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Nov 2011

The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. – Psalm 98:1

As Christmas day approaches, the Murphy family has been getting reacquainted with some of our favorite Christmas tunes. Some of these include albums by Bifrost Arts, the Boston Pops, Ella Fitzgerald, and of course, Bing Crosby; in addition to all the Christmas music that we hear on the radio this time of year. However, the one Christmas song that we can never seem to escape from is Joy to the World. Funny enough, this perennial Christmas favorite didn’t start out as a Christmas song at all.

Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts, a famous 18th century preacher turned hymn writer. For a number of year’s prior, Watts served as the pastor of a congregation in London, but a violent and continual fever from which he never fully recovered forced him to leave the pastorate. Watts continued to write though, and in 1719, published his most famous book, a hymnal entitled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. In it, Watts diverged from the traditional church practice of strictly adapting Scripture to song, by adding his own lyrical reflections to Scripture inspired hymns, making him not only the father of the modern hymn, but the pace-setter for contextualizing the gospel for the people of God.

These poetic paraphrases of the psalms were adapted by Watts for use by the Church, and made David speak “the language of a Christian.” Some of the more popular hymns from this collection include Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 72:1-20 entitled Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun, his Psalm 90:1-17 paraphrase O God, Our Help in Ages Past, and his Psalm 98:1-9 paraphrase The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom, known to us today as Joy to the World.

In this song, Watts connects a Davidic joy in the Lord to its prophetic fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Its aim was “to show David as a Christian” by revealing the Christ-centered character of the Psalms. Using the larger story of scripture as an interpretive guide, Watts locates “the joy of the world” among the various themes of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation (Genesis to Revelation). He manages to weave a redemptive thread through the song that begins with Adam’s fall, and finishes at the future return of Christ:

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

In his first advent—Christmas—the Second Adam relaxes the curse by redeeming human hearts. In his second advent, all of heaven and nature will join the song of redemption. The joy of salvation is for both creature and creation:

Joy to the World, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing

Every person and nation will be called to account for their response to the gracious gift of God’s son, Jesus Christ. But while God is gracious, He is also just. Those that respond to his grace will be spared his judgment and enter into an everlasting joy to the world that forever glories in his righteousness.

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

Besides over 600 hymns, Watts published 52 other works, including a book of logic used in the universities, books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, three volumes of sermons, and 29 treatises on theology. After his death in 1748, a monument to Watts was erected in Westminster Abbey. His greatest monument, however, are the hymns to his God still used by Christ’s church.

May our hearts receive Jesus as King with fresh joy and exultation this Season, as we join the chorus of all creation singing: “Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”


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