“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today…a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord…You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared…praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:10-14
Every time I imagine the angelic chorus praising God before the shepherds I hear the traditional Christmas carol, “Joy to the World!” What’s surprising about this is that “Joy to the World!” wasn’t intended for Christmas, it originally wasn’t even meant to be sung, and it was written by someone who eschewed tradition.
Isaac Watts was born into a religious family in 1674. Attending church regularly, Isaac grew weary of the songs and complained often. His father met his complaints with a challenge, “Well, you write some that are better.” And so Isaac did. Over the years, young Isaac churned out new hymns each week. His goal was to wed “emotional subjectivity” and “doctrinal objectivity.” While some appreciated his poetic nature, others viewed his extra-biblical verse and prose as an anathema. Yet Isaac continued to breathe new life into worship and over the course of his life penned over 750 hymns.
However, “Joy to the World!” was not one of them.
In his mid-40s Isaac published a book of poetry based upon Psalm 98. This book contains the poem “Joy to the World!” For Watts, it was important to read the Psalms through the lens of the New Testament. When Psalm 98 says, “He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” Watts heard a message about Christ’s promised return.
Nearly a century later, Lowell Mason read the poem and put it to music. The song was published during Christmastime and became an immediate favorite. It was an unexpected masterpiece that came to praise an unexpected savior.
This Christmas let us celebrate the wonderful and surprising ways God works. Let us celebrate the God who came as a child with angelic chorus and the God who will come again with love and righteousness. And perhaps most of all, let us celebrate the God who is present with us here and now, the Immanuel.