“Joy to the World” (Christmas Song)

Many of the Christmas carols we know and love were actually written centuries ago. Their authoring harps back to a day when the Western music industry, if you will, was very religious/Christian in nature. 

So in the case of some songs which have been adopted as Christmas carols, such as “Joy to the World”, the author, in this instance being Isaac Watts, did not write the lyrics with the holiday in mind but rather along the lines of a general praise song. And as this piece spread and became more famous, it was actually listeners who went about associating it with Christmas.

Birth of “Joy to the World”

And it is quite interesting that this song has come to be regarded as a Christmas carol since, unlike other pieces which tend to fall into that category, it really has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. Rather it was inspired by the Book of Psalms and more specifically the 4th through 9th verses of the 98th chapter of said book. 

King David, who is generally recognized as the author of the Psalms, was a notable religious-based musician himself. And within the 98th chapter (which is only nine verses long, i.e. being relatively short), he is basically calling upon mankind to praise God.

The Lyrics

Now when putting this hymn together, Isaac Watts’ goal was not to regurgitate the 98th Psalm verbatim. That was the musical standard of the day, to simply set Biblical verses to music. However, Isaac personally perceived such a modus operandi as being monotonous and joyless. So his musical mission was to create more upbeat interpretations of the Bible, such as this piece we’re researching today.

So as noted later on in this post, what Watts did was take the 98th Psalm and then infuse it with New Testament theology. The New Testament commences by detailing the life and works of Jesus, but conclusively it centers on the idea of the Messiah one day returning and establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth. 

That prophesied event is popularly known as the Second Coming, and it is what the lyrics of the second half of Joy to the World are poetically focused on.

But as for the first half of this piece, it is more squarely based on the 98th Psalm itself, i.e. serving as an encouragement for the entirety of nature to sing praises to God. However, unlike the Psalm 98, we are not being advised to do so just for doing’s sake, so to speak. Rather this celebration is largely in recognition of Christ’s eventual return, i.e. the Second Coming. 

In other words, the fact that he has pledged to come back and establish God’s rule of Earth, where even natural enemies in the animal kingdom will be at peace with each other, is indeed a cause for the world to rejoice. So in reality, this song isn’t celebrating the here and now. Instead it is the Messiah’s inevitable return which is being acknowledged.

Lyrics of "Joy to the World"


So yes, one way of looking at the matter is as Joy to the World not being a standard Christmas carol, since it does not refer to the birth of Jesus. But another way of interpreting this issue is that the song rather focuses on why his birth is ultimately considered important in the first place. Put simply, Jesus’s prophesied ultimate goal amongst believers, which is, if you will, to lead the rebellion of God’s elite against the world and rather establish His reign on Earth.

Who wrote “Joy to the World”?

This song was written by an English minister named Isaac Watts (1674-1748) in 1719. Watts has authored a number of well-known hymns. However, apparently none of his compositions are as popular as “Joy to the World” has proven to be.

The recitation of “Joy to the World” as we know it today was arranged by Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Mason was a 19th century American musician.

The lyrics of this piece were most notably inspired by the 98th Psalm, as found in the Old Testament. And relatedly, the song was first published in a book by Isaac Watts entitled “The Psalms of David (1719). 

Additionally, as originally intended it was not a Christmas carol but rather, as implied by the above book title, a New Testament influenced reinterpretation of Psalm 98.

Famous Renditions

According to a number of websites (including Wikipedia), “Joy to the World” is the most published Christmas carol in US history. And accordingly it has been covered by a bunch of popular musicians, mostly it would seem during the 21st century. Some notable covers include:

  • Perry Como (1953)
  • Nat King Cole (1960)
  • The Supremes (1965)
  • Kenny Rogers (1989)
  • Ashanti (2003)
  • Clay Aiken (2004)
  • The Jonas Brothers (2008)

But to note, this piece definitely hasn’t proven as popular amongst famous singers as another well-covered Christmas carol, “Silent Night“.

Joy to the World

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