Joy to the World: Not a Christmas Song

Advent Wreath

“Joy to the World” is one of our most beloved Christmas carols, which is ironic because it isn’t about Jesus’ birth (click to tweet). Isaac Watts wrote it as an adaptation of Psalm 98. And the part we sing is just the second half of what he wrote.

It was first published in The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship in 1719. The tune we know was not added until Lowell Mason arranged it for singing in 1839.

Psalm 98 refers a time when God will come to judge the world. From the New Testament, we know that Jesus will return to the earth and the world will then be judged. But that will mark Christ’s second advent, not his first.

Here is the full original text of Isaac Watt’s adaptation of the psalm:

Psalm XCVIII. First Part.
Praise for the gospel.

To our almighty Maker, God,
 New honors be addressed;
His great salvation shines abroad,
 And makes the nations blest.

He spake the word to Abraham first,
 His truth fulfils the grace:
The Gentiles make his Name their trust,
 And learn his righteousness.

Let the whole earth his love proclaim
 With all her different tongues;
And spread the honors of his Name
 In melody and songs.

Psalm XCVIII. Second Part.
The Messiah’s coming and kingdom.

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 earth, the Savior reigns;
 Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains,
 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.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
 And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
 And wonders of his love.

Even without knowing that it is based on Psalm 98, it is evident from the lyrics that “Joy to the World” is not about Christmas—most of the things it refers to are not yet true.

Jesus certainly is the King, but the earth as has not yet received him as such. Many hearts are still hardened to him. Although our Savior has the right to reign, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, LEB).

Sins and sorrows still abound. Thorns continue their infestation. And “the whole creation groans together and suffers agony together until now” (Romans 8:22, LEB).

One day Jesus will return to rule the world. Until then, his kingdom is a subversive one. He rules among his followers. Right now, we have the privilege to “prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.” But the nations are not yet doing so.

I love “Joy to the World.” I rejoice to sing of our Lord’s return. I just wish most people understood what it is we’re singing about.