[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a worship leader, one of my concerns around Christmas is that people will tune out when we sing Christmas carols. I know that people love to sing these songs and they call up powerful emotions that have accumulated over the years. My concern though is that we love them for those emotional responses or maybe that we just sing them by rote, the way you might rhyme off ‘Row, row, row your boat.’ Absolutely, I want people to have warm and stirring emotional responses at this time of year, but not just to the music; we are singing about something tremendous, so in the interest of illuminating that tremendous truth, I wrote this reflection on ‘Joy to the world’ for my local church.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Watts wrote these words as a reflection on Psalm 98 which amongst a number of kingship psalms, psalms that Israel used in worship to reflect on YHWH’s status as their true King. Watts picks this up, understanding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as the inauguration of the coming of the King described by Psalm 98. The psalmist calls the whole world to sing praises in response to His coming. Watts echoes this, calling for all ‘heaven and nature to sing.’ He adds though, poignantly, ‘Let every heart prepare him room.’ The psalmist rightly calls for praise in light of the King’s coming; Watts adds ‘Make sure that your outward exuberance comes from a heart that truly cherishes Him.’

Joy to the earth, the Saviour reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Watts here borrows language from the other kingship psalms – the Saviour reigns (see Ps 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). Watts is doubling back on the point that the new born Saviour is in fact the King that the psalms anticipate.

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,
far as the curse is found,
far as far as the curse is found.

Sadly this verse is sometimes left out of the song (no less an authority than VeggieTales drops it on their 25 Favorite Christmas songs album 😉 ). Ironically, this verse actually expresses the happiest truth of the whole song.

What exactly is ‘the curse’ that we’re singing about? Our oldest ancestors, Adam and Eve, chose to follow their own way, rather than obey God, and they ate from the tree (in theological terms, ‘the Fall’) and this was a consequence: “cursed is the ground because of you… thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (Gen 3:17-18 ESV).” This is ‘the curse’ under which all humans beings struggle.

But Watts rightly acknowledges that the coming of the King, inaugurated in the birth of Jesus, means the reversal of the curse. Because the newborn King would eventually die to redeem and unite in Himself all things in heaven and earth (Eph 1:10), the King brings blessing, not curse.

And how far does His blessing reach? As far as the curse is found! How far is that? Well, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory so … His blessing reaches to every place where sinners dwell so… everywhere!

Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection signal the reversal of the curse and the beginning of the restoration of God’s people! “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5:18). This is why Watts’s call to ‘prepare Him room’ is so crucial; the blessings inherent in the King’s coming extend throughout the world, but we must receive them by faith.

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

Watts here goes on to describe the King’s reign: He rules with truth, judging the people with righteousness and equity (Ps 98:9) and grace, not counting the trespasses of those who trust in Christ against them (2 Cor 5:19) – that is, the curse, reversed. In the psalm and in history, the King’s arrival means that “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel” (Ps 98:3) and indeed to all of creation. His love is indeed wondrous.

Psalm 98 indicates that this love and grace and righteousness is no secret; God has made His saving character known to the nations: “The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Ps 98:2). In a neat bit of application, Watts here calls upon the nations to experience it for themselves (‘prove’ being an archaic expression meaning to test and see, to come to have knowledge of something by experience).[1]

In many ways, that is a fitting summary for the whole song. Watts calls us to sing with joy and exuberance befitting the arrival of this gracious King who will ultimately reverse the curse that befell us at the Fall. But even more important than the spectacular, world-wide praise, Watts calls us to prepare our hearts, to receive with humility and gratitude our King and to know for ourselves what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:18-19).

Graham is a long-time worship leader with an M.Div. (Heritage Seminary) and a passion for seeing the God of the Bible receive the praise He deserves. He is now the preaching pastor at Langford Community Church near Brantford, Ontario. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.

[1] See the online entry for ‘prove’ at http://historicalthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/.

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