Christmas Carols: Joy to the World

Christmas Carols: Joy to the World

Are you ready for a shocking fact? This beloved carol was not written for the Christmas season or to celebrate the birth of Christ or even to be a song! Quite a surprise, isn’t it?

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was one of the most prolific and celebrated creators of hymns. In 1719, Watts published “The Psalms of David,” a collection of poems where each verse was based on a psalm. Watts was a poet, not primarily a song writer, and he was also a dissenting clergyman. Therefore, instead of translating the original texts of the Old Testament precisely, as was the expectation at that time, he disturbed the status quo by making subtle adjustments. He believed the Psalms were not to be viewed as Biblical material in their own right, but had value only inasmuch as they pointed toward the New Testament. His poems referred more explicitly to the works of Jesus, while seeking inspiration from the New Testament.

Joy to the World is based on Psalm 98: 4-9, and Watts interpreted this psalm as a celebration of Jesus’s role as King of both his church and the whole world, a reality of the future after Christ’s second coming. The majority of the poems of “The Psalms of David“ have now fallen into obscurity, although a number are standards placed to music and sung by Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist churches to this day. As noted in the previous paragraph, Watts is considered one of the great church hymn writers.

As for the music to Joy to the World, the origin is somewhat mystical.

Over a century after Watt’s published his poem, Lowell Mason, a Boston music teacher and the leading Presbyterian hymn composer in the United States, composed a riveting melody and published Joy to the World as a hymn during the Christmas season in 1836. This is, of course, how the song became associated with the holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus. However, it is believed that Mason’s version was the fourth revised interpretation of the carol, including a partial tune attributed to George Handel (writer of “Messiah”). To be clear, the implication isn’t that Mason plagiarized Handel or anyone else, but rather that beloved poems (such as those written by Isaac Watts) and hymns were commonly adapted or tweaked before settling into standard, agreed upon lyrics and music.

In some respects variations are still done today as contemporary artists record classic Christmas carols with their own spin on the lyrics and melody. The two videos below are examples of this. First, my absolute favorite contemporary musicians, Pentatonix. Next are the incredible Celtic Women with a much more classic version.

~ JOY TO THE WORLD ~

Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room And heaven and nature sing!
And heaven and nature sing!
And heaven . . . and heaven . . . and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
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!

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!

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!

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