Story Behind the Song ~ Joy to the World

Posted by on Dec 13, 2010 in Christmas | 18 comments

No Christmas carol list would be complete without the exuberant celebration song, “Joy to the World.” This lively tune is easily memorized and simple to play on an instrument. But do you know the interesting story behind this well loved hymn?

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), author of around 750 songs, is commonly called “The Father of Hymns” due to his popularity as the first English hymn writer. A few of his most well-known songs still sung today include: Come ye that Love the Lord; When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; At the Cross; and the topic of today’s post, Joy to the World. Isaac Watts was a young man when hymns other than the Psalms were allowed to be sung in the Church of England. This gave way to Watts developing many beloved songs. Watts still based many of his songs on the Psalms, but he was especially interested in writing hymns based on the “Christian experience.”

Joy to the World was written in 1719 and based on Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together. Before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

If you notice the lyrics of the song, Joy to the World, you will see nothing about shepherds, a manger, wise men, angels, or any other character or element that we normally associate with the Christmas story. The reason being that Isaac Watts did not write Joy to the World to be a Christmas song. The original theme of this song was the second coming of the Lord. Christmas won’t always be a joyful time, but when Jesus comes back, even the rocks will sing!

Over 100 years later, in 1839, Lowell Mason adapted and arranged this song into a melody many believe to have been written by Handel. In my research, however, I have not been able to establish when or why this hymn became associated with Christmas. Certainly we can look at the message in the song and see that it can be applied to Christ’s appearance as a babe in Bethlehem. We must prepare room for Him in our hearts and lives. This is a joyous occasion!

As you hear and sing this beloved carol this season, think about the words. Yes, they apply to the Christmas story in that the Lord is come! We should rejoice! But, let the lyrics all point you to the reason Jesus came: to save the world. Be ready because He is coming again! What a glorious day THAT will be when the whole earth celebrates His appearing!

Joy to the World

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 world! the Saviour 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.

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  1. love this one mon, and this song! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. And kudos to you for being one of the rare bloggers to recognize that “Joy to the World” is not actually a Christmas carol. At this point, we are unlikely to change the traditional use of the song, especially since some list it as their “favourite carol.” But since Watts intended to paraphrase the latter part of Psalm 98, when the Lord “is coming to judge the earth” (vs. 9), there can be little doubt of the proper application.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing!!! I’ve been reading up on the history behind various Christmas songs and carols. So very interesting!

  4. Actually “Joy To The World” is not about the Second Coming since Isaac Watts was Post-Millennial in his eschatology. He would not have been thinking in premillennial categories as so many assume. If we regard the authorial intent of the hymn writer we will see that Watts was referring to the period of time between the 2 advents. He was not thinking of another age of history after the Second Coming when he wrote JTTW. It is about Messiah’s kingly rule now.

    • Does it matter what type of eschatology Watts believed in since Post-Mills and Pre-Mills believe in a second coming.

      • Denise S, you hit the nail on the head regarding the eschatology of Mr. Watts and its influence upon the meaning of this hymn. Regardless of his belief concerning the second coming of Jesus Christ, be it a dynamic event or a processional event, his theme is an emphatic declaration of praise regarding Jesus’ bodily appearing on earth again! However, Mark does make a good point about the Kingdom of God coming to earth in a person’s heart through repentance and faith with the salvation experience and the will of God being done on earth in a person’s life even as it is in Heaven through the process of sanctification. In a sense, Jesus does return to the earth each time a person is born again. And He certainly is visible through a life sanctified to Him personally! Still, I am persuaded to believe Mr. Watts had the dynamic return of Jesus Christ in mind when he penned these words. Just my opinion.

        • Even though Mr. Watts probably was post millennial in his eschatology; simply because pre-millennialism is not believed by most historians to have been a popularized theory during his day; it could be, he could have been one of those pre-millennialist who was silent except for the lyrics of this hymn. I believe pre-millennialism began with the Apostle Paul’s writings and continued throughout the post apostolic era even into as far as the third or fourth centuries as an accepted theory of Jesus’ return. Augustine popularized A-millennialism with his interpretations and from then post-millennialism developed through the years. These were the accepted theories of the Roman church as was those of the reformation. Just because pre-millennialism was not the accepted doctrine of the Roman and reformation churches does not mean it did not exist prior to the seventeenth century. There were many, many separatist groups not affiliated with the main line denominations that existed from the post apostolic era through the reformation even until pre modern when they began to be organized into mainline Christian denominations. These doctrines did not just pop up in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they merely came out of hiding during these times. Watts could easily have been secretly identified with one of these evangelical groups and thus revealed his theory about the dynamic appearing of the Lord in this hymn. Just my opinion…

    • Agree fully

  5. Wonderful work, wonderful experience, wonderful joy. Keep it up. May God bless you.

  6. this hymn is a blessing to my life.
    It brought real joy to my soul, life and family.

  7. Thanks for the post. A wonderful, wonderful song. It certainly fits with the Second Coming of Christ. At that time, there will truly be “joy to the world.”

  8. Thank you, Monica! And Joy to you and your family! The Lord is come!

  9. :)

  10. Monica,

    I hope you don’t mind but I borrowed this article to put in our Christmas Eve bulletin this year. Of course I attributed it to you! :-) God bless you and your family! Merry Christmas!

    Brian Lee

  11. Nice piece on this song! It is without question a worship song. We can be singing Christmas Carols, but when this comes up, I go to a whole different place. Between the words and the music, sometimes I can hardly get it out without choking up. Good stuff!

    Let earth receive her king!

  12. Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post.
    Many thanks for providing this info.

  13. Agree fully! Depends on your interpretation of: “What is second coming!” To me, it was when I received Christ into my life and my lifestyle was changed.


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