggled to find a place to stay in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds were blessed to experience the angelic chorus in the night sky and then go to worship the baby Jesus lying in a manger. But then they had to return to normal life in the fields outside of Bethlehem. The wise men brought their gifts to give to the newborn King. But they also – unwittingly – brought the wrath of King Herod who tried to kill the newborn King.
Christmas isn’t always a joyful time. You might have to spend it away from family. Perhaps some of your loved ones are sick and in the hospital or elderly and in assisted living. Or maybe some of your family who won’t be around the Christmas tree this year because they are around the throne of God in heaven. Christmas can sometimes be sad and even depressing when we focus on what we are missing out on during the holiday.
Yet, Christmas is a time of joy to the world when we focus on what Christ has brought the world with this holiday. Christmas is a time of joy to the world because it is the time when we remember the Lord has come to save His fallen creation. So, let the earth receive her King.
It is a time of joy to the earth because the Savior reigns within His Church through Word and Sacrament.
It is a time of joy because Jesus did not stay in the manger. Instead, He grew up to spill His blood upon the earth and was buried in the ground, so that sin has been paid for; so that sorrows are reversed by the resurrection to eternal life; and so His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.
Christmas should always be a time of joy. … But sometimes it just isn’t. So, isn’t it ironic that “Joy to the World” can bring such joy into our hearts when we heartily belt out this Christmas hymn. It is ironic since Isaac Watts didn’t intend “Joy to the World” to be a Christmas hymn at all. It’s more of a first Sunday in Advent type of hymn. For that’s when we remember Christ’s second coming to judge the living and the dead.
Yet, this hymn carries such an important reminder for us. Christ coming to earth in His first advent brought joy upon the earth. But Christ coming to earth again in His second advent will bring lasting, eternal and unending joy for all those who believe in Him as Savior and King. So, even though “Joy to the World” wasn’t meant as a Christmas hymn, belt it out this Christmas. Prepare room for Christ in your hearts and lives. For this is a joyous occasion.
Repeat the sounding joy!

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