Joy to the World!

My preparations for Wednesday’s Hymn Class and our Advent Midweek services came together this week by way of the beloved hymn Joy to the World.  Our hymn class has been examining seasonal hymns from the lovely Hymns for All Saints recordings from Concordia Publishing House.  Joy to the World is not only a wonderful song to sing, but it has an interesting history too.  The great Isaac Watts, before he was known as great, sounded off about the Psalm versions sung in his day being harsh and uncouth.  Challenged to write something better, he did.  In fact he wrote over 600 hymns, many of which we still sing today.  Included in his Psalms of David collection (1719) was his paraphrase of Psalm 98, a hymn which he called Joy to the World.

Watts decided that his Psalm versions would include an emphasis on New Testament fulfillment.   Accordingly, he placed his version of Psalm 98 in a section called “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”  The Psalm speaks of the Lord coming to “judge the world with righteousness.”  God does indeed judge His people based on their life performance.   But God also brings salvation, and this is the prevailing message of the Psalm.  The first three verses each include references such as “the Lord has made known his salvation” (verse two).  This salvation has been revealed “in the sight of the nations.”  It has been brought by our “king,” before whom we are to make “a joyful noise.”

Jesus is the visible king who came to bring salvation.  His very name means “savior.”  As such, God’s salvation in Christ is the central message of the church’s Christmas celebration each year.  Psalm 98 is an important part of that.  But the Psalm’s additional features also fit well with this year’s particular Advent emphasis at St. Paul’s.  The Psalm (and hymn) urges not only all humanity, but also the whole earth to sing joyful praises.  The sea, the rivers, the hills… the whole world is to rejoice in God’s salvation.  That is because the whole world is being saved.   The earth, which was once cursed just as humanity was (Genesis 3), is now being renewed through the Gospel (“He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found”) and will someday be re-created as the “new heaven and new earth” (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21) when Christ comes again.

This hymn not only expresses our joy through a catchy melody (by Handel, using phrases from his Messiah) and with quaint, old-English language (“the Lord is come” – the now nearly extinct unaccusative intransitive verb according to Mignon Fogarty “the Grammar Girl” – who knew!), but it also focuses us on the goodness of God’s creation, which reflects His glory too, and will be with us forever.  Joy to the world indeed!

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Pastor Mark Shaltanis


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