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The True Meaning Behind the Christmas Song "Joy to the World"
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The True Meaning Behind the Christmas Song "Joy to the World"

Posted on Sun, Dec 5, 2004

Psalms 98







The Bible doesn’t talk much about happiness, but it does say a lot about joy.

Ø The words happy or happiness are only used 27 times in the NIV Bible. 

Ø But the words joy and rejoice are used 320 times.

Joy has a deeper meaning that happiness. 

Ø Happiness has to do with what happens to you, and it is going to fluctuate according to circumstances. 

Ø But joy overrides circumstances.  Joy is an inner sense of well being that abides even when circumstances are unfavorable.


The words joy, rejoice, contentment, peace are Biblical words which all convey the same idea:  In Christ there ought to be a healthy attitude of hope and sufficiency.  That’s why the Bible commands us in Phil 4:4:  “Rejoice in the Lord always.” You are not always going to be happy, but you can always have joy within.   II Corinthians 7:4 says, “…in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds.”


Almost 300 years ago a man named Isaac Watts wrote a hymn entitled, Joy to the World, which has become a well-known Christmas carol.

As a young man, Watts was disgruntled with the music of his day.  He felt it was antiquated, and so he began to write music with a more personal message and an upbeat sound. 

Some considered him to be a rebel and regarded his music as inappropriate.  Repeat the sounding joy; repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat. . .  It all sounded too repetitious and irreverent for the traditional people of the 18th century. 

Eventually his music caught on and has withstood the test of time.  Churches still sing some of his hymns like:  At the Cross, We’re Marching to Zion, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.


The musical score to the one that we sing was actually written 100 years later by Lowell Mason, who was a big fan of Handel, and imitated some of the sound he heard in Handel’s Messiah.


It is odd that Joy to the World is considered a Christmas carol because it only has a veiled reference to the birth of Jesus – “. . . the Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King. 

The song was not inspired by the Gospel accounts of the birth of Christ, but by the later part of Psalm 98.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,

burst into jubilant song with music;

make music to the Lord with the harp,

with the harp and the sound of singing,

with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn –

shout for joy before the Lord, the King.


The theme of joy and the King are used repeatedly.


Let the sea resound, and everything in it,

the world, all who live in it.

Let the rivers clap their hands,

let the mountains sing together for joy;


Do you remember Jesus saying that if His followers didn’t praise Him. . .the stones would cry out in praise?  This Psalm says the rivers and the mountains will praise Him.  That’s why there are phrases in Joy to the World that say, Let heaven and nature sing and  fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy. 


 Let’s look at the song by stanzas and review our minds of “What still brings  genuine joy to people’s lives today?”


Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,

And heav’n and nature sing.


I.  Stanza One:  There is joy when the King is received.


A.  Not everyone received Jesus as King when He was born. 

Herod wasn’t very happy about it.  He first learned about the birth of Jesus from a group of foreign astronomers who came to the palace searching for the birth of a new world leader. “Where is the One born King of the Jews?  We have seen His star, and we have come to worship Him.”


Herod was immediately troubled.  He was so paranoid about His throne that he had even killed three of his sons.  He was not going to tolerate an infant Jewish king.  When he learned that Bethlehem was to be the birth place of the coming Messiah, he deceptively said to the Magi “Go find Him and then tell me where He is, because I would like to go worship Him, too.”  But Herod was actually plotting to assassinate Him before He could rise up to power. 


B.   Many today reject Jesus as king.

They see Him as a threat to their selfish desires, their individual freedom, their insatiable greed, or their intellectual pride. 


Last year at a Godless Americans Rally in Washington, D.C. the Associated Press reported that there were a few Christians who stood on the fringe of the rally with signs with Bible passages like, “One day every knew will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.”

The story reported that the American Atheist spokesman, Ron Barrier, was met with cheers as he boldly closed his speech with the proclamation: “To you Christians with your stupid signs, these knees will never bow, and this tongue will never confess.”

I really hope he changes his mind before he dies. 


There are still people who see Jesus as a threat.  John 1 says, “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.  Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”


The Wise Men received Jesus as King. 

Ø They were inconvenienced.  Some estimate they traveled some 600 miles to find the Christ-child. 

