Joy to the World

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Joy is a word that is often meant to convey the idea of happiness, but joy is so much more than happiness. Ultimate joy is an unwavering delight in something or someone that is undeterred or distracted by outside circumstances. It is established and sustained despite whatever hardships it must endure. With joy comes a steadfast hope that whatever suffering and trials the present brings, the best is yet to come.

Isaac Watts, known as the “Father of Modern Hymns,” has written such favorites as “The Wondrous Cross,” “Come Ye Sinners” and “At the Cross.” When Isaac Watts penned the words to “Joy to the World” in 1719, his heart and mind were on our coming King and the true joy that His arrival would bring to a broken and desperate world.

Arguably the most popular hymn of the Advent season, “Joy to the World” is sung across the world by millions of people each year. However, Watts did not originally intend for the song to accompany twinkling lights or thoughts of a newborn Savior in a manger. A closer look reveals that it makes no mention of shepherds, heavenly hosts, or wise men. In fact, Watts doesn’t look to the New Testament gospels for his inspiration for “Joy to the World,” but instead drew inspiration from Psalm 98, where the Psalmist declares:

Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with
righteousness, and the peoples
with equity.

This Old Testament passage is speaking specifically to the reconciliation of all things, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead. The Psalmist is looking ahead to the restoration of God’s intended relationship with His people. “Joy to the World” was not written with the first Advent in mind, but the second Advent of our King Jesus. Like those who awaited the promised Redeemer of God’s people, we also await the return of our King who will make all things new.

Every year, we reflect on the anticipation and preparation of a promise fulfilled. A Light that would pierce the darkness. A Word that would break the silence. A hope that would be stronger than our fear. A joy that would overcome our despair. A love beyond our most extravagant comprehension.

During the Advent season, we celebrate “Immanuel,” our God who is with us. We rejoice that Christ has come as an infant Messiah, but we also look forward to His triumphant return as the exalted Sovereign over all creation. As Watts proclaims, all of creation will join with us and “repeat the sounding joy.” A marred and fallen Creation that once groaned, will now rejoice in overflowing jubilation to see her King establish His everlasting Kingdom.

Each year during the Advent season, we sing “Joy to the World,” because we find ourselves in a second Advent. We long, with great expectation and anticipation, the Day that sin and death, pain and suffering, and darkness and despair will be forever ended. J.R.R. Tolkein alludes this completion of our time of waiting as the moment when “everything sad is coming untrue.”

We prepare for His return by shining and showing the light of Christ to those around us who are trying desperately to make sense of a broken world. We proclaim to them a joy that far surpasses the momentary troubles of this world.

As we wait, we find ourselves in the “already, but not yet.” The promise of our glorious Savior has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, but the full realization of His Kingdom is still on the horizon. We look forward with a hope that longs to be made complete in the second coming of our exalted Redeemer.

I invite you to reflect on the final stanza of another hymn that speaks to the return of the King:

When Christ shall come
With shouts of acclamation
And take me home
What JOY shall fill my heart!

Then I shall bow
In humble adoration
And there proclaim
“My God how great Thou art!”

Joy to the World, indeed!


This article was written by Worship Pastor Mike Price and was originally published in Grace Magazine.