The Trouble with “Joy to The World”

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Some of our most beloved Christmas songs, when you stop to consider the lyrics, are not really about Christmas. Jingle Bells, Sleigh Ride, and Winter Wonderland are more about the winter season than they are about Christmas. My Favorite Things is from the musical The Sound of Music and takes place when children are frightened by a storm. Finally, Let It Snow and Baby It’s Cold Outside are about…well…not Christmas, that’s for sure.

And then, there’s the beloved Christmas carol Joy To The World, which as it turns out, is not really about Christmas at all.

Joy To The World, sung mostly at Christmastime, has more to do with the second coming of Jesus than the first. Isaac Watts, the English poet and originator of the lyrics, draws the song’s initial inspiration, not from the birth of Jesus narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98. He paraphrased Psalm 98 in his collection titled The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Joy to the World was taken from his portion titled The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom based on the following from the King James Version:

Make a joy 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 fullness 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. Psalm 98:4-9

So, how did the song become a Christmas song? Possibly from the combination of the poem by Isaac Watts with the music of George Frederic Handel, composer of The Messiah orotorio. Even though Handel and Watts may have known each other, they did not work together to create the Joy To the World song we sing today. A third party combined the Watt’s words with musical portions from Handel’s Messiah to create the tune that is sung today in North America. Since Handel’s Messiah is associated with Christmas and contains a “Christmas” section, the breakaway song, Joy to the World, has always been associated with Christmas.

So there you have it, one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time is not a Christmas song. Does it matter? Not really. Enjoy it and use it to worship the Lord, who was born in Bethlehem as a baby and will one day return to judge the world with righteousness.

Merry Christmas.

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