- Did you Know that Isaac Watts never inteded this to be a Christmas carol? Get deeper look at Psalm 98 and the origins of the hymn before you play it this weekend.
This article was originally published in Worship Leader magazine (Nov/Dec 2006). For more great articles like this one, subscribe today.
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
In 1719 the English hymn writer Isaac Watts published a collection of hymns called The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Each of these compositions was based on one of the Psalms as seen in a Christian perspective.
Almost all the hymns in this collection have slipped into obscurity, except for one-half of one song. Watts composed a two-part hymn inspired by Psalm 98. The first part has long since been forgotten. The second part has become one of the most popular hymns of all time: “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” Ironically, Watts did not intend this to be a Christmas carol. But popular usage in the Church, combined with a stirring melody composed by Lowell Mason in 1836, launched “Joy to the World!” into the songwriting stratosphere.
Psalm 98: Our Basis for Joyful Worship
Psalm 98 celebrates God’s saving work (v. 1). Yet, unlike the psalms that focus exclusively on God’s revelation to Israel, Psalm 98 commemorates the fact that “the LORD has made His salvation known … to the nations” (v. 2). Even the Gentiles have seen God’s “faithfulness to the house of Israel” (v. 3). Therefore Psalm 98 invites everybody, Jew and Gentile alike, to “shout for joy to the LORD” (v. 4).
Psalm 98 obviously includes the Gentiles within God’s salvation. In fact, He “comes to judge the earth” (v. 9). There is, at most, only a hint in Psalm 98 that the Gentiles will end up on the thumbs-up side of God’s judgment. This psalm focuses on the rejoicing that will happen when God fulfills His promises to Israel.
And this is exactly what God did in Jesus. To be sure, He is the Savior of the whole world. Yet Jesus brought God’s salvation to Israel in particular, though in a most unexpected way and, by many, an unappreciated way. He came both to execute judgment and to be judged and executed. As a result of His sacrifice, God’s salvation is offered to all people, both Jew and Gentile.
Thus, from a Christian perspective, the vision of Psalm 98 is joyful news for all people. God has been faithful to His chosen people and, through them, for indeed Jesus was a Jew, God has been gracious to all humanity. As Isaac Watts wrote, all people ought to prepare room for Jesus, the King of the whole earth, and rejoice at His coming.
The Joy of the Future
Like Psalm 98, “Joy to the World” looks ahead to the fullness of salvation yet to come. In our world, sins and sorrows still grow, and thorns still infest the ground. The curse of sin has been broken, but the results of sin are still with us. Thus when we sing “Joy to the World” we look back to the first coming of Christ, celebrating His birth and the salvation it makes possible. At the same time, we look forward to the day when the impact of sin will be erased, and all nations will prove the glories of God’s righteousness and the wonders of His love. In this hope we rejoice.
Christ and the Psalms
For twenty centuries, the Psalms have been a goldmine for Christian worship. The example of Isaac Watts encourages us, as worship leaders and songwriters, to delve into these divinely inspired riches. But his example also reminds us that we read the Psalms, not as Jews awaiting the Messiah, but as Christians who believe that He has already come and will come again. Therefore, as we use the Psalms, we should continually ask how they are transformed in light of Christ and how this transforms our worship.
One facet of this transformation is the expansion of worship in light of salvation in Christ. Whereas Psalm 98 invited the Gentiles to celebrate God’s saving of Israel, through Jesus God offers grace to all peoples. Thus all the nations rejoice, not only because of Israel’s salvation but also because of their own.
The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, leader, speaker, blogger, and consultant for Christian organizations. Find out more here.