Joy to the World

Isaac Watts, 1674 -1748

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing.

As a child Isaac Watts - always a peculiar character - thought and spoke in rhyme. One day this penchant so annoyed his father that he lashed out and whipped the boy— who cried: "O father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make."

But the resolution didn't hold, nor did his father's displeasure. When he was fifteen, Isaac suffered through yet another in a lifelong succession of dull Sunday-morning church services. His father's sermon wasn't the problem. 

It was the psalm singing, which droned on; the sacred Scriptures may have been inspired, but the monotonous renditions weren't.

That afternoon over dinner he complained to his father about the hopeless state of contemporary church music. As he later expressed it, "The singing of God's praise is the part of worship nighest heaven, and its performance among us is the worst on earth."

The older Watts listened to his son and posed a challenge: "Give us something better, young man."

The teen went to work. That very evening the Southampton (England) congregation sang a new song penned by young Watts:

Behold the glories of the Lamb Amidst his Father's throne; Prepare new honors for his name, And songs before unknown.

English-language church music would never again be the same. In the next twenty years, Watts, known as the father of English hymnody, would revolutionize the way Christians expressed their praise—with meter and memorable rhyme.

Many of Watts' songs "ran with" the theme of a psalm, where appropriate adding in references to New Testament redemption. To Watts, "Joy to the World," published in 1719, was not a Christmas carol but a loosely paraphrased Old Testament doxology found in Psalm 98. "Joy to the World" picks up in the middle of the psalm (w. 4, 8—9):

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;. . . Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.

As I reflect on Psalm 98 and this hymn in light of Dr. Watts' story, I wonder why he didn't start with a paraphrase of the psalm's opening line: "O sing a new song." After all, "new song" defines the whole body of Watts's life work. He spent a lifetime repackaging the church's dreary music without harming content, he wrote a "new song" that would transform the praise of his and many subsequent generations. He might even have borrowed the same-metered lines from his very first song, written as a teen: "Prepare new honors for his name, And songs before unknown."

But no, he skipped the emphasis on the "new" and focused on the joy.

And it seems to have made all the difference.

Watts's exuberant version of Psalm 98 shows signs of immortality, the carol recognized even by millions who see the church as being a relic left over from another time.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

Let men their songs employ;

While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains

Repeat the sounding joy.

As he matured, maybe Watts learned an important lesson: old or new, it doesn't really matter. Without joy, the praises are dead. With joy, the music speaks.

Lord, prepare my heart to sing a joyful song. New, or old as the mountains themselves, what does it matter? Just let the praises flow— here, there, everywhere, far as the curse is found.


From  the  book  "Spiritual  Moments  with  the  Great  Hymns"  by  Evelyn  Bence