We are in the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle again. This is the start of the Church’s Year. Like many things in the Bible and the Church, we are a little different from the world and seem to fight it—especially this time of year when the world says hurry, hurry and buy, buy but the Gospel says—slow down, know Christ is coming again, put your treasure in Him and praise God! As music is indeed such a big part of our Christian walk together, I decided to share one of our previous Friday Morning Bible Study sessions. It is from a series on Christmas carols. The questions at the end are for you so that you can reflect on what we sing. Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Joy to the World (#270 in Celebration Hymnal)
Lyrics written: 1719 by Isaac Watts as part of Hymnal
(Psalms of David Imitated)
Tune: Antioch by George Frederick Handel (yes the Messiah
Handel), adapted by Lowell Mason in 1839

Background on Hymn: Isaac Watts was a prolific hymn writer and preacher. He was adamant about getting the congregations to sing and understand the gospel through music. He was an independent pastor (what would later be called Methodist) in England, writing more than 750 hymns still in use including “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun”, “Old One Hundredth (Our God Our Help in Ages Past)”, “Alas and did my savior bleed”, and “When I survey the Wondrous Cross” among others. Watts was a strong critic of the Christmas hymns that were beginning to be popular in England that were sentimental about the baby and manger but lacked the “true meaning of Christ and his coming”.

He wanted to focus again on the reason for Christmas — the salvation of the world. So he took the angels’ song and then added his own interpretation to Psalm 98 and the combination was Joy to the World. He did not think this song was limited to Christmas, as “any hymn to the Lord should not be so confined”, and so encouraged his own congregation to sing it at all times of the church year especially baptisms. When asked of the subject of the lyrics, Watts remarked that this song was about the Second Coming of Christ not the first. Many churches until the late 1800s actually included this hymn as an Advent hymn and not a Christmas hymn, and a few included it as an Easter hymn and not about Christmas Time at all.

In 1839, Lowell Mason adapted the tune of Handel’s to a simpler version that is in most hymnals today. Lowell Mason was a major hymn writer in America, a music director at a large Presbyterian Church in Boston. He was also the very first recorded music instructor in any US public school, often credited with placing music education in the public schools. He changed American church and popular music by making such popular melodies and arraignments and introducing congregational singing instead of choirs.

Read Luke 2: 13-14 and Psalm 98. Does this hymn reflect the joy and song of the angel’s worship? Does it reflect the
Biblical witness of the Psalm?

Much as Handel’s Messiah was written as an Easter tune but mostly sung at Christmas now, this song was intended to be sung to tell the gospel all year. Why did it become a Christmas song do you think?

What are your memories of this carol? What does it teach you about Jesus?

- Pastor Tim

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