History of Hymns: “Joy to the World”

by C. Michael Hawn

Isaac Watts“Joy to the World”
by Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 246

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

“Joy to the world” is perhaps an unlikely popular Christmas hymn. First of all, it is based on a psalm, and, second, it celebrates Christ’s second coming much more than the first. This favorite Christmas hymn is the result of a collaboration of at least three people and draws its initial inspiration not from the Christmas narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98.

The first collaborator was the English poet and dissenting clergyman, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He paraphrased the entire Psalm 98 in two parts, and it first appeared in his famous collection, The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).

“Joy to the world” was taken from the second part of the paraphrase (Psalm 98:4-9), entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Watts, commenting on his paraphrase of the psalm, notes: “In these two hymns I have formed out of the 98th Psalm I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief Sense of the Holy Scriptures . . ..” For Watts, the psalms were not to be viewed as biblical material in their own right, but had value only inasmuch as they pointed toward the New Testament.

A comparison between Watts’s psalm paraphrase and the original verses in the King James translation of Psalm 98:4-9 demonstrates considerable freedom:

“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 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.” (KJV)

Curiously, stanza three is the exception. It is not based on Psalm 98 and is sometimes omitted:

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.

The “curse” is a reference to Genesis 3:17 when God says to Adam following the eating of the apple from the tree, “Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” (KJV) As a part of “five-point Calvinism,” the “total depravity of man”, the curse is a significant part of classic Reformed theology, Isaac Watts’ theological perspective.

Though The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) retains the original text, the hymnal of the United Reformed Church in the UK, Rejoice and Sing (1991), altered the stanza as follows:

No more let thorns infest the ground,
or sins and sorrows grow;
wherever pain and death are found
he makes his blessings flow.

The second collaborator was an unwitting one, George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), the popular German-born composer residing in London. Though contemporaries in England, they did not collaborate on this hymn. Another pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune that we sing in North America. The opening bars for the chorus, “Lift up your heads,” was adapted to the incipit “Joy to the world.” An instrumental portion of the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye,” provides a basis for the text “heaven and nature sing.” Such borrowings were common, the aesthetic notion being that the music of great musicians had in itself an innate beauty. Even a crude pastiche of “great music” implied that the result would also be of high quality.

The third collaborator who assured that this tune and text would appear together in the United States was the Boston music educator, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). It was Mason, a musician with significant influence in his day, who published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes (1836) and named the tune Antioch. While this is not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one. Actually, this tune remains virtually unknown in Great Britain.

When sung to Antioch, the text is repeated in the second section, reflecting a particular early American treatment of the melody called a “fuging tune.” A fuging tune was a compositional device initiated by American-born composer William Billings (1746-1800) where voice parts enter one after the other in rapid succession, usually repeating the same words.

The result of the fuging tune section is quite effective for the first stanza—“heaven and nature sing”—and the second stanza—“repeat the sounding joy”—and the fourth stanza, “wonders of his love” For the third stanza, with the text “far as the curse is found” echoing of Genesis 3:17-18 and Romans 5:20, the fuging compositional device seems a bit rollicking.

The result is a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States!

Categories: History of Hymns, Advent and Christmas Music

Download Now Add to Downloads Folder