Joy to the world.
The hymn of this name, with a melody inspired by Friedrich Handel, has been a Christmas favorite. The message of the song refers not to the birth of Jesus, but to the coming rule of the Messiah on earth: “there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him….”
The life of Isaac Watts, writer of the hymn, is interesting. He was born in 1674 into an English family that was at odds with some of the teachings of the Church of England. When Isaac was an infant, his father was put in jail for holding non-conformist beliefs.
The younger Watts was a brilliant student who completed studies in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Restless Isaac Watts was always questioning things: Why did the church use clumsy, dull translations of the Psalms? Why were the songs so lifeless? Like his father, Isaac Watts did not fit in with church leaders who had a sloppy, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward their parishioners. He was haunted by the thought that people were missing the joys of being a Christian because they were repelled by lazy preaching and bad music.
Watts worked hard to become an able preacher, a philosopher, a student of logic — and writer of over 600 hymns. He had many critics inside the church and out. His habit of intense study to the exclusion of outdoor activity led to health problems that he battled most of his life. Despite several apparent brushes with death, Watts lived to the age of 75, quite a respectable life span for that era.
Watt’s 600 hymns testify to a life spent in service to the ideas that God exists and rules everything. Many other Christmas songs are about the birth of a great man: Jesus. “Joy to the World” says that Jesus was all that and much more. Watts, borrowing from the Bible, says in the song that Jesus will return to earth some day bringing perfect justice and indescribable happiness.
And the life of Isaac Watts, in his struggles to follow his conscience in the face of opposition, should reassure people who wonder if they would have any freedom in Jesus’s perfect world. Watts was a deeply caring individual who was sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Though his life’s journey had many perils, it seems somebody “up there” was gentle with this sickly writer of hymns.
It appears God finds something interesting in individual human beings, even the ones who don’t “fit in.” The universe could operate using robots or yes-men at considerably less trouble. Because God made room for imperfect people in the world, there is room for folks like us. And that is worth singing about. Joy to the World!
Joy to the world.