“Joy to the World” remains one of the favourite Christmas carols sung in church services during the Christmas season. It was written by Englishman Isaac Watts in the eighteenth century; many consider him the greatest hymn writer of all time.
Watts wrote many hymns based on the Psalms but using fresh poetic language in keeping with Christian doctrine and experience. “Joy to the World” is one such hymn.
Biblical Insights from the Carol
The hymn is based on Psalm 98, which is a call to sing to the Lord a new song (Psalm 98:1) because He “comes to judge the earth” and He will do so with righteousness and equity (Psalm 98:9). His coming brings us salvation (Psalm 98:2), a reason to burst forth in joyful song.
The hymn has more to do with Christ’s second coming than His first, though because the two comings of Christ are historically and theologically connected, the sentiments expressed can apply to both events. The one that has already taken place sets the stage for the other that is yet to happen, an event which true believers eagerly await.
When Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, He will establish His perfect kingdom, where there will be no more tears, sorrow, pain, and death (Revelation 21:4). Jesus will finish what He began during His first coming. Jesus began His public ministry declaring that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2), a kingdom whose characteristics were demonstrated through His authoritative teaching and miraculous signs. He is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33), awaiting His return to earth to fully establish that kingdom, when sin, death, and the devil that have plagued the human race will finally and decisively be put to a permanent end.
This is reason to break out in joyful song. The first stanza points to the coming of the rightful King of the world, as He is the One who made it and all who are in it. Satan, the imposter prince, will be gotten rid of. We are urged to welcome this eternal King. Christ did not receive such a welcome at His first coming, because “the darkness comprehended [the light Jesus brought] not” (John 1:5 KJV), and “the world did not recognise him” (John 1:10). Even “his own [the Jews] did not receive him” (John 1:11). There was “no room… in the inn” for Him in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7 KJV).
We, however, are urged to “Let every heart prepare him room” (Stanza 1) so that He can be received gladly into our hearts. Scripture promises that “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). When Christ returns, the earth will have to receive her King, and all who had received Him in their hearts will have a place in His eternal kingdom.
This is reason for both “heaven and nature” (Stanza 1) to sing in joyful song. We can understand why heaven will sing when this happens—because the rule of God will be clearly seen in the world. Heaven broke out in song when Christ came the first time, when He was born in Bethlehem. It will break out in song again when He returns in the future. Nature will also join heaven in song because today, nature is groaning in frustration and bondage (Romans 8:22). When Christ comes again, creation “will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). The land, and “rocks, hills and plains” (Stanza 2) will join in the song (Psalm 148:7–9).
We humans are urged to join heaven and nature in their jubilant song, for we too have been groaning inwardly in this present world, as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). “In this hope we were saved . . . we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24–25). “Let men their songs employ” (Stanza 2). There will be a great chorus of joyful song, where all of creation will sing in praise to God.
Stanza 3 continues in this vein, speaking of how Christ would remove the curse of sin from the human story. Genesis 3 spells out the effects of the curse in the human heart and on the earth (Genesis 3:16–19). But when Christ returns in glory, there will be no more sin and sorrow in human lives, and no more thorns on the ground. The curse will be removed far from us, and the blessings will flow relentlessly from the heart and hand of the God who loves us.
This cost God an unimaginable price, for our liberation was achieved not by divine fiat, which is an official order given by an authority figure, but by divine self-sacrifice. We read of a divine groaning that joins the groaning of humans and nature (Romans 8:26). The first coming of Jesus helps us to understand and appreciate this, for in Christ God came to identify himself with His fallen creation. “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). Christ groaned for us as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before He went to the cross. There His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) was raised on our behalf as He bore the full brunt of the consequences of the sins of the world. By enduring the cross and paying the penalty for our sins, Jesus forged a new path to a new eternal future for us, a future He will come again to give to us.
So we sing in joyful song.
The final stanza speaks of how life would be in the eternal kingdom under the perfect rule of Christ. He will rule with “truth and grace”, a phrase that connects the song with Christ’s first coming. In speaking of the coming of Christ from heaven as the Word became flesh, John describes Jesus as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). It is this same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, who will also return to rule us all with truth and grace.
And the nations that are gathered before Him will praise His holy name, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10). In the eternal kingdom, the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) will be its lamp, and the “nations will walk by its light” (Revelation 21:23–24).
The nations will indeed “prove the glories of his righteousness” and the “wonders of his love” (Stanza 4). God is righteous and loving, holy and compassionate, just and merciful. “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17 ESV). “The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion” (Psalm 116:5). These truths about God’s eternal character will be perfectly proven in the future kingdom of God.
Christmas does not only look back at the birth of Christ, but also towards His second coming. Both comings are connected with each other, and make the other meaningful. “Joy to the World” helps us to understand this and urges us to break into joyful song as we look back with faith and gratitude and look forward with hope.
- Why can we sing joyfully when we think of the first and second comings of Jesus?
- Meditate on how you can prepare room for Christ in your heart. What would need to be removed or rearranged? What would need to be brought in?
Excerpt and adapted from Songs of Christmas by Robert Solomon. © 2018 by Robert Solomon. Used by permission of Discovery House. All rights reserved.