From where I lay on the third floor under the eaves, I could hear the piano. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” My aunt was visiting, and she thundered away without thinking of the children above, who were meant to be sleeping. Dum – dum – dah-dum … dah-dum – dum – dum! I marched to the beat in my bed and fell asleep singing.
The next day, Aunt Mary showed me how to pick out the tune myself, starting with high D and bumping down the scale, hitting the black notes over F and the C. Even the simplest rendition gets across the joy of the song. “And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing!”
Ever since then, Joy to the World has been one of my favorite Christmas carols. But did you know that it wasn’t written for Christmas at all?
Back in the 1700s, Isaac Watts was busy writing songs to be used in worship. Up until then, many hymns were modern-language translations of Psalms and other biblical poetry. Watts wanted to do something more. The Psalms put into words things that people of all ages feel and think and long for. But when we read them as Christians, we invest them with new meaning because the One who is yearned for has already come. Watts wanted to re-write the Psalms in such a way that their hidden, Christian meaning shone forth. He wanted to hear them sung with all the conviction that Christ’s coming gives to us now. In 1767, he published a collection of hymns called “The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.”
“Joy to the World” is Psalm 98 “imitated in the language of the New Testament.” It’s interesting to compare them side by side (see below). Clearly, Watts immersed himself in the Psalm and re-imagined it in light of Christ before giving it fresh expression:
- All creation is called on to praise the Lord in the Psalm, but Watts adds the Christian notion that when Christ comes again, all creation will be delivered from the curse of the Fall (see Romans 8:18-25).
- Where the Psalm has the Lord coming to judge the world with righteousness and equity (vs 9), Watts says “He rules the world with truth and grace” – a direct reflection of John 1: 14,17 (“the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth … for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus”).
- Both look forward to a future “coming” of the Lord; both are full of joy. But the Psalm seems to ask the reading to rejoice in anticipation of a promise yet to be fulfilled. The hymn, in contrast, plunges the reader into a present, joyful reception of a king who has arrived and who rules now – even if he has yet to come in glory.
It’s still Advent, but we can sing this song today because this Sunday focuses on JOY. It’s Gaudete (gaw-DAY-tay) Sunday, so-called for the first word of the Introit: Gaudete in Domino Semper , “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). In the middle of an otherwise somber season of waiting, we take a day to rejoice that the Lord is near:
- “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!” begins the first reading.
- “Cry out with joy and gladness” we say in the Psalm response.
- “Rejoice in the Lord always!” St. Paul tells us in the second reading.
- And in the Gospel, John the Baptist preaches “good news to the people.”
Maybe you don’t feel like rejoicing right now. Perhaps all is not well in your household. Take comfort from Pope Francis, who wrote this in The Joy of the Gospel—
“To be happy is good, yet joy is something more…. [It] does not depend on external motivations, or on passing issues: it is more profound. It is a gift.” This gift “fills us from the inside. […] All joy flows from God’s love revealed in Christ.”
Jesus says that when you have the joy he brings, “no one will take [it] away from you.” That doesn’t mean we’ll always be happy: but as St. Paul says, Christians can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” That means that even when we are sad or hurting or in pain, we can always have joy.
 Jn 16:22
 2 Cor 6:10 ESV
 This is the King James Version, which I assume is the version Watts worked from.
© 2015 Sarah Christmyer
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Each post in this Advent series features a different Advent or Christmas carol, all of which can be found on Kitty Cleveland’s CD, O Holy Night.
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