The song/hymn “Joy to the World” has been the most published Christian hymn in North America as of and since the 20th Century according to Wikipedia. The words of the hymn are by English minister and hymnist, Isaac Watts, and they are based on Psalm 98, 96:11–12 and Genesis 3:17–18. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection, “The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship”. (Quote source here.)
An article published on December 22, 2015, titled, “History of Hymns: Joy to the World,” by that staff at the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, states the following on the history and collaboration on this classic Christmas hymn:
“Joy to the world” is perhaps an unlikely popular Christmas hymn. First of all, it is based on a psalm, and, second, it celebrates Christ’s second coming much more than the first. This favorite Christmas hymn is the result of a collaboration of at least three people and draws its initial inspiration not from the Christmas narrative in Luke 2, but from Psalm 98.
The first collaborator was the English poet and dissenting clergyman, Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He paraphrased the entire Psalm 98 in two parts, and it first appeared in his famous collection, “The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament” (1719).
“Joy to the world” was taken from the second part of the paraphrase (Psalm 98:4-9), entitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Watts, commenting on his paraphrase of the psalm, notes: “In these two hymns I have formed out of the 98th Psalm I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief Sense of the Holy Scriptures . . .”. For Watts, the psalms were not to be viewed as biblical material in their own right, but had value only inasmuch as they pointed toward the New Testament….
The second collaborator was an unwitting one, George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), the popular German-born composer residing in London. Though contemporaries in England, they did not collaborate on this hymn. Another pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune that we sing in North America. The opening bars for the chorus, “Lift up your heads,” was adapted to the incipit “Joy to the world.” An instrumental portion of the opening tenor recitative, “Comfort ye,” provides a basis for the text “heaven and nature sing.” Such borrowings were common, the aesthetic notion being that the music of great musicians had in itself an innate beauty. Even a crude pastiche of “great music” implied that the result would also be of high quality.
The third collaborator who assured that this tune and text would appear together in the United States was the Boston music educator, Lowell Mason (1792-1872). It was Mason, a musician with significant influence in his day, who published his own arrangement of Handel’s melodic fragments in “Occasional Psalms and Hymn Tunes” (1836) and named the tune “Antioch.” While this is not the only tune to which Watts’s text is sung, it is certainly the dominant one. Actually, this tune remains virtually unknown in Great Britain….
The result is a favorite Christmas hymn based on an Old Testament psalm, set to musical fragments composed in England, and pieced together across the Atlantic in the United States! (Quote source and additional information here.)
And that is a very brief history of one of America’s favorite Christmas hymns/songs. Here are the words from Psalm 98 which first inspired Isaac Watts to compose it:
Oh, sing to the Lord a new song!
For He has done marvelous things;
His right hand and His holy arm
have gained Him the victory.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
His righteousness He has revealed
in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His mercy and
His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
Sing to the Lord with the harp,
With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the Lord,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
I’ll end this post with the most recognizable words from the first verse of the song, “Joy to the World”:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing….
And heaven and nature sing . . .
And heaven, and heaven . . .
And nature sing! . . . .
YouTube Video: “Joy to the World” by Pentatonix: