The Story of “Joy to the World”

In 1692, an 18 year old boy named Isaac complained to his father about the “wretchedly boring music” of the Anglican Church (Church of England) and was challenged by his dad to write a better song than the ones they were singing each week. The young man accepted the challenge and within a few days he wrote the words to a hymn that so impressed his local congregation that the members asked him to write another one! In fact Isaac Watts wrote a brand new hymn every week for 222 consecutive Sundays, despite a crippling illness that left him virtually an invalid. Nevertheless, he could still write of the praises of God, and in 1719 he penned the words to the best-loved Christmas carol, “Joy to the World”, using references from Psalm 98:4; Psalm 96:11-12 and Genesis 3:17-18, the latter scripture referring to the “curse” from which believers are made free when they place their trust in Jesus Christ. Although it was not originally designed as solely a song to be sung during the Christmas season, it came to be one of the premier anthems of the celebration of Christ’s birth.

At the time, many of Watts’ hymns were dismissed by some as “outrageous contemporary music”, but amazingly they are still being sung around the world 300 years later! They include “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Jesus Shall Reign”. In 1836, a well-known composer and arranger of his time, Lowell Mason, put a melody to Watts’s famous words, which for many years had simply been fitted to “the tunes of the Old Psalm Book” in England, as the majority of hymns of that day were. Mason chose to put it to a melody which he named “Antioch” and attributed to the great composer, George Frederick Handel. Parts of the tune are similar to melodies in the “Messiah” which Handel composed and premiered in 1742. The combination of Watts’s lyrics and Mason and Handel’s music was an instant hit, you might say, and the rest is history!

Many of our old hymns contain so much solid theology, as does “Joy to the World”. Look at three of the verses from this four-verse hymn:

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

“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 wonder of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love.”

In this time of turbulence in our lives, including political fraud and stolen elections, a worldwide pandemic that doesn’t seem to go away, unrest between people who use racism as an excuse for every woe known to mankind, the idea of bringing “joy to the world” seems to be a nearly impossible ideology! But, do you realize that for thousands of years people in all civilizations experienced far worse than we do and were still able to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, often while living in far less than perfect conditions? Their strength came from a steadfast belief that God was in control of the situation and that by committing their lives into His Hands and standing on the promises in His Word, they would somehow come out victorious, despite the evil leaders and intense corruption surrounding them on every side. I think this is a good lesson for us to learn even today as we face very unsettling times!

Think about the profound words of this beloved Christmas carol today and realize we are free from the curse of the law! Jesus came to bring freedom and redemption to all who will accept His great gift of salvation! I would love to share with you my piano arrangement of this great hymn, “Joy to the World”!

“Joy to the World”, arranged and played by Rebecca Bafford from her CD “Proclaim the Joy!”

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