It is one of the most exuberant carols that we sing. It is one of the most popular carols that we sing. It is also one of the most beloved carols that we sing. And yet, as you will learn today, it is not actually a carol at all. In fact, though we sing and treat it this way, it is not even a song about Christmas; at least, not as its author intended. The song in question is none other than Isaac Watt’s famous work Joy To the World.
If the father of medicine was Hippocrates and the father of the telephone was Alexander Graham Bell, then the father of English hymns was none other than Isaac Watts. Having penned a massive collection of over 750 hymns, Watts’ work is still being printed in books, projected onto screens and sung by Christians worldwide.
Isaac Watts was born in 1674, in South Hampton England. Raised in a deeply religious family, Watts’ earliest memories were of his father’s concrete convictions about religious liberty. Watts Sr. even spent time in prison on two separate occasions for his outspoken Nonconformist views. (Rather than conforming to the Church of England, Nonconformists were typically Presbyterians or Baptists who wanted to worship in a government-free church.) Isaac Watt’ parents saw to it that their love for Christ and His word were passed on to their son.
As a child, Watts showed remarkable propensity for rhyme, much to his father’s chagrin. After the family prayer time, one day, the sober minded elder Watts confronted his young son about why he had opened his eyes mid-prayer. The boy Watts creatively explained that he had been distracted, saying:
A little mouse for want of stairs, ran up a rope to say its prayers.
Unamused by his son’s rhyming reply and wanting to discourage such juvenile behavior, his father spanked him for it. To which Watts cried out,
O father, father pity take, and I will no more verses make.
No amount of spankings, though, could drive his love of verse, rhyme, poetry and music from his heart. His education eventually led him to pastor a large independent church in London. He quickly earned a reputation for his oratory and preaching skills even becoming a private tutor helping train other preachers in the city. Throughout his years of ministry, Watts obsessively sought to put his Christian affections and convictions on paper so that other could join him in heartfelt worship and song.
Believe it or not Watts’ work, in his day, was not always well received. You see, Watts was boldly introducing (what was for his time, contemporary) “praise and worship” songs into the life of the church. (Think of Isaac Watts as the Chris Tomlin or Matt Papa of his day.) Up until that point, the song selection in most Protestant churches was limited almost exclusively to the Psalms. John Calvin, during the Reformation, had translated the Psalms into the common language of his people (French) so that they could be sung corporately. Many English-speaking churches followed in his pattern. When Watts came along, though, he began introducing extra-biblical poetry into his songs. To some, this was anathema. To others, it was a breath of fresh air.
Watts’ lyrical goal, as one author put it, was to wed “emotional subjectivity” and “doctrinal objectivity.” Songs such as When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed, I Sing the Mighty Power of God and O God, Our Help in Ages Past were a blend of personal reflection and emotional reaction couched in rich theological convictions. His songs put the old wine of faith into the new wineskins of English rhyme and poetry. Isaac Watts was giving new life to church worship.
Like Calvin did for the people of his day, Watts also published a work in 1719 that was a translation or rewriting of the Psalms for congregational singing. The hymnbook was entitled (it’s long, so prepare yourself), The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. In other words, Watts read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament and wrote his Psalm-book to explicitly point to the person and work of Christ. In that collection, you will find Watts’ rewriting of Psalm 98. It is familiarly entitled Joy to the World.
The opening line of Joy to the World is sometimes sung incorrectly as, “Joy the world! The Lord has come.” That is not what Watts wrote. He wrote, “The Lord is come.” Watts was not describing a past event (the birth of Jesus) but rather looking forward to a future event (the return of Jesus). The main point of Psalm 98 (which Watts himself clearly understood) was not about the first coming of Jesus, but, rather, about His Second Coming! And that’s precisely what the song is about. It speaks of Jesus’ final coming to earth when “the Savior reigns” and when “He rules the world with truth and grace.” Watts longed for that glorious final day when the “nations (will) prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”
Even though Watts may not have ever envisioned his song being sung at Christmas time, I think it is a wonderful tribute to his work. Indeed, the first advent of Jesus stands as a historical guarantee that His Second Advent is just around the corner. Indeed, the birth of Jesus and the return of Jesus are “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”