As we respond to the coming of Christ with glad shouts and joyful songs, we should take care to sing with understanding. The risk with familiar hymns and carols is that we allow the all-too-familiar words to slip right through our lips without first registering in our minds and on our hearts. Thus, Christmas Carol Theology:
In the early part of the eighteenth century, Isaac Watts published a book of imitation psalms, intending to make the presence of Christ explicit in the psalms of David. His version of Psalm 98, written to celebrate the second coming of Christ, became instead one of the most famous Christmas carols in the English-speaking world. The later verses of Watts’ “psalm” became known as “Joy to the World”. Looking carefully at the lyrics, we discover many rich applications of Psalm 98 to the work of Christ, begun at His first advent, and continuing to His second.
Verse one open with the exclamation that became the title, but is immediately followed by the reason for joy: the Lord is come! And while many people try to adopt the joy without the Lord, they are simply flicking the light switch when the power is out. The coming of the Lord is the cause; joy is the effect. No Lord, no joy. Watts then gives us two exhortations, one universal: “Let earth receive her king”, and one particular: “Let every heart prepare Him room”. The word “let” should not be thought of as if Watts was giving permission, but rather a command, similar to God’s creative commands in Genesis 1. Psalm 98 takes over on the refrain, as Watts summarizes the various instructions to hills, rivers, and seas into “heaven and nature sing”. The king has come, bringing salvation, and the world is exhorted to respond with praise.
Verse two also begins with the announcement of joy, and gives a second reason for praise: not only has the Savior come, but He reigns. At His first advent, Christ was the rightful ruler, but He came in order to win back His stolen kingdom, and through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, He accomplished this mission. What for David, and even for Mary and Joseph was still a future reality, Watts sings of as an accomplished fact. And in light of Christ’s reign, Watts echoes the biblical command: “Let men their songs employ.” Mankind leads the whole world into praise, and the sounds of glad singing echo across “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains.” “Floods” simply refers to bodies of water, not necessarily the catastrophic overflow, but should bring to mind God’s salvation of Noah, as well as the destruction of Pharoah’s army. The Savior reigns, and this is good news for the whole world.
Verse three begins differently than the first two, but continues to expound the theme: the reign of the king means the rolling back of the curse and its effects, replacing them with blessings. Sins and sorrows are compared to weeds, an unwanted crop, and are commanded to stop growing. The “thorns” of Genesis 3 will no longer be the dominant plant; instead, the earth will be “infested” with blessings! The postmillennial hope of Watts shines through as he sings of the blessings extending at least as far into the world as the curse had: anything and everything touched by the curse will be overcome by blessings through the reign of the Savior-King.
Verse four begins by describing the manner of the king’s reign, before returning to the results of the king’s reign. “Truth and grace” characterize Christ’s rule, instead of the lies and merciless punishment that marked Satan’s failed kingdom. The result of a new way of governing people is that the nations burst forth in glory, proving that the new king is an able and wonderful ruler. Under His hand, the peoples flourish, and the world is made beautiful by following the righteousness of King Jesus. In the same way that joy is inextricably tied to the Lord in the first verse, Watts is careful to credit Jesus in the last verse as well: the glories and wonders that the world experiences are the result of His righteousness and His love, not vague generalities or coincidences. When the world is ruled by Jesus, the world starts to look like Jesus: gloriously righteous and wonderfully loving.
Joy to the World is a rich carol, packed full of borrowed treasures from Psalm 98, which are then offered up in praise to Christ. Let men this song employ!