It wasn’t originally! It came about because a young Englishman named Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was bored in church. He told his father he thought the poetry used in hymns was awful, unsingable, ill-suited to the music, and not particularly spiritually uplifting. His father replied,
“Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?”
Isaac Watts complied by writing a new hymn every Sunday for the next two years. These were published in 1719 as “The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.” These hymns were actually just poems that could be set to any fitting music familiar to congregations, at the discretion of church music directors. Watts went on to write over 600 hymns, making him the “Father of English Hymnody.”
“Joy to the World” was Isaac Watt’s paraphrase of Psalm 98, which includes some beautiful passages suggesting Heaven and Nature singing for joy in verses 4-9:
Psalm 98 – King James Version (KJV)
1 O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.
2 The Lord hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.
3 He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
5 Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
6 With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
8 Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
9 Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.
The Old Testament Psalms, of course, were not written with Christmas caroling in mind, as most were written between roughly between 500-1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Watts, in applying the Psalms “To the Christian State and Worship,” took this last line, “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity,” as prophetic of the second coming of Christ to judge and rule the world at the end of time. The Lord who is come, as described by Watts, is the grown-up Jesus reigning over the nations with righteousness, and not the baby in the manger.
“Joy to the World” gained its chief identity as a Christmas Carol 120 years later when the music we know and love was added by the American composer, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Mason composed over 1,600 hymn tunes, and was a leader in introducing the study of music in American public schools. “Joy to the World” is the earliest New England Christmas carol still popular today. The tune, also known as “Antioch,” was published in the 1839 collection, “The Modern Psalmist.” In a timely aside, the tune is named after the city of Antioch, Syria, where believers were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).
Mason loved Handel’s “Messiah.” He based the melody notes for “Joy to the World” on opening descending notes of the chorale, “Glory to God,” and continued downward to complete a musical scale under the words, “The Lord is Come.” The “heaven and nature sing” chorus melody closely resembles a sped-up version of the instrumental introduction to the tenor recitative, “Comfort Ye, My People.” Both of these texts are from the Christmas portion of the Messiah.
Handel’s chorus, “Glory to God,” actually describes the first Christmas carol, recorded in Luke 2:14. The chorus is preceded by a short recitative (Luke 2:8-13) telling how angels told the shepherds the news. Handel uses a brilliant example of text painting (music depicting what is described by the words) by reserving the angels’ story for the upper voices of the chorus and orchestra, and bringing in the lower voices of the chorus and the double bass for the words dropping an octave, literally bringing the message from heaven to earth in the words and music, “Peace on Earth.” (as performed in this YouTube of Kiri Te Kanawa with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Sir Georg Solti.)
Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Musicians and anyone who knows and loves Handel’s “Messiah” can’t read these words without hearing Handel’s music.
The proximity of Handel’s melodies from the Christmas portion of the “Messiah” to Lowell Mason’s music inextricably links Isaac Watts’ “Joy to the World” text to the Christmas story. It’s a good assumption that Handel, Watts, Mason, and the Christmas angels would all be thrilled by the power and popularity of their joyful artistic statements, combined over the centuries.
In these troubled times, maybe our greatest hope, regardless of creed or nation, is to heed the angel’s message, “Fear not,” wishing “Peace, good will” to all on earth.
Peace, good will to all!