As one of the most joyous of all Christmas hymns, this carol omits references to shepherds, angelic choruses, and wise men. It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth brought to humanity. For centuries hearts had yearned for God to reveal Himself personally. At last it happened as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The entire Advent season should be filled with solemn rejoicing as we contemplate anew God’s great gift, providing the means whereby sinful people might live eternally.
“Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of the last part of Psalm 98:
Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. . . . 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 (vv. 4-9).
Although it was originally a song of rejoicing for Jehovah’s protection of His chosen people and the anticipation of the time when He would be the God of the whole earth, this psalm was intended by Watts to be a New Testament expression of praise. It exalts the salvation that began when God became incarnate as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s fall. The text was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom” when it first appeared in a hymnal of 1719 by Isaac Watts. The music for this popular carol is thought to have been adapted by Lowell Mason, an American church musician, from some of the phrases used in parts of George Frederick Handel’s beloved oratorio, The Messiah, first performed in 1742. Through the combined talents of an English literary genius of the eighteenth century, a German-born musical giant from the same period, and a nineteenth century American choir director and educator, another great hymn was born.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, and heav’n 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.
Written by Kenneth W. Osbeck