This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of one of the most beloved Christmas hymns in the English language: “Joy to the World.” Interestingly, though, its author, Isaac Watts (1674–1748), likely wasn’t thinking of Christmas when he penned it.
The hymn first appeared in 1719, when Watts published a collection of hymns, to which he gave the catchy title The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. His goal was to breathe new life into the English congregational psalm-singing of his day and help Christians view the psalms through New Testament lenses.
The hymn we know as “Joy to the World,” Watts titled “The Messiah’s Coming and His Kingdom,” and he based it off of Psalm 98. The “coming” Watts primarily had in mind when he composed the hymn was Christ’s second coming. He was thinking culmination, not incarnation.
“The ‘coming’ Watts primarily had in mind when he composed the hymn was Christ’s second coming.”
So why did this hymn become a Christmas carol? Likely it’s because in 1839 the American hymn writer Lowell Mason pieced together the tune we’re all now familiar with from two different places in the Advent section of Handel’s Messiah. But whatever the reason, it’s a sweet providence. The hymn lyrics celebrate truths about Christ that, for the Christian, are past, present, and future. It reminds us all at Christmas that Advent is only the beginning, that it points forward to the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
The Lord Is Come
It is altogether right for us to sing at Christmas, “Joy to the world, the Lord is [meaning has] come!” Indeed, he has come. And why did he come the first time? To make it possible for “his blessings [to] flow far as the curse is found.” Jesus was born to accomplish a work that would purchase the full redemption of his people and his world.
That’s why all the references to the birth of Jesus in the New Testament have a significant future orientation: Christmas is about what’s coming.
When the angel visits Mary, he tells her the child she will conceive miraculously “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” and that “God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
When the angel visits Joseph in a dream, he tells him the child Mary is carrying “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
When the angel announces Jesus’s birth to the shepherds, he says, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11) — a child who will bring them salvation.
When Simeon speaks to Mary in the temple, he says, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).
Paul wrote to the Philippians that Jesus was “born in the likeness of men” so that he would suffer “death on a cross,” and then be “highly exalted,” and proclaimed as “Lord” by everyone (Philippians 2:7–11).
Yes, we will sing with joy that “the Lord is come . . . to make his blessings flow” at his second coming, when he finally comes to end creation’s cursed groaning (Romans 8:20, 22). But without the cross of his first coming, there could be no reverse of the curse, and his blessings could not flow. For it is in the cross that
the Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God. (Psalm 98:2–3)
When we sing “the Lord is come” at Christmas, we celebrate what is past because of what it means for our future.
The Savior Reigns
But can we sing at Christmas, “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns”? We know he will reign when he returns, and every knee bends, and every tongue confesses him as Lord (Philippians 2:10–11). But in what way does Jesus reign now, when the world we live in is so rife with wickedness, violence, calamities, and tragedies — when “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19)?
Scripture is unambiguous: the Lord reigns now over the world and all the peoples (Psalm 96:10) and his “throne . . . is forever and ever” (Psalm 45:6). Jeremiah declared this has been true throughout “all generations,” even as evil seemed to run unrestrained all around him (Lamentations 5:19). Given our frailty and very limited perspectives, life in this age often doesn’t make sense, and we groan. Over all this, the Lord reigns.
But there is a massive difference between Jesus’s reign now and his reign at his second coming. In describing the Lord’s reign now, Paul says Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25). He draws this directly from Psalm 110:
The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Lord sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies! (Psalm 110:1–2)
“Without the cross of his first coming, there could be no reverse of the curse, and his blessings could not flow.”
Yes, we will sing with joy that “the Savior reigns” at his second coming, when all “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” will acknowledge his rule (Philippians 2:10) and the redeemed and renewed creation will “repeat the sounding joy.” But in this fallen, corrupted age, the Savior is calling out of “every tribe and language and people and nation” all those he has ransomed by his own blood (Revelation 5:9). He is establishing and expanding the kingdom of heaven in the midst of his enemies (Luke 17:21), just as David prophesied in Psalm 110. Which means during both eras of his reign, we can
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)
When we sing “the Savior reigns” at Christmas, we celebrate what is true now, even in tears, in the hope of what will be so joyfully true in the future.
Truth and Grace
Because “the Lord is come,” because “the Savior reigns,” we can sing at Christmas, “He rules the world with truth and grace.” This is both true now and will be true in the future culmination.
In Watts’s lyric, we can hear the apostle John’s words, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). John wasn’t referring to Jesus’s second coming, but his first. Jesus was born into the world as “the truth” (John 14:6) and “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37). His first coming was not to bring judgment, but the grace of forgiveness and the gift of salvation: “for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47).
But at Jesus’s second coming, he will
[come] to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:9)
“We celebrate what is true now, even in tears, in the hope of what will be so joyfully true in the future.”
Jesus said this would be the case: “the Father . . . has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Because of the cross of his first coming, the judgment Jesus will bring at his second coming will be righteous and gracious. He can be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in [him]” (Romans 3:26).
When we sing that Jesus “makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness” at Christmas, we mean the glories of his “truth and grace,” his justice and mercy, which will always be the nature of his rule, both now and in the age to come.
Wonders of His Love
Isaac Watts may have written “Joy to the World” with the second coming in mind, but it is a glorious hymn to sing at Christmas. For the only way we can sing it with joy and hope is because of everything the first coming means to us.
Jesus came first “to bear the sins of many”; he will come again “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). These are “the wonders of his love.” God the Father so loved us that he sent his only Son, and the Son so loved us that he willingly laid down his life for us, that we would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16; 15:13).
Advent is only the beginning. It is the beginning of the end — the end of all we so long to see end and all we long to see begin. And Jesus shares these great longings (Psalm 110:1; John 17:24). Christmas brings joy to the world because of what it promises for the world; it points us forward to the “blessed hope,” the fulfillment of our joy (Titus 2:13).
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).