This is one of the most popular Christmas carols, but when Isaac Watts wrote it in 1719 he was not describing the arrival of the infant Jesus, but the triumphant second coming of Christ the King:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King . . .
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.
This picture of glorious victory is partly based on Psalm 98: “All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God’.” (v 3, NRSV). The psalm goes on to describe each part of creation praising the Lord’s coming:
“Let sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.” (vv 7 — 9)
Isaac Watts picked up these ideas and developed them in his own way:
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
And then he wrote one more verse, which you have probably never sung, and which does not usually appear in our hymn books. In our Christmas versions this verse is missing. It goes like this:
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.
For this verse Isaac Watts looked back to the story of the Fall in Genesis chapter 3, and focussed on a passage which would certainly bring a chill to the Christmas season:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.” (vv 17 – 18)
Perhaps Isaac Watts in the early 18th century was more aware than we are of the hard reality of labouring to produce enough to eat, but we can still see how human sin affects the land and livelihoods of people and wildlife all over the world. Famine follows so often in the wake of civil war. Refugees from persecution leave behind their livestock and fields to be plundered and destroyed.
Rain forests are exploited, depriving people and animals of food and shelter. Farmers ploughing their fields in France and Belgium still turn up deadly weapons from wars long past. The careless use of chemicals kills more than just pests: it undermines the balance of healthy ecosystems, and poisons our food.
Yet Isaac Watts’ hymn is about victory and blessing – the curse of the ground, along with human sins and sorrows, is also removed by the redemption which Christ brings. Heaven and nature sing with humanity about the promised restoration of everything God made – JOY TO THE WORLD
Pam de Wit (for Earth & Faith)