Joy To the World (5 Days ‘Til Christmas!)

In my last blog, I ended it with a short list of carols categorised according whether their lyrics were true to the Gospel narratives of the Christmas Story. With five days until Christmas 2016, I rejoice with this article homage to Joy to the World, and the YouTube vocal rendition performed by Pentatonix.

Song Background

Joy to the World (JttW) is actually based on bible verses! In all my years of having heard, sung and played this carol, researching the lyrics and background now teaches me new facts to appreciate JttW. Psalm 98 us a song in itself:

Sing to the Lord a new song,
    for he has done marvellous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
    have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
    and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
    and his faithfulness to 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.

In 1719, Isaac Watts was a young man living in a time when hymns other than the Psalms were allowed to be sung in the Church of England. This gave way to Watts developing many beloved songs. Watts still based many of his songs on the Psalms, but he was especially interested in writing hymns based on the “Christian experience.”

Just as the focus of my previous article considered the Christmas Nativity elements of shepherds, the manger and wise men, JttW makes no mention of any of these elements. The surprising reality was that Isaac Watts did NOT actually write JttW to be a Christmas song! The original theme and focus for the song was instead the second coming of the Lord. Over 100 years later, in 1839, Lowell Mason adapted and arranged this song into a melody many believe to have been written by Handel.

As we analyse the lyrics of this beloved carol this season, let us keep this context in mind. Yes, JttW is known today as a Christmas Carol and applies to the Christmas story – that the Lord is come! We should and can rejoice! However, let the lyrics all point you to the reason Jesus came: to save the world. Be ready because He is coming again! What a glorious day THAT will be when the whole earth celebrates His appearing!

Song Lyric Analysis

The second half beginning from verse four is the clear basis for guiding the lyrics and verses of JttW. Verse 4 specifically can align with the first two lines of JttW:

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!
Let earth receive her King;

Further, all the Gospel narratives of the birth of Jesus can be summed up by the opening line. Luke 2:11 explicitly states “for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That Jesus is Lord and King is a theme heavily taught throughout the Bible, so just a few quick verses to align with key characteristics:

  • Matthew 1:1 Jesus is a descendant of David
  • Philippians 2:10-11 Jesus is the Messiah, anointed by God
  • Acts 13:38 Jesus came to save the lost

Luke 1:17 states “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Galatians 4:6 also shows that “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father!”

Let every heart prepare Him room,

Psalm 98:7-9a above also shows how all of heaven and nature resound, clap, and sing before the Lord. This is also repeated in Psalm 19:11 “he heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands”

And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

The second verse echos the Angel’s comforting words to Mary when her pregnancy was foretold in Luke 1:32-33: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

Returning to Psalm 98, verse four onward really drives and inspires the remainder of verse 2. Although the context is different in that Psalm 98 celebrates the Lord’s arrival to judge the earth in righteousness, the aspiration and intention for celebrating the coming of the Lord still rings true:

Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

The beginning of verse three is where the original intent of the song becomes the key factor in helping us appreciate why JttW is not actually about celebrating Christmas and more so, on celebrating the Second Coming of the Lord. It is because of that original context and focus that verse three can be fully and completely understood. Naturally, Jesus’ second coming has to preceed His first coming/birth or Christmas. So, technically, you can argue, although in a very indirect way, that JttW celebrates Christmas because Christmas has to be first celebrated in order to celebrate the impending Second Coming. Revelation 22:3 states “There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him”

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.

The final verse is again made clear in the context of Jesus’ Second Coming, which will be after the fulfilment of the Great Commission as recorded in Matthew 28:19: ““Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Only after we have witnessed to the world and Jesus has conquered Satan will He rule the world with truth and grace.

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.

Famous Covers & Variations

  1. 1971: Joy to the World (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog), Three Dog Night/Hoyt Axton
  2. 1994: Joy to the World, Mariah Carey
  3. 2009: Joy to the World (Unspeakable Joy), Chris Tomlin

There are probably quite a few more variations that my short list above is missing, but these three performances and recordings offer three distinct variations to the original and traditional lyrics and Lovell Mason melody.