Hymn Story

Joy to the World

Hymn Lists

by book of Bible

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was born to Dissenting parents (people who refused to accept the authority and practices of the Church of England).  As a boy, he sang hymns outside prison walls to encourage his father, who had been arrested for his non-conformist beliefs.

Isaac showed promise as a poet at a very young age.  As he grew, he became increasingly unhappy with the hymns that he sang in church each week.  In those days, hymns were psalms set to music.  Watts saw that the hymns thus reflected little or nothing of the New Testament, and set out to remedy that error. His hymns—at least his earlier hymns— reinterpreted the psalms in the light of the Christian faith.  In 1719, he published a book of hymns entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament.

One of those hymns was “Joy to the World,” based loosely on Psalm 98, which says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4).  That psalm looks forward to the day when the Lord will come to judge the world in righteousness.  In this hymn, Watts reinterpreted the psalm to rejoice in the coming of the Christ as our Lord and savior.

This hymn was sung to various tunes for many years.  Then in 1839, Lowell Mason, a banker who happened to be quite interested in church music, published the tune that we now associate with “Joy to the World.”  Mason borrowed liberally from classical music, and acknowledged his debt to Handel’s “Messiah” for parts of this hymn tune.

Watts wrote some 600 hymns altogether, and is considered to be the father or Christian hymnody.  His hymns include such favorites as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”  But the favorite of favorites is “Joy to the World.”

— Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan