Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come!
Isaac Watts (1674–1748) is regarded as the father of English hymnody. As a child, he displayed a quick wit and a propensity for verse, a talent that was not always appreciated by his stern father. But Isaac was very earnest about his Christian faith, and he wished to use his gifts to serve the Lord.
As a young man, he openly rebelled against what he called “the cheap doggerel currently in use in the services of public worship,” by which he meant the psalters that were then in use.
Watts’s complaints about the lyrics were three. His first protest was that the poetry was terrible. Faithful, wooden renderings of the Hebrew text they may have been, but they were written in abysmal English. His second protest was against exclusive psalm singing. Watts argued that the Psalms were not the only inspired text of the Bible, and thus should not be exclusively drawn upon for rendering songs for worship. His last protest was that the Psalms were rendered in a way that ignored the fact that Christ had come. Watts anticipated what would later come to be known as a biblical-theological reading (and rendering) of the Psalms.
At first, his unsympathetic father, a deacon in a Nonconformist church, was outraged by Isaac’s complaints. He then issued a challenge to his nonconforming son: “If you think you can do better, then why don’t you write verse for worship.” With this “encouragement” from his father, young Isaac did just that, at first to the consternation and then to the delight of his father, whose church began to use them for worship.
Watts’s intellect and gifts were considerable. He had an interest in logic, which eventually brought him to write a book on the subject: Logic, or, The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a Variety of Rules to Guard against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. First published in 1724, the book was an instant success. Watts continued to revise it throughout his life, and it was published in some twenty editions.
But Watts’s first love was the Savior and his gospel. He studied for, and was ordained to, the ministry. While at his first charge, Independent Church in London, he used his gifts to produce Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which was used by the congregation in worship. It contained his new compositions “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
In 1712, Watts’s health took a turn for the worse, and he felt compelled to resign from his pulpit. This news was not gladly received by the members of his congregation, and they greatly objected to this course of action. But Watts felt that he did not have the strength to continue in the pastoral office there, and the congregation eventually relented.
Without a call and needing a place to convalesce, Isaac Watts accepted the invitation of Sir Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London, to recuperate at his spacious estate. This friendship deepened and Watts became the Private Chaplain of the Abneys, staying with them for thirty-six years. Upon his departure, Lady Abney remarked, “It was the shortest visit a friend ever paid a friend.”
It was there at the Abneys in 1719 that Watts published his Psalms of David Imitated. This work was, in Watts’s estimation, his crowning achievement. It bothered him that many of the psalters in use in the Christian church were mere translations that made no mention of Christ. Using the method of the apostles, Watts applied the Psalms explicitly to the incarnate Son of God. When he came to Psalm 98, Watts penned these words in paraphrase:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing.
The tune which so famously now accompanies it was written by George Frederick Handel and adapted to the hymn by Lowell Mason many years after Watts’s death.
A woman named Elizabeth Singer sang Watts’s beautiful hymns and renditions of the Psalms for years. Without even seeing this man, she fell in love with him through his published writings, thinking she had found her soul mate. So she arranged to meet this remarkable man though a friend.
Watts, being quick-witted, single, and without prospects, came prepared to propose marriage. But Miss Singer promptly refