Joy to the World! – Psalm 98

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Psalm 98:1-9

INTRODUCTION: You might be wondering why we are turning to the psalms for a Christmas message this morning. Most Christmas messages tend to come from the early chapters of the gospels where we learn the details of Christ’s birth into our world. But the psalms also speak of Christ, and Psalm 98 is an appropriate one to look at for Christmas because this psalm was the basis for the Christmas carol, “Joy to the World.” (Read Psalm 98:1-9 and pray.)

Christmas carols are a big part of most people’s celebration of Christmas. We sing them in our churches; we play them in our homes; we listen to them on the radio; we hear them in the shopping malls.

“Joy to the World” is a favorite carol of many and one of the best known of all the Christmas songs. The words were written by Isaac Watts, who is widely regarded as one of the finest hymn writers in history. Isaac Watts also wrote such well-known hymns as: “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” “Jesus Shall Reign Wherever the Sun,” “O God our Help in Ages Past,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Watts often wrote paraphrases of the Psalms for his hymns, and “Joy to the World” was inspired by his study of Psalm 98, especially verse 4 which reads: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.” (Psalm 98:4)

“Joy to the World” was first published in 1719 but with a different melody than the one we know today. Over a hundred years later, in 1836, the composer Lowell Mason would combine several themes from Handel’s Messiah to create a new melody which he called Antioch. Mason then looked for three years to find just the right words to go with his melody and finally settled on Isaac Watts’ hymn “Joy to the World.” It was a perfect match, and it is still the way we sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas today.

What is ironic is that Watts never meant for his hymn to be a Christmas song. The hymn is really an Old Testament Psalm mixed with New Testament language which probably describes Christ’s second coming better than his first. Still, the note of joy and the images of the Lord coming and every heart preparing him room all combined to make this one of the best-loved Christmas carols of all time.

This morning we are going to do three things. I want to share with you a little but about Isaac Watts, the composer of the carol. Then we will do a brief study of Psalm 98. And then finally we will see how Psalm 98 inspired Watts to create the hymn we all know as “Joy to the World.”

I. Isaac Watts (the composer)

So let’s begin with Isaac Watts, the composer.

   A. The man

      1) raised in an academic setting

Isaac was born in Southampton, England on July 17, 1674. His father ran a boarding school out of their home and so young Isaac was raised in a highly academic setting. Surrounded by other students and exposed to learning at an early age, Isaac had a distinct advantage when it came to academic studies. He was a bright young student and began learning Latin at the tender age of four!

      2) a poet and a wordsmith

Isaac was also a poet and a wordsmith. He inherited his love of poetry from his family. His parents and grandparents also wrote poems, but Isaac’s habit of always rhyming things annoyed his parents so much that at one point his father told him no more rhyming in the house. When young Isaac forgot and began rhyming again, as his Dad was getting ready to spank him, Isaac cried out: “O father, do some mercy take, and I will no more verses make!” I don’t imagine that went over very well!

Isaac’s poetry was so good that his mother didn’t believe it was all his, so one time when he was seven years old she sat him down at the table and told him to wrote her a poem right then and there. To her astonishment, he immediately composed the following ten lines:

I am a vile polluted lump of earth;
So I’ve continued since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me.
Come, therefore, Lord, from Satan’s claws relieve me.
Wash me in Thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart.
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do
Service to Thee, and sing Thy praises too.

The poem is amazing not only for its meter, imagery, vocabulary, rhyme scheme, depth of meaning and theology. But if you look closely, you will see it is also an acrostic. The first letters of each line spell out the composer’s name: Isaac Watts. Which is appropriate because the poem’s theme is the author and his need for Christ.

When Isaac was sixteen-years old, he complained about the hymns on the way home from church one day. His father told him if he didn’t like them, he should write something better. Isaac took him up on the challenge, and that afternoon wrote his first hymn based on Revelation 5:6-12. His father was so impressed, he brought it with him to church that evening and they sang it as part of the service. It was Isaac’s first hymn, but not his last. Watts went on to compose more than six hundred hymns and hundreds of poems before he died in 1748.

      3) a minister of the gospel

Watts became a minister of the gospel at age 26, and his music and theological writings spread rapidly. He attracted one fan, Elizabeth Springer, who proposed marriage to him by mail! Isaac accepted, but when she met him in person she jumped on the train and went back home. She later described him: “He was only five feet tall, with a shallow face and a hooked nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes and a deathlike color.” Isaac’s loss was our gain. He poured himself into the ministry and his writing, and he never did marry.