Ø They were surprised.  The baby was not born in a palace, but in a stable.  He was not born to royalty, but to a peasant couple.

But they still humbled themselves and worshipped Him as King. The Bible says, “On coming to the house they saw the Child with His mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him.  They opened their treasures and presented Him gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.  Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”


 Their trip had been a total success.  They had correctly interpreted the special star.  They found the King and worshipped Him.  They had even been visited by God in a dream.  They must have had an inner joy that remained with them the rest of their lives. 


 C.  If you receive Christ as King of your life, He brings a spiritual joy that you cannot find anyplace else.


 Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to Me will never go hungry.  He who believes in Me will never be thirsty.”  Just as your body craves food, your soul needs spiritual food for joy.  If not given food, your body becomes weak and frail.  If your spirit does not have a relationship with God there is constant unrest and unhappiness within. The Psalmist said, “As the deer pants for the steams of water so my soul pants for You, O God.”


 The rich young ruler came to Jesus saying, “I still lack something. What is it?”  Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give them to the poor and follow Me.”  And he went away sad. 


 Contrast that to Luke’s account of another ruler, the Ethiopian eunuch, in Acts 8.  He received Jesus as King and was baptized into Him, and the Bibles says, “He went on his way rejoicing.” 


 Following his conversion to Christ, the English scholar, C.S. Lewis discovered a new sense of well-being he had not anticipated.  He wrote about it in a book entitled, Surprised by Joy. 


 When Christ is received as King, He fills the inner longing for significance, purpose, hope and forgiveness that can’t be found anyplace else. 


Joy to the World!  The Lord is Come!  Let earth receive her King.


II.  The Second Stanza: There is joy when the Savior reigns.


Joy to the earth!  The Savior reigns!  Let men their songs employ.

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.


 A.  There is a difference between receiving Jesus as King, and allowing Him to reign.

 The Bible relates that when Jesus was born there was no room for Him in the inn.  But Mary and Joseph were allowed to spend the night in a stable.  That innkeeper might have said, “I received the Messiah.  He was born on my property.  He spent His first night in my stable.” But no matter how he packaged it, the truth is that Jesus didn’t reign over his selfish concern. 


 1.  Jesus encountered a number of people who wanted to receive Him as King, but didn’t exactly want Him to reign in their lives. 

Ø After feeding 5000 people the same people came back the next morning hoping that Jesus would feed them breakfast.  But Jesus said, “I’m not going to give you physical food again, I want to talk to you about the spiritual food that comes down from heaven.”  Most of the people left.  Then didn’t want Jesus reigning over their physical appetites. 

Ø One man said, “Lord, I’ll follow You wherever You go.  But I’ve first got to go care for my aging father.”  He wanted a fringe relationship with Jesus, but not to reign over his family commitments.

Ø On the day of the Triumphal Entry many people shouted, “Hosanna!” because it was popular.  But five days later many of them turned around and shouted, “Crucify Him!” because they didn’t want Jesus to reign over their personal reputations.  They yielded to peer pressure. 


2.  There are people today who want to receive all the good things that Jesus has to offer, but they don’t want Jesus to reign over their business ethics, their locker room language, their New Year’s Eve entertainment, or their public image. 


B.  People who receive Christ, but don’t want Him to rule, are not usually very joyful. 


Someone said, “You can keep a foot in two different canoes for a while, but eventually you are going to get real uncomfortable.” You can keep one foot in church and one foot in the world, but I’ll guarantee you that you won’t be very joyful.


Ø Duplicity will wear you out. 

Ø Indecisiveness will cause you to lose self-respect.

Ø Hypocrisy saps the joy out of life.


C.  But when Jesus really reigns in your life He brings joy.

Revelation 3:20 says, “I stand at the door and knock.  If any one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with Me.”


Notice there are two stages to the Christian life: 

1. 1. The stage where you receive Christ into your home and He is a guest.

2. 2. Then there is the stage where He takes over; He will eat with Me


He wants to rule over your home.  He wants to rule over your daily choices.  When you allow it, He brings a joy that no troublesome circumstance can ever take away. 


