Isaac Watts was arguably the most prolific hymn writer of his day. He is known for writing such timeless hymns as “Behold the Glories of the Lamb” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” However, Watts is best known for writing the hymn “Joy to the World”—a song played worldwide during Christmas every year.
While he is much appreciated today, during his lifetime Watts was considered by many to be a disturbance of the status quo and even possibly a heretic for the lyrics he wrote. While he wasn’t a heretic, he was a revolutionary.
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 and emotion among the congregants as they sang. He 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.”
Watts’s father issued a challenge. He told Watts that if he struggled with the songs they sang, then he ought to do something about it. Perhaps he should attempt to write something different. This moment set Watts on a lifelong pursuit to write lyrics that exalted Christ and reminded Christians of their hope in his saving work on the cross.
This desire is evident in the way he wrote “Joy to the World.” Watts was inspired to write the timeless tune while meditating on Psalm 98. Verse 4 gripped him: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” And this is exactly what Watts set out to do. Little did he know that this song would spark a joyful noise that would ring through the ages.
Focus on the Second Coming
While “Joy to the World” is primarily sung at Christmas, it's not about the incarnation. Rather, the song tells the story of Christ’s return—his second coming. We know this for at least three reasons.
First, the song speaks of the whole earth receiving her King:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing
But is that what happened when Christ came? After all, Scripture tells us that he was not readily received by everyone.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Is. 53:3)
The earth did not receive her King but like sheep, went astray. Still, we know that there will be a day when this will not be so:
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-10)
On that day, both heaven and nature will sing out and repeat the sounding joy for all eternity.
Second, we know this hymn is a song of Christ’s second coming because verse 3 talks about sins and sorrows being no more:
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
If you have lived on this earth for more than two minutes, you know that this is not our current experience. In Mark 13 Jesus foretold what was yet to come after his death when he said:
For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. (Mark 13:8)
The world is not sin-free. The world is not void of sorrow. Not yet, at least. Jesus told us that we should not be alarmed when we hear of the world’s brokenness. Why? Because “this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mark 13:7). Hebrews 10 tells us:
When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. (Heb. 10:12-13)
Although the fulfillment of all Christ’s work is not fully expressed this side of eternity, we know there will be a day when it is. Christ sits at the Father’s right hand, waiting until the perfect moment—a time when all good things will come to fruition. So we have hope.
Third, the final verse reveals that this hymn is about the second coming. It says:
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love
These final lines speak of how the nations will take an active role in revealing the glory of God. We know that all the nations of the earth are ultimately subject to God’s ever-sovereign hand. He is the one who gives authority, and he’s the one who takes it away. He uses every mistake, every poor decision, every war, every calamity, and every season of prosperity, all for his glory. But we have not yet seen the nations of this world intentionally seeking to prove the wonders and glories of our ultimate King. In fact, they often seek to defame the name of God. But he will not share his glory with another. The I Am is jealous for his name. Surely, there will be a day when we can say, “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove” his glory. And that day will be wonderful.
Christmas Hymn After All?
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.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:1-5)