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Principal's Pen: December 2021

Principal's Pen: December 2021

"Joy to the World" is not a Christmas Song.

Not too long ago, I was asked about my favorite Christmas song. Right away, I responded, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!" The reason? I enjoy how the lyrics take me back to first-century Israel, to the very setting that saw the appearance of the long-anticipated Messiah, the first Christmas. Here's the first verse and chorus:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

And while "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" sets the stage for remembering the birth of Christ and all the pageantry of Christmas, "Joy to the World" by Isaac Watts is undoubtedly a close second. I have many fond memories of going to church on Christmas Eve and year after year hearing the church orchestra and choir hit a crescendo with the very first note. There's just no other way to play and sing that song!  

But the other day, I learned that "Joy to the World" is not a Christmas song.  While discussing the topic of favorite Christmas songs with some folks in the office, a teacher overheard the conversation and chimed in, "You know, 'Joy to the World' is not a Christmas song." Everyone in the room looked confused, if not skeptical. "Nope, 'Joy to the World' is a song about the second coming of Christ," he added.  Suddenly, it started to come together.

The first verse gives a clue: 

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing…

Did the people of the earth properly "receive her King" with "joy" when He first came into the world? No, the Bible tells us he was "deeply despised, abhorred by the nation…" (Isaiah 49:7). Jesus himself said he would "suffer many things and be treated with contempt" (Mark 9:12). No, the people of the earth did not "prepare him room," they crucified him. Mr. Watts must have been referring to another time.

The third verse makes the point of a future context even more transparent as it speaks of a world free from sin, sorrow, and frustration:  

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found

Again, a sinless world has not yet arrived. The world Watts described sounds like "heaven on earth," which must have been what he was after.      

Finally, in the fourth verse, we sing this: 

He rules the world with truth and grace
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders, wonders of his love

Watts' vision of a world where nations of the earth "prove" the divine standard of righteousness and love is difficult to imagine. But the Bible tells us that is precisely what will happen when Jesus comes to rule and reign in the age to come (Rev 21-22).

In light of what I learned about the song "Joy to the World," I'm going to sing it a bit differently this year. I'm going to sing it with renewed hope in the world to come and with a strong emphasis on the only word Isaac Watts could have used to begin his famous song…Joy!  For that is what God promises for His people and for His glory!  

May the Lord bless you and your family this Christmas season, and may He finally and fully bring "Joy to the World"!


God Bless You,

Nicholas Harris



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