Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come

The Messiah’s coming and kingdom
Isaac Watts, 1719
Based on Psalm 98
Addressed to everything
Joy to the world! The Lord is come:Ps. 98:4; 66:1; Luke 2:11
   let earth receive her King;Ps. 98:6; Rev. 11:15
let every heart prepare him room,Matt. 3:3; Acts 16:14; Eph. 3:17; James 5:8
   and heav’n and nature sing.Ps. 96:11; Is. 44:23; Luke 2:13; Rev. 5:13
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns:Ps. 100:1; Is. 49:13; Acts 5:31
   let men their songs employ;Ps. 67:4
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plainsPs. 98:7–8; 1 Chr. 16:33; Is. 55:12
   repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,James 1:15; Hos. 4:7–8
   nor thorns infest the ground;Gen. 3:18; Is. 55:13
he comes to make his blessings flowIs. 44:3
   far as the curse is found.Rom. 5:20–21
He rules the world with truth and grace,Ps. 98:9; 2 Chr. 20:6; John 1:17
   and makes the nations provePs. 98:2; 102:15; Is. 43:9; 62:2; Jer. 4:2
the glories of his righteousnessPs. 97:6; 2 Cor. 3:9
   and wonders of his love.Ps. 31:21; 117:1–2

In his biography, C. S. Lewis describes joy as man’s desire for God, but in the hymn above, we learn that this desire has more than mere man as its subject. Man may be the pinnacle of creation, but he is by no means alone in it in his desire for God. This hymn’s first two stanzas call all creation—and man chiefest in it—to take delight in the coming of the Lord. The second two stanzas give justification for that delight.

When joy is understood as a desire for God, the declarations that open the first two stanzas become definitive. God’s coming and Christ’s reign are the desires of all the earth. The personifying use of the feminine pronoun helps us better understand just who it is who receives the Lord—the earth, which is traditionally thought of as feminine. Only then does the stanza move on to human hearts as subject of this joy. We are asked to prepare room in our hearts for God. As we do so, song breaks out above and below us along the hierarchy of being—“heav’n,” our superior, and “nature,” our inferior, surround us in song.

After opening with its declaration, the second stanza picks up where the first one left off. The first one ends with angels and nature singing. The second one begins with man, his heart now enlarged, joining their song. That song is then repeated by nature, inverting the earlier relationship where nature’s royal reception prompted man’s preparation. Nature is poetically rendered in a line so loaded with long syllables that it lingers on the tongue: “while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains.”

Man has his reasons for delighting in Christ’s coming, and chief among them is the end of sin and sorrow for those who can stand in the judgment. But sins and sorrows were not the only thing growing in Eden after the fall. Real thorns (not just metaphorical ones) began to infest the ground just as sins and sorrows infested the hearts of Adam and Eve. If the first two stanzas touch on the joy of nature and man, the third touches on the blessings to nature and man. Isaac Watts, the writer of this hymn, develops a wonderful combination of images in this stanza by having sin and sorrows “grow,” but blessings “flow.” The picture is a flood-plain where plants of the most noxious sort have been washed out to the abyss by a crystal deluge.

Man is, however, the lord of nature, and his blessings are accordingly greater. The most important of these blessings is our peculiar ability to glorify God as sentient beings. We can only do this, however, under Christ’s truthful and gracious rule, so the fourth stanza’s first line is preparatory for its remainder. Christ does not rule the world primarily for the world’s sake. He was, we remember, under no compulsion to make anything, let alone to rule it. He rules the world so that his subjects can prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love. As Matthew Prior once wrote of Queen Anne:

Entire and sure the monarch’s rule must prove
who founds her greatness on her subjects’ love.

Watts’s text is forever wed to the hymn tune ANTIOCH. The tune’s contour, its antiphonal banter between low and high voices, and its length (requiring Watts’ common-meter text to take twice as long to sing as it does to say), all make the tune a perfect choice. Its opening line is a descending scale which, with a stately rhythm of short notes immediately preceding accented downbeats, lays out for us in musical terms the majestic descent of our heavenly monarch. As earth receives her king, the line turns back the other direction and, leaping up a fifth as if to greet something, ascends back to where it came from. The descending scale returns for the third and longest line of text, which then allows for the scale to descend twice. Heaven can hardly contain itself and spills down doubly. Next, the song of heav’n and nature is taken up in antiphony between upper and lower voices. The setting works just as well in the second stanza where we “repeat the sounding joy” with an echo that literally paints the figure of the text. In the third stanza, the same music sings out the blessings of Christ “far as the curse is found” within the confines of the congregational voice. The voices return to homophony in the last repeat of each stanza’s last line and, predictably, the tune closes with another descending gesture. But this time it is approached by the even greater leap of an octave—the largest suitable to a congregational tune. In each stanza the leap proves a perfect setting for the text provided. The word “heav’n” here is sung over two notes and two octaves to show the interchange between heaven and earth. The “repeat” of the second stanza comes as we begin a repetition of the tune’s characteristic descending scale. The “as” (from “far as”) of the third stanza carries us as far as the congregational voice should be carried in one beat. The “wonders” are articulated clearly in the leap which, along with the syncopated rhythm, is as exuberant as the nations who prove.