“The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”
Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
One of our best-loved Christmas carols isn’t really about Christmas.
(Technically, it isn’t even a carol.)
It’s one of a set of paraphrases of the book of psalms, converted into hymn form
by the 17th-century “Father of English Hymnody,” Isaac Watts:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises….
… before the LORD,
For He is coming…
Watts’s adaptations of the psalms transferred the ancient Hebrew songs into a Christian context.
(Classic example: Psalm 72 becomes “Jesus shall reign….”)
That meant that all the verbs in the psalm in the future tense
were changed to the present tense,
since according to Christian belief,
the promises of the Covenant are fulfilled in Jesus.
Thus, “the Lord is coming” in the psalm
is transformed into “the Lord is come” in Watts.
What the ancients looked forward to with eager anticipation,
we have as a present reality.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
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….
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.
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.
Here Dr. Watts also appears to inject an allusion to the New Testament:
In Romans 8:18-25, the apostle Paul informs us that
“the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption”
when the glory of God is revealed in His children.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
…For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
The idea of God’s judgment as a cause for rejoicing may sound odd to us,
but it occurs frequently throughout the psalms.
The key, as Dr. Watts rightly recognized, is that God’s “truth and grace” (John 1:14, 17)
will bring justice and peace to a world where it is sadly lacking.
So perhaps the message of this ancient psalm and 300-year-old hymn
are not too far removed from the Christmas message after all:
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord….
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
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