Would you guess that “Joy to the World,” a Christmas hymn so familiar to us it’s often in danger of becoming wallpaper for the season, was once revolutionary?
It’s true. Isaac Watts wrote his greatest hit in response to other hymns becoming aural wallpaper in the ears and hearts of the congregations of his day.
In “Joy to the World: A Christmas Hymn Reconsidered,” Alyssa Poblete writes,
Watts grew up in a world where the music in every worship service consisted only of psalms or sections of Scripture put to music. Watts found the practice monotonous. To him, there was a lack of joy among the congregants as they sang.
[Watts] once famously said, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”
And so Watts penned “Joy to the World,” which represents the pinnacle of a vocation dedicated to renewing joy among believers who had lost it in the long walk of faith. On his blog, Power of Change, Reid Monaghan shares this anecdote about Watts:
In May 1731 Philip Doddridge, a minister in the congregational church, dispatched a joyous letter to his friend Isaac Watts…. Doddridge had held a service in a barn for “plain country people” in which they sang one of Watts’s hymns which had brought a tearful and celebratory response within the congregation present.
One cannot miss Dr. Watts [at] Christmastime when his wonderful hymn, “Joy to the World,” bursts forth new each year with resounding joy.
Ironically, Watts’s hymn isn’t about Christ’s first coming, but his second. Poblete argues,
So why do we sing this song at Christmas? It is clearly a song about Christ’s second coming—when the full expression of his glory will be revealed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Or does it? After all, there is no second coming without a first coming.
This song is all about the fulfillment of what Christ came to do in the first place. Christmas is not only a time to look back at the grace accomplished in the past. Christmas is also a time to look forward to the grace that was accomplished for our future. When we sing these words, we are proclaiming the ultimate joy to be revealed. This is why we can sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas.
It’s appropriate to sing about Christ’s second coming during the season of celebrating his first. Christ came to establish his kingdom. Like Watts’s congregants, how many of us have lost the joy of kingdom living amid our sometimes monotonous daily work routines?
The promise of Christ’s kingdom is what we need to revive us and provide direction for our lives. Writing about the importance of God’s kingdom to our callings, Hugh Whelchel states,
Some say we are living in a time ‘between the times’ where the old age of sin and death and the new age of life and salvation are overlapping. The old age is defeated and will pass away, while the second has been inaugurated and will one day be fulfilled.
While the full realization of the kingdom awaits Christ’s second advent, we should not minimize what is happening in this current age between the two advents, nor the role we are called to play in this season of “Already, Not Yet.”
Today, we are witnessing the age to come breaking into this present age. Therefore, as citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians live in tension: we struggle with the pain of this broken world, yet we rejoice with hope in God’s promise that through Christ all things are being made new.
“Joy to the World” gives us hope as we work and wait for the fulfillment of the kingdom Christ has initiated and will bring in full. What a promise! What a way to remember that Christ has set us free from “the old age of sin and death” that is “defeated and will pass away”! May we joyously sing and celebrate the promise Christ’s first coming represents while we anxiously await his second.
Editor’s note: In Christ’s kingdom we are free indeed. Learn more about how Christ enables us to live joyously in freedom while we wait for his return in IFWE’s booklet, Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.
On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Dec. 16, 2016.
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