Just before He died, Jesus said to His disciples:  “I have told you this so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”


Isaac Watts, the writer of this Christmas carol experienced that kind of joy even though he knew disappointment.  Watts’ music so inspired a woman named Elizabeth Singer that she wrote to Watts and said, “I’m your biggest fan.”

They began to correspond and fell in love through the mail though they had never met each other.  Singer proposed marriage via the mail.  When Watts accepted, Singer anxiously raced to be at his side.  But when she saw him, she was so disappointed by his appearance that she turned around and went home and would not marry him.  She rejected him because he was only 5 feet tall. 

She wrote, “He was only 5 feet tall with a shallow face and a hook nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes and a death-like color.”  Unable to see the brilliance that was beneath the surface, Singer went back home with no intent to marry him.  Watts was heartbroken and poured himself into his writing – never again to seek the companionship of a woman. 

Isn’t it interesting that this man who knew loneliness and disappointment and physical disadvantage wrote Joy to the World?

Christ reigned as King in the life of Isaac Watts.


III.  Stanza Three:  There is joy when the sinner repents.


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.


 A.  Sin always promises happiness, but it delivers sorrow.

 Satan told Adam and Eve that eating of the forbidden tree would make them as wise as God.  But in the end that luscious looking fruit brought a horrible curse and unending sorrow to Adam and Eve.

Ø They felt guilt.

Ø They were alienated from God.

Ø They were escorted from the Garden, never to be able to return.

Ø They began to die.


And they were cursed.

To the woman, God said, “You will be dominated by the man.  He won’t let you be a member of Augusta National Golf Course or hold the remote control.”

To the man He said, “You will find work difficult, nature uncooperative, your wife resistant, and you will have to work by the sweat of your brow.”


Sin still brings sorrow and a bitter curse today.  Satan will always entice you with promises of excitement and pleasure.  But he always brings difficulty and death. 

Ø The Bible says, “Be not deceived:  God is not mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.” (Gal 6:7)  Eventually your sin reaps a harvest.

Ø Someone has said, “The pain of the reaping will always exceed the pleasure of the sowing.”  No matter how enjoyable the sin, when the harvest is reaped it is always multiplied in pain. 

The loss of credibility, the loss of influence, maybe even the loss of family is not worth it.


 B.  But there is a wonderful experience of joy when the sinner genuinely repents.

 Acts 3:19 says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”  Maybe you have received Christ as your King and He has reigned in your life, but you have recently been enticed into some sin.  You didn’t intend to get entangled or overcome, but you are on the verge reaping the harvest, and it will be painful.  It’s time to repent. 


 This means more than admitting the sin.  To repent means to be convicted, to become contrite in spirit, to change behavior, to reverse course.  When there is genuine turning from sin, there is genuine joy. 

 The Prodigal Son rebelled against his father, and wasted his father’s money in wild living.  But when he hit bottom he said, “I am going to repent.  I am going back to my father and ask him to forgive me.”  When he got home his father welcomed him with open arms and there was a celebration of joy. Jesus said, of this occasion:  “I tell you. . .there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

 But wasn’t just the father who was full of joy.  The Prodigal Son had a full stomach and full restoration in the family. 


 I would challenge you:  Don’t let sin and sorrow grow in your life.  Experience the joy of repentance and returning to God. 


 Whit Criswell


IV.  Stanza Four:  There is joy when the truth rules with grace.


He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove

The glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.


 A.  There is little joy in the life of a Christian if there is not a balance between truth and grace.

 You know legalistic people who are rigid with the truth.  There is no mercy, there is no grace, they are not happy and everyone around them is miserable.  


 But there are also people who go to the opposite extreme and have grace, but no devotion to the truth.  The post-modern mind rejects the idea of any absolute truth.  “Truth is whatever works for you.  Just be sure to be tolerant of other people.”  When there is no truth, people are like a train without a track – a kit without a string. There are no parameters in their life and there is no real joy.  There is a restlessness.



  Discussion: The True Meaning Behind the Song \"Joy to the World\"

D BarnishHuntingdon (anon) · 2 years ago
Love god shared this song wit me and now I truly understand what's behind the words. I will sing tem now with new meaning. : )

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