Joy is deeply woven into the Christmas narrative. In a world that wrestles today with finding happiness, the story of Jesus is a vivid reminder that true joy is found in meeting Him. Even the anticipation of the Messiah’s birth brought great joy. We read in Luke 1:14-15, words the angel spoke to Zechariah when prophesying the birth of John the Baptist:
“You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord.”Luke 1:14-15
The birth of John the Baptist brought joy because he would pave the way for Someone greater than he. He would prepare the way for Jesus Christ. Then, on that holy, divine night, the angel appeared to the shepherds and declared,
“Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”Luke 2:10-11
We are a people in need of rescue, and news of a Savior is reason to rejoice. Jesus, then, while teaching the Beatitudes reminds us while there may pain and hardship in this life, the person who looks forward to being with Christ maintains their joy. Though we suffer, we suffer with Him, and there’s joy to be found in this truth:
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when the exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.”Luke 6:22-23
Today, we continue to sing about this great joy. There’s not a Christmas carol list out there that would be complete without including Joy to the World. It’s undoubtedly one of the most popular songs this time of the year, but it’s actually the Christmas song that was never meant to be. You see, it’s not even about Christmas. It points us to a deeper truth this Christmas season.
The original hymn, along with some 750 additional hymns, belongs to Isaac Watts, who has come to be known as the Father of Hymns. Many of his songs continue to be sung in church gatherings around the world today. Perhaps you are familiar with When I Survey the Wondrous Cross or At the Cross. Oh, and of course, Joy to the World.
Yet, when Watts first penned his songs, they didn’t exactly bring joy to the world. Although he’s appreciated today, his hymnal deeply disturbed the status quo of the church—so much so, he was labeled a heretic for his lyrics. At the time, songs were composed strictly from passages in Scripture. But, Isaac Watts sensed people failed to feel the gravity of what it was they were singing. So, when he began introducing extra-biblical poetry into his songs—well, it was a bit scandalous.
It was in 1719 when Watts published a translation of the Psalms for congregational singing. The title of his work was quite long, so brace yourselves for this part: The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. Look, I told you; it’s a mouthful, right? What the work desired to accomplish was to read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, translating the Psalms in such a way to explicitly point the reader back to Jesus Christ. And, it is in this hymnbook that we would find Watts’ translation of Psalm 98. Or, as we have come to know it as, 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!Psalm 98:4-6
Okay, so it’s little different than the song we’ve come to know, but you can certainly see the connection. And, like in Psalm 98, if you read the lyrics of the song, you will see nothing about shepherds or a manger or wise men or angels or any other character or element that we all typically associate with the Christmas story. So, what gives? Well, this psalm—this song—isn’t really about the birth of Jesus.
Has the opening line of Joy to the World, ever bothered you, too? “The Lord is come”? I’ve heard it sung incorrectly and have even recently seen it posted incorrectly online as, “The Lord has come.” That almost feels better, doesn’t it? But, that’s not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “The Lord is come.” And, while the grammar admittedly has always bothered me, it’s because Watts was not describing a past event such as the birth of Jesus. Rather, he was looking forward to the future event of Christ’s return. That’s the emphasis of this song. Not only has Jesus Christ come, but He is coming! And, when He comes again, He will reign. He will rule the world with His truth and grace. The nations will prove the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His vast love.
But, even as Jesus reminded us in the Beatitudes, along the joyful path there is hardship. For some of you, this might actually be a difficult song for you to sing this year. Joy might not describe what you’re feeling at this moment. Look, Christmas won’t always be a joyful time in your life. You might find yourself in the middle of conflict or sickness or worry or grief or a million other things that try to choke out your joy. But when Jesus comes back, even the rocks will sing!
Friends, the birth of Jesus Christ stands as a historical guarantee that His Second Coming is just around the corner. This Christmas, may we not just dwell on the past. Yeah, this season we need to look back and remember His birth, but may we also look forward and remember His promises. And, may we hold firmly to this truth—that ultimate joy is yet to be revealed. He is coming again! And, because He has come, I can confidently declare today, He is coming again. Rejoice, for what a glorious day that will be.