Friday, December 9, 2022

The Perhaps Surprising Outward-Focus of “Joy to the World”

During this Advent season, considering joy as an upcoming theme, the familiar tune Joy to the World inevitably runs through my mind.

These words were penned by Isaac Watts, and published in the early 1700s. He wrote some 600 hymns; many have endured through the years, including O God Our Help in Ages Past, and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

Many of his hymns were first published in his work Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. When the school district in the District of Columbia was formed, then President Thomas Jefferson also chaired the school board and set the curriculum. They established two primary texts for reading lessons: The Bible, and Watts’ Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

Joy to the World appeared in Watts work published in 1719: Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Joy to the World was one of Watts’ interpretations of a Psalm, specifically Psalm 98.

The words were later set to the tune we sing today by Lowell Mason. The melody is often credited to Handel, but it appears that Mason simply plucked a few melodies from Handel’s Messiah and imitated Handel’s style with the melody that is now so very familiar. It isn’t particularly complicated: Do Ti La So Fa Me Rae Do. It is simply a major scale.

These great carols and hymns of the church are cherished by many of us today, but they were scandalous to some of Watts’ day. Watts was among the Nonconformists movement, those who would not embrace the established Church of England. In fact, when young Isaac was born, his father was in jail for being a Nonconformist. Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps and was an influential leader among the independent churches in England, pastoring one of the most influential independent churches.

In his writings, Watts spoke of his motivation for being such a prolific hymn writer. He harshly criticized the hymn singing of his day, so metrical and lifeless and boring. He spoke of how an unbelieving observer might doubt that there was any veracity to the faith of these so called Believers; with such passionless singing, could they possibly have any real faith?

So Watts set out to shake things up in his day… and it was scandalous to some.

Does that sound at all familiar? It seems that every generation seeks to sing their songs (our songs) to (and about) the Lord, and it irritates some.

When Scripture exhorts us to “sing a new song to the Lord,” I don’t think it means to sing our new song the same old way. It seems that the Spirit moves in every generation, inspiring songs that express our love for and to the Lord. New songs in new ways are an important sign that the Spirit is indeed moving… that there is veracity to our faith, true belief in and passion for Jesus.

I wonder what Watts would think of how his song is typically used in our days. Joy to the World is sung today around the world in the most churchy ways… perhaps with a choir, or a pipe organ with an orchestra, or just sung a cappella. Joy to the World is conformist today… funny how the stuff we cling to as traditional today always, of course, started as something non-traditional.

We may sing a song like Joy to the World in really churchy, perhaps even inward-focused ways, but Watts wrote it as an outward-focused pastor with a heart to reach the world… to bring true joy to the world.

Here's a bit more on "Joy to the World":  

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