A Brief History of "Joy to the World"

An Accidental Classic

Did you know that “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol? In its original form, it had nothing to do with Christmas. It wasn’t even written to be a song.

Isaac Watts was one of the great hymn writers in church history, and I guess nothing shows that better than the fact that he wrote one of his most famous hymns by accident. In 1719, Watts published a book of poems in which each poem was based on a psalm. But rather than just translate the original Old Testament texts, he adjusted them to refer more explicitly to the work of Jesus as it had been revealed in the New Testament.

One of those poems was an adaptation of Psalm 98. Watts interpreted this psalm as a celebration of Jesus’s role as King of both his church and the whole world. More than a century later, the second half of this poem was slightly adapted and set to music to give us what has become one of the most famous of all Christmas carols:

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

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,
Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy!
Repeat . . . repeat . . . the sounding joy!

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 wonders of his love!
And wonders . . . wonders . . . of his love!

Joy for the World

Joy for the World

Greg Forster

Offering an antidote to the church’s cultural irrelevance, this book helps us to cultivate and live out the joy of God as the key to having a transformative impact on the world.

How Joy Flows

Borrowing a few lyrics from this wonderful hymn, here’s how I think the joy of God flows out from our hearts into civilization:

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
The Holy Spirit miraculously transforms us through our relationship with Jesus, giving us the joy of God in mind, heart, and life.

Let Men Their Songs Employ
Because God made human beings as social creatures, this joy of God is not locked up in an isolated heart; it flows among us and transforms how we relate to one another.

Let Earth Receive Her King
The church is the special community of people who are undergoing this transformative work, and the Spirit uses the distinct life of the church to further that work by means of doctrine, devotion, and stewardship.

He Comes to Make His Blessings Flow
We live most of our lives out in the world, among people who are not (yet) being transformed in this special way. How we live in the world should manifest the change the Spirit is working in us, carrying the impact of the joy of God “far as the curse is found.”

He Rules the World with Truth and Grace
As we learn to manifest the Spirit’s work in our hearts through the ways we live in the world, the portions of the world that are under our stewardship start to flourish more fully—not in a way that directly redeems people, because only personal regeneration can save a human being, but in a way that makes the world more like it should be and delivers intense experiences of God’s joy to our neighbors.

This article is adapted from Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It by Greg Forster.



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