Joy to the World is a favorite Christmas hymn. However, familiarity tends to hide the profundity. It’s easy to shout lines of joy, but pass by the rich concepts the hymn reflects on. Chiefly: Joy!
Humanity is constantly on the search for joy, especially in this, the season of joy. Christianity is meant to be characterized by joy. But how often do we, as Christians, experience that joy? Indeed, life in general, and perhaps the holiday season in particular, can feel so void of joy that we might just habituate to the gray and lifeless. So we need this old and familiar song to invite us to something fresh.
The Reason for Our Joy
Joy to the World was based on a few different passages of scripture, including Psalm 98, which gives us a foundational understanding of how to find joy. It does so by grounding our reason for joy in the work and salvation of God.
Oh 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 known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!
7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
8 Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together 9 before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
The structure of Psalm 98 provides a template for how we can pursue joy in our lives. The Psalm’s logic goes like this: The Lord has done marvelous things (v1-3), therefore, give joyful praise (v4-9). We see the same logic in Joy to the World.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come. (marvelous thing)
Let earth receive her king. (act of joyful praise)
Let every heart prepare him room (act of joyful praise)
And heaven and nature sing (act of joyful praise)
This logic locates the origin of our joy: the marvelous works for the Lord. So what are those marvelous works? After the intro in v1, the author highlights three “marvelous things” for us as the foundation of our joy and praise to the Lord.
First, the Lord has made salvation known. This psalm is probably talking about either the Exodus, or the return from Exile. These were huge, public fulfillments of the promises that God made to Israel. The Lord publically made known his salvation to his people in the past. He did it again when God became Man in Jesus. He did it again when Christ rose from the dead. He will do it yet again when Christ returns.
Why is this important? The Lord is vindicating Himself and those who believe in him. Have you ever felt stupid or ashamed for believing what you believe about Christ and Christianity? This world wants us to hide our faith, but we must know that the Lord has done marvelous things, and we can trust that He will do them again. This certainty allows us to be joyfully unashamed of our reliance on God.
Secondly, God revealed his righteousness. In his commentary on Psalm 98, Derek Kidner defines “righteousness” as “to make right what is wrong.” What in your life feels wrong? Messy family relationships (always a hot topic during the holidays)? Do you feel trapped or stuck or enslaved like the Israelites in Egypt? God makes right what is wrong. Do you feel attacked, powerless, hopeless, like the Israelites before the armies of Babylon? God makes right what is wrong. Do you feel like YOU are what is wrong? Do you feel covered by guilt and shame? God’s salvation means He makes right what is wrong in you. Take joy in knowing that every wrong will be made right.
Finally, God rememberesd his steadfast love and faithfulness. When the Israelites were in slavery or exile, it probably felt like God was not listening or that he had given up. It took years, even generations for God to make known the salvation that he planned, but he did not forget. God remembered his promises to his people. In Christ, we have better promises than the Israelites ever did. Just one of which is the Holy Spirit living in us right now. As you read this, you are in the very presence of God Almighty. He is with you, helping you, counseling you, strengthening you, growing you, comforting you, teaching you how to have joy.
What if I still don’t feel joy?: Let every heart prepare him room
The commands to joy in scripture can be difficult for people who don’t feel joy. There is even an allusion to this difficulty in Joy the the World. When the hymn commands “Let every heart prepare him room” it’s assuming the necessity to actively prepare. We are not naturally ready to give praise or feel joy. We must prepare our hearts to receive our King. Recently I have been helped by this Psalm in thinking about the connection between praise and joy. Sometimes the command to joy feels unattainable. But the command to praise feels more accessible somehow. It’s sort of like this: we can’t change how we feel, but we can change what we do. A meaningful application of this passage for me has been to focus more on praise even when I don’t feel joy. Maybe that can be meaningful to you as well.
It’s the season of joy. But true joy is not limited to a season. The foundation for our joy is as sure and timeless as God’s promises, which are yes and amen in the coming and work of Jesus. I pray that you will know the joy of Jesus’ salvation and that you would sing a new song in your heart to your Ssavior this Christmas.