In this week’s lessons, as we prepare for Christmas, I want to look at one of the greatest of the Christmas carols—not the carol itself, of course, since it is only a human composition, but at the text from which it is drawn. “Joy to the World,” by Isaac Watts, is one of my favorite carols, and it would probably be among the most favored carols on any list that might be drawn up by English-speaking Christians.
Isaac Watts was a nonconformist English minister who was born in Southampton on July 17, 1674. In 1702 he became the pastor of the Mark Lane Chapel in London, which twice had to relocate to larger quarters because of the expanding congregation. He served there for ten years until he suffered a breakdown of his health in 1712.
“Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98, known as the Cantate Domino, from its first words (“Sing to the LORD”). Watts would have been familiar with the use of this psalm in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. In the Anglican liturgy, Psalm 98 follows the reading of the first lesson for the evening service.
Psalm 98 is wholly given over to celebration. It has three stanzas, presenting God as “Savior” (vv. 1-3), “King” (vv. 4-6) and “Judge” (vv. 7-9). But these stanzas also expand the worship being offered. Stanza one is directed to Israel, stanza two to the whole earth, and stanza three to nature or the cosmos. Psalm 98 is a great psalm with which to praise God, which is what Watts’ “Joy to the World” does brilliantly.
Each of the three stanzas of this psalm calls on one part of creation to praise God, as I said, and in the first stanza this is Israel (vv. 1-3). This is because “He [God] has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel” (v. 3).
Since the verb is in the past tense (“has remembered”) we should assume that the psalmist is thinking of some great act of deliverance of the people by God, though we are not told what this was and have no sure way of finding out. Commentators who think this is a late composition usually suppose that it was God’s deliverance of the people from their Babylonian captivity. But the only thing certain is that the deliverance was a victory in some sense. The word translated “salvation” (the word occurs in each of the first three verses) includes the idea of “victory,” and is translated this way in verse 1 in the King James Version. It is because of this new act of deliverance or new victory that the people are to sing “a new song.”
But deliverance from some ancient enemy does not exhaust the meaning of this stanza, since the words seem to have been in the mind of the Virgin Mary when she composed her great Magnificat to celebrate the impending birth of Jesus Christ. There are striking parallels between the first part of Psalm 98 and Mary’s Magnificat, which means that Mary rightly perceived that the promises of the psalm were to be fulfilled in the spiritual victories to be achieved by Jesus.