Columbus Blue Jackets center, Max Domi, loves Christmas.
He told Canadiens.com; “Christmas is my favorite time of the year. I’m literally the biggest Christmas person out there!”
He loves Christmas movies. “My top three Christmas movies are Home Alone 2, Elf, and the Grinch.”
But, perhaps most of all, he loves Christmas music. He recalls “Every year at our family Christmas party, we sing carols and my Nanna brings these little folders with all the lyrics in them.” In 2018, the NHL Network featured a short video, in which hockey players were asked about their favorite Christmas songs. Domi’s answer? “All of them! I love them all!” He ultimately couldn’t narrow it down to one. He gave them 3; “Jingle Bell Rock,” “We With You a Merry Christmas,” and “Joy to the World.”
Those are all wonderful songs! Though, technically, one of them isn’t officially a Christmas song.
The text of the hymn was written by Isaac Watts, who lived in England during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. During his lifetime, the Anglican Church – the prevalent church in England – employed singing in their church services, but they didn’t sing hymns or any other original songs! The only songs they allowed were the Psalms of David.
Isaac Watts certainly appreciated the Psalms of David, but he felt like it was limiting. The Psalms were all written from an Old Testament perspective – looking forward in time to –
the Messiah – and to the cross. But none of them were written from OUR perspective, of looking backwards in time to those same moments of history.
Watts, therefore, decided to write some new hymns. His goal would be to try to put Himself in King David’s shoe, had David been alive at the time of Christ. In other words, what would the Psalms sound like if David had composed them during the 1st Century instead. Watts chose certain Psalms, and tried to alter them to make them apply to life in the 1st Century. He wrote a collection of hymns, and compiled them in a collection entitled: “The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.”
Here’s how Watt’s describes his book.
“I suppose what David would have sounded like if he lived in the days of Christianity, and by this means, perhaps I have sometimes hit upon the true intent of the Spirit of God in these verses farther and clearer than David himself could have done.”
What he meant by that was that David could NOT describe the events of Christ’s life quite as clearly as someone who has, for example, read the Gospels could. A New Testament believer can write about specific moments in history, such as the Crucifixion, the Transfiguration, or the Ascension in vivid detail. David could only write about the details that the Holy Spirit chose to miraculously reveal it to him ahead of time. What Watts was saying was that, because of the period of history in which he lived, he could bring to life specific details from the Scriptures, which David didn’t know about.
Watts likely meant well with his statement, though it still came off a bit arrogant. It almost sounds as if he was saying that he’s better than King David was! It almost sounds as if he was claiming that his Words were more inspired than the Inspired Word of God!
To make matters worse, Watts had an archrival named Thomas Bradbury (because every hymnwriter needs an archenemy)! Bradbury accused Watts of thinking that he was better than King David, that he was trying to get the church to stop using the Psalms, and that he wanted the church to replace the Psalms with his hymns. In fact, Bradbury even refused to call them hymns. Instead, he called them “The Whims of Isaac Watts.”
That is not what Watts intended. At one point, he responded to Bradbury’s accusations by writing; “You tell me that I rival it with David; whether he or I be the sweet Psalmist of Israel. I abhor the thought! While yet at the same time I am fully persuaded that the Jewish Psalm book was never designed to be the only psalter for the Christian church.”
In other words, he wasn’t composing new hymns to replace the Psalms, but rather to add new songs the church could sing in addition to the Psalms of David. One of the Psalms which Watts set to re-envision through New Testament eyes was Psalm 98.
98 Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
2 The LORD has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!
7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
8 Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
9 before the LORD, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
As Watts read Psalm 98, he considered what the REAL reason for Joy would have been for King David. He concludes that it was nothing other than the promised coming of the Messiah! In Old Testament eyes, the coming of the Messiah would be Christmas! One could definitely argue that Psalm 98 would make a great Christmas Psalm! But in New Testament eyes, the anticipated coming of Christ is something different. It’s His 2nd Coming! The Last Day!
So, in “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts transforms a Psalm which anticipated the coming of the Christ on Christmas, into one which celebrates the anticipated coming of Christ on the Last Day…
Consider Christ’s second coming as you read the familiar words of the beloved hymn.
1 Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King:
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room
And heav’n and nature sing,
2 Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy!
3 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!
4 He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love!
The beautiful words of this hymn certainly sounds like something the angels could have sang at our dear Savior’s birth. But as we sing these words, we’re meant to transport our minds to the return of Christ. We picture what Jesus will do on the Last Day when He returns. The angels in heaven will sing! The entire earth will rejoice! All of our sins will be forgiven and we’ll never sin again! Death and Sorrow and sadness and tears will be a thing of the past! We’ll no longer have to sweat and toil to bring forth food from the earth! The cursed one, the devil, will be cast away. We’ll live forever on the new earth, with Christ reigning over us in truth, grace, and righteousness.
Right now, we live in a world which is still marked with things like sin and sorrow; thorns and the curse of death. The reality is – we live in a sinful world! Even though we’re in a joyous season as Christmas draws near, perhaps you don’t feel like celebrating this year. Perhaps you’re mourning the loss of someone you love. Perhaps you’re in the midst of a trial of some kind right now. Perhaps you’re sick. Perhaps you’re struggling financially. Perhaps you’re feeling isolated and alone. Perhaps you’re just sick and tired of this world and all the hatred and division that constantly surround us.
This hymn reminds us why we have real joy. Our joy isn’t found in what surrounds us right now! Our joy is found in the promise of what is yet to come. The same Messiah who came on Christmas Day, in order to die on the cross to pay for our sins, promises that He is coming again to put an end to all those things which make us miserable; death and the devil; suffering and sorrow
This hymn isn’t telling you to simply cheer up and have a Merry Christmas! Rather it’s pointing us forward to the fact that this suffering won’t last forever! The Day will soon come in which Christ returns to replace painful toil with fruitful labor, dreadful sin with righteousness, the curse of death with eternal and abundant life, and tears of sorrow with tears of joy. That promise is what gives us hope when everything else around us is miserable.
So, even while we live in a world marked by sin and sorrow, we have joy as we look forward to what comes next. With certain hope and with eager expectation, we look forward to the day in which Christ returns and we join with all of creation in joyfully singing “Joy to the World, the Lord has come! Let earth receive her King!”
This may not officially be a Christmas song. But I, nevertheless, agree with Max Domi. This is one of the greatest songs – of any kind – every written!