History isn’t just dry dates and statistics. History is human. History can be a great source of strength and affirmation, an aide to navigation, especially in dark and dangerous times. And the words and music we love that have stood the test of time mean still more when we know their story.
– David McCullough, American historian and author
JOY TO THE WORLD
Isaac Watts published the words for this hymn in 1719. He had written his first hymn in 1692 at the age of 18 as a protest against what he thought was the low quality of songs in Anglican hymnals.
A nonconformist pastor and prodigious author of theological and philosophical books (about 60) and hymns (about 700), Watts (1674-1748) is most remembered for the extraordinary hymns, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Our God Our Help in Ages Past,” and “Joy to the World!” The renowned nineteenth-century English author Matthew Arnold considered “When I Survey” to be the best hymn in the English language. “Our God” has been described as “England’s second national anthem,” and “Joy” ranks in the very top level of Christmas songs.
Though the triumphant words “Joy to the world” exemplify the Christmas feeling, this familiar text is actually a translation based on five verses from Psalm 98 in the Old Testament. Isaac Watts, the English hymnist and cleric, published his Psalms of David, which contains these verses, in 1719. More than a century later, in 1839, American composer and music educator Lowell Mason decided to set them to music modestly including the phrase “From George Frederick Handel,” apparently to honor his idol, the composer of Messiah and many other masterpieces. For nearly l00 years, the world accepted this ascription, until musicologists pointed out that not a single phrase in the music can be said to have come straight from any work of Handel’s.
While the initial stanza announces that “The Lord is come,” it is the only stanza that is related to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. The other stanzas could easily be appropriate for any season of the year.
There is no mention of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the manger or the wise men. Yet, who would deny this hymn a choice place among the traditional carols?The exuberant joy that permeates the psalm as it lauds the God of the Old Testament is present in the hymn but in praise of Jesus Christ.
Of all the sacred carols, “Joy” is perhaps the most positive and uplifting declaration of the message of Christmas. The exclamation point almost universally inserted by carol editors after the initial line, “Joy to the world!,” powerfully punctuates the exhilarating effect that this carol has had for the past century and a half.
But let me ask you:
What’s your favorite carol – and why?