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The Meaning Behind Classic Christmas Carols: Joy to the World



This Christmas season, I have been super, super excited about diving deep into the Christmas story and other facets of this holiday. This series topic is no different! My mom inspired me to write about this, and the more research I did, the more passionate I got. So, up until Christmas, I'm going to break down a few of the most classic Christmas carols, and together, we're going to discover how these traditions point to who Christ is, how He changed everything, and who He calls us to be.


And for the first post in the series, we're going to be talking about the Christmas song, "Joy to the World"!


Interestingly, "Joy to the World" is inspired by Psalms 98, not actually the birth of Jesus in either Matthew or Luke. It was written as a collaboration between three people, Isaac Watts, George Frederick Handel, and Lowell Mason, each bringing their own pieces of praise and perspectives.


The primary author, Isaac Watts, wrote many other Christian songs, such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross". Throughout everything he composed, he desired to instill a passion in the worship that Christians were singing. It had become boring and dry, and he strived to change that.


So, inspired by Psalms 98, particularly verses 4-9, which all express joyful, moving worship, he crafted what we know as "Joy to the World". But, he probably wasn't exactly worshipping God for the birth of Jesus - he was most likely worshipping God for the second coming of Jesus.


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


This first verse of the song is one of my favorite parts because of its simple application. Isaac Watts challenges us to look into our heart and examine if we truly have prepared room for Christ in our hearts. That has been something that I've really been meditating on, as I've talked about in one of my previous posts, "When You're Lacking Christmas Cheer", but it takes genuine intentionality and preparation to celebrate Christmas with a heart of true worship and adoration. I started praying about and studying the Christmas story before December even started because I want to receive whatever the Lord has for me, and I want to have ample time to sit in the Scriptures and truly understand it.


It's also got me thinking about the second coming of Jesus, though. Many people actually interpret this song to be completely about His return, and I can see why. There's a big possibility that in this verse, Watts is challenging his audience to examine if they are ready for Christ to come back. That's a big, big question, but it's an important one.


As Christians, we are called to live every single day for Jesus, and we should be ready for Him to come back at any time. The reality is, though, most of us aren't ready for Him to come back at any time. We often get so caught up in worldly things that we aren't fixing our eyes on eternity and living as if He's coming back. I find it ironic that this song became a Christmas song, because while we are celebrating His birth, this season is also a reminder to meditate on what Jesus did later on in His life, and what He will do soon. Watts is reminding us of that truth, because where we're going for eternity is a reality that we all have to grapple with.


Joy to the Earth, the Savior reigns

Let all their songs employ

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy


I sat with this part of the song a little bit longer than the rest, trying to decide how I wanted to explain it, but I don't think it needs to be that complicated.


We have joy because Jesus reigns, because He is in control, and He is the Savior of the world. Because of that joy, we are called to praise and worship Him, with every word that comes out of our mouth and every thought that we let settle in our minds. All of creation is designed to give the glory to the Lord and point back to Him, and in the same way, so are we.


I genuinely feel like this is the message that the entire song is meant to convey. There's so many parts that we can argue and debate, but the point is - JOY TO THE WORLD! Jesus is King, and when we follow Him, we have an indescribable joy, no matter what our circumstances look like, because He is constant, He is faithful, and He is good. We are called to praise Him, because He deserves all of our worship.


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.


This is where many people make the argument that Watts is talking about Jesus' second coming. As we all know, sin and sorrow is still extremely present in our world today, and the curse that God put on Adam and Eve and all of humanity at their initial sin is still active.


With that being said, as Christians, we have a hope that one day, we will experience no more sin and no more sorrow, as we read about in Revelation 21:4. We have hope that His blessing will overcome the curse that is over humanity, and that one day, in Heaven, we will be able to bask in His presence in a way that we never have been able to before. Christ's work and plan for this earth has yet to be completed, but when it is, even as far as the curse has been found, His love and grace will be greater.


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


The final verse of the song describes Christ's rule and reign. Some consider this to be solely about His second return, and others think it's solely about His birth, but no matter what, I want you to remember that Christ does rule the world, and one day, He will exercise complete power.


It's undeniable that the Lord rules with truth and grace. He is the perfect balance of justice and mercy, unlike any other god or idol. He loves us unconditionally, covering our sins with His blood, while holding us accountable for our mistakes and teaching us how to live more and more like Him. There's no "Old Testament God" and "New Testament God" - it's all the same - and His character remains constant through the course of history and our lives.


Some people believe that the second part of the verse ("and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love....") is talking about how right now, the Lord uses all situations and all decisions, whether sinful or godly, whether obedient or disobedient, for His glory. God can use all things for His glory and our good, and all of it can point to His character.


Others believe that this is talking about the day when all of the nations will actively worship and glorify the Lord in all things. Instead of God using their sin, some people believe that this verse is looking ahead to the day when all nations will choose to obey and honor the Lord. Because one day, every knee will bow and declare that Christ is the Lord.


Personally, I believe that both interpretations are valid. The point of worship isn't to have a cut and dry theology or explanation, but a heart posture of gratitude and admiration for the Lord. This song is meant to shift our focus to the Lord, both His birth and His second coming, and inspire an attitude of praise. The song is titled, "Joy to the World", and no matter what Watts meant this song to reference, whether it be the birth or return, I truly believe that Watts wanted to move his audience to have joy because of who Christ is, what He has done, and what He will do.

 

This song has a depth that I don't think I truly understood until I dove into it, but I'm so glad I did. I'm encouraged by his message of joy and admiration for all that Jesus is and all that He's done, and all that we can look forward to by His grace. We could debate Isaac Watt's intentions all day, but the point is that he's moving us to focus on Christ and what He promises. I know that I will never listen to this song the same way again, and I hope that you were able to learn something from it as well.


What's your favorite part of this song? Why does it speak to you? Let me know down in the comments below; I love to hear from you!

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