   B. His times

      1) a time of plague and uncertainty

Watts was born and raised during a time of plague and uncertainty. His town of Southampton was still decimated from the Bubonic plague that had killed over one hundred thousand people in and around London a decade before. Families had been torn apart and there was much poverty and economic uncertainty.

      2) a time of great pressure to conform

He was also raised during a time when there was great pressure to conform. The Anglican Church put great pressure on everyone to conform to their order of worship. Isaac Watts grew up in a family that was part of a group of churches that were actually called Nonconformists. These Nonconformist Christians and churches believed that each church should have the freedom to worship God according to the Scriptures and not be bound to the Anglican system.

      3) a time of persecution for the Christian faith

This was also a time of persecution for the Christian faith. Many of the Nonconformists suffered persecution for their faith. In fact Isaac’s father was in prison for his beliefs at the time when Isaac was born. He would continue to be in and out of prison or in exile for the rest of his life.

So Isaac Watts lived during a time of uncertainty, a time of great pressure to conform, and a time of persecution for the Christian faith. Sounds a little bit like our times, doesn’t it? We also live in a time of uncertainty, great pressure from the world to conform, and increasing persecution for Christian faith.

I share that with you because it would be easy to think that Isaac Watts lived in simpler times in which it would be easy to write a hymn such as “Joy to the World.” But Watts wrote “Joy to the World” not because he lived in easy times, but because he read the scriptures and had faith in the God of the Bible. We have the same scriptures and we serve the same God, so we will now turn to the Scriptures from which Isaac found the wonderful truths to write “Joy to the World.”

II. Psalm 98:1-9 (the source)

As we mentioned earlier, “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98. Psalm 98 is one of the Royal Psalms (Psalms 93-100), so called because they all emphasize God’s royal kingship in various ways. Psalm 98 especially emphasizes our joy in the face of God’s kingship over all the earth. Albert Barnes writes about Psalm 98: “One cannot read this Psalm without being a happier man; without lofty views of God; without feeling that He is worthy of universal praise; without recognizing that he is in a world where the mind should be joyful; that he is under the dominion of a God whose reign should fill the mind with gladness.”

The Psalm is nine verses long and is made up of three stanzas of three verses each. Verses 1-3 tell us to rejoice in God as Savior of his people. Verses 4-6 tell us to rejoice in God as King over all the earth. And finally verses 7-9 tell us to rejoice in God as Judge over all the nations.

   A. Rejoice in God as Savior of his people (1-3)

Let’s take a look at the first stanza which tells us to rejoice in God as Savior of his people. Look at verses 1-3:

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. (Psalm 98:1-3)

The Psalm begins by saying: “Sing to the LORD a new song.” God is always doing a new thing in the lives of his people, and so he is always deserving of new songs of praise. Ironically, “Joy to the World” was one of those new songs when Isaac Watts first wrote it based on this Psalm. When you put your faith in Christ, you become a new creation and you too will sing a new song.

“He has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Israel’s victories never came about by their own strength, but they understood it was God and his power who delivered them. In the same way God worked our salvation for us through Christ on the cross.

“The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” God’s purpose in saving Israel was always that all the nations might come to know that He is God. The entire Bible and indeed all of human history is a record of how God is glorified in all the earth through the salvation of his people. The key words here are love and faithfulness – God’s covenant love and faithfulness to his people Israel in the Old Testament, and to his people in the church in the New Testament.

   B. Rejoice in God as King over all the earth (4-6)

The next stanza tells us to rejoice in God as King over all the earth. Look at verses 4-6:

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn – shout for joy before the LORD, the King. (Psalm 98:4-6)

The theme of this stanza is clear. God is King over all the earth, and so all the earth should shout for joy to him. We are not only to shout for joy, but we are to “burst into jubilant song with music.” We should be so filled with joy in God as our King that we can no longer contain it. This is not a forced joy, but rather a joy that is so full that it forces its way out of us.

Here the whole earth is instructed to shout for joy to the Lord. Every voice is summoned. The whole orchestra is enlisted to sing God’s praises. The stringed instruments join the song in verse five, and the wind instruments join the song in verse six. Harps and voices and trumpets and horns rise together in jubilant song as the whole earth rejoices in God as King.

We sound the trumpets for earthly kings, how much more for Jesus Christ – the King of kings and Lord of Lords. He is King over all the earth; let us rejoice in him!

   C. Rejoice in God as Judge over all the nations (7-9)

The first stanza tells us to rejoice in God as Savior of his people. The second stanza tells us to rejoice in God as King over all the earth. And then finally the third stanza tells us to rejoice in God as Judge over all the nations. Look at verses 7-9:

Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:7-9)

In the first stanza we are told to rejoice in the Lord. In the second stanza all the peoples of the earth are told to rejoice in the Lord. And now here in verses 7 and 8, all creation is told to rejoice in the Lord. Let the sea resound and everything in it; let the world resound and all who live in it. The word “resound” is a word that means “to thunder or roar!” The rivers clap their hands – think of the mighty waves of a rushing river crashing into each other like the clapping of hands. The mountains sing together for joy. Or as Charles Spurgeon calls it: “the song of the seas, and the hallelujah of the hills.”

And why does all creation sing together for joy? Because the Lord is coming as Judge over all the nations. He will judge all evil in the world, and he will make all things right. When the Lord comes as Judge, he restores all things, including creation, which is why creation joins the chorus of praise here. ISIS and other terrorist organizations will be no more. Every false religion will be exposed. Every violation of God’s law will be judged. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess when Christ returns as Judge over all the nations.

The psalm finishes by saying: “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” When God comes to judge, he will judge in absolute fairness. He is all-knowing, so he knows all the particulars of every situation. He is all-just, so he will always make the right decisions. He is all-powerful, so he is able to execute the proper judgments against sin. He is all-loving, and so he has provided a way of escape for his people who have put their trust in him. Psalm 98 tells us to rejoice in God as Savior of his people, as King over all the earth, and as Judge over all the nations.

III. Joy to the World! (the carol)

We have looked at Isaac Watts, the composer of “Joy to the World,” and we have looked at Psalm 98 which is the source for “Joy to the World.” Finally let’s take a brief look at the song itself and see how Isaac Watts brought it all together.

   A. Verse 1: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
      – Psalm 98:4-6; Luke 2:7

Verse one of “Joy to the World” reads:

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

This first verse, which is also the most well known verse, is based on the middle stanza of Psalm 98 where we are told to rejoice in God as King over all the earth. Here in the song the whole world is encouraged to rejoice that Christ has come and to receive him as their King. The line “Let every heart prepare Him room” may be a subtle reference to Luke 2:7: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) It may also be one of the reasons this song became known as a Christmas carol to begin with.

   B. Verse 2: “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!”
      – Psalm 98:7-8; Luke 2:11

Verse two of “Joy to the World” reads:

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns.
Let men their songs employ.
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

This verse corresponds to Psalm 98:7-8 where all creation is asked to join in the song – the fields, floods, rocks, hills and plains. In verse one of the carol Watts called Christ “Lord” and “King.” Here in verse two of the carol he calls him “Savior.” This ties in with Christmas through the angel’s announcement in Luke 2:11: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

   C. Verse 3: “No more let sin and sorrow grow!”
      – Psalm 98:1-2; Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 8:21

Moving on to verse three of “Joy to the World,” we read:

No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

This corresponds to the first two verses of Psalm 98 which speak of God making his salvation known to all the nations. As far as the curse is found, so will God’s salvation be known throughout the world.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, God put a curse on all creation. We read in Genesis 3 where God told Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you … it will produce thorns and thistles … by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Now that Christ has come, the curse is reversed! And when Christ returns a second time the curse will be eliminated. There will be no more thorns infesting the ground, no more sin, sorrow, sickness, mourning, crying or pain. We read in Romans 8:21: “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)

   D. Verse 4: “He rules the world with truth and grace!”
      – Psalm 98:3,9; John 1:17

And then finally we come to verse four of “Joy to the World” which reads:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love.

This final verse in the carol corresponds to verses 3 and 9 in Psalm 98 which says “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” and that “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” In the New Testament we read in John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

God judges the world in absolute truth and fairness, and yet he also gives us grace through Jesus Christ, who paid the full penalty for sin at the cross for those who believe in him.

CONCLUSION: So what is the Christmas carol “Joy to the World” really all about? The same thing Psalm 98 is all about, but now applied to Jesus coming into the world.

Joy to the world! Why? Because God sent Jesus into the world to be our Savior.

Joy to the world! Why? Because Jesus is a good and righteous King over all the earth.

Joy to the world! Why? Because Jesus is returning as Judge over all the nations. He will judge all sin and wickedness. He will make all things right – including the beautiful creation that he made by the power of his word.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come! Let earth receive her King!

© Ray Fowler

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