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“Joy to the World!”

Psalm 98; Luke 2:14
December 31, 2017 (KSYC) • Download this article (PDF)

Today is the first Sunday after Christmas. Most people consider the week between Christmas and New Year still as part of the Christmas. So I will continue on our study of the great hymns of Christmas, and how they reference the Bible. Thus far, I have spoken about, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” and “What Child is This?” Today, I have chosen “Joy to the World!” So let’s listen first to this beautiful Christmas hymn:

This hymn was first published by Isaac Watts in his Psalms of David in 1719. Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England in 1674. He was a brilliant student, beginning his study of Latin when he was only four, and writing verses when he was seven. At 16, he went to study in the Academy of Thomas Rowe, a minister in London. In 1698, he became a minister.

What many Christians don’t know is that “Joy to the World!” is a loose paraphrase of Psalm 98. Watts paraphrased many of the Psalms because he was not satisfied with the existing Psalms and their tunes that were being sung in the churches. In those days, only Psalms were sung in the churches. So he wrote his own Psalms of David in metrical form.

Watts interpreted the Book of Psalms in a Christ-centered manner. This is consistent with the Protestant Reformers’ doctrine that all of the Bible points to Christ. Consequently, the four stanzas of “Joy to the World!” are all focused on Christ. Watts did not arrange his paraphrase according to the nine verses of Psalm 98. The different verses of the psalm are rearranged in his hymn.

So let’s look at the song and compare it with Psalm 98. In the first stanza, we sing:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
and heav’n and nature sing.

This first stanza is a combination of Psalm 98 verse 1, “Oh sing to the LORD a new song,” verse 5, “Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre . . .  and the sound of melody!” and verse 6, “With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!”

Psalm 98 begins with a call for Israel to praise God in music and song because “he has done marvelous things!” In the Old Testament, God’s “marvelous works” usually refer to his wonderful, merciful works in saving Israel from their slavery in Egypt for 400 years. So Psalm 98:1 continues, “His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” These are the same words that Moses used in his song after Israel escaped from Egypt, in Exodus 15:6, “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.”

Then in their temple worship, according to God’s commandments in 2 Chronicles 29:25-26, the people of Israel used only four instruments – cymbals, harps, lyres, trumpets – not any instrument to the liking of people. This is why the psalmist writes in verse 3, “he has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”

Also in his first stanza, Watts used Psalm 98’s focus on the joy of the whole world at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Obviously, he looks forward to his second coming, because at Christ’s first coming, only a few people, namely, Mary and Joseph, the parents of John the Baptizer, the shepherds, the wise men, the prophets Simeon and Anna in the temple, received him with joy. But in his second coming, the whole earth and heaven will rejoice. That’s why Psalm 98:4 commands, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!”

From the time that God commanded Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to “be fruitful and multiply,” God had in mind the expansion of paradise in Eden to the whole earth. God’s plan was for his sanctuary, the Garden of Eden, to spread to the whole earth. How will this be fulfilled? If Adam passed his probation under the command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then all his descendants will be sinless worshipers of God. The whole earth will be transformed into the new heaven and new earth full of true worshipers of God.

But as it happened, Adam fell to the devil’s temptation, and God’s plan was forestalled. The whole earth was cursed with sin and death. Even joyful and fruitful work in the Garden was turned into hard toil. That’s why Watts wrote in the third stanza:

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.

God had to send his Eternal Son Jesus Christ to assume human form to do what Adam failed to do: perfectly obey God’s law, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience the many [all humanity] were made sinners, so by the one man’s [Christ’s] obedience the many [believers] will be made righteous” (Rom 5:18-19). Only then will God’s plan of making the whole earth his temple and the whole earth singing with joy be fulfilled. Only then will God’s blessings of salvation and restoration come. There will be no more sins and sorrows!

In Stanza 1, he also writes, “And heav’n and nature sing.” In stanza two, Watts elaborates:

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

Even “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” sing with joy at the coming of the LORD. This is a paraphrase of Psalm 98:7-8, Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together.” The psalmist uses a literary device called personification to dramatize that the whole creation will praise God for his wonderful works of salvation.

In Stanza 4, Watts writes about the future reign of Christ over all the nations:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of His righteousness,
and wonders of His love.

Christ now rules over his people, but not yet over all the world. When he returns from heaven, he will not be a helpless, humble baby who would become a Sacrifice on the cross for all our sins. Rather, he would return as a Conquering King who would trample upon all the rebellious kings of the earth who defy his rule. He would finally rule as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev 19:15-16).

Psalm 98 is not only calling God’s people to be joyful because of his past and present marvelous works of mercy and love. It also calls God’s people to rejoice in his Second Coming or his Second Advent, because he will then judge the world after he conquers all earthly kings [Matt 25:31-46]. But he is not like any other earthly kings or idol-gods who rule with tyranny, without love and righteousness.

In Psalm 98:9, we read, “For he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Why would the earth rejoice when Christ comes to judge them? When he says “earth” here, the psalmist refers to God’s people who rejoice when Jesus returns because he will finally vindicate them, after all the persecution and martyrdom God’s enemies have inflicted on them.

This is what the apostle Paul points out in 2 Thessalonians 1:6–9,

God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.

Therefore, when unbelievers sing this hymn only because of merrymaking at Christmas, they sing in ignorance of what it says about them: Christ was born to save sinners like them, but if they do not repent of their sins and believe in him, judgment will follow when he comes again. So the message for you if you don’t believe is this: Repent and believe, and you will truly have joy this Christmas and forever.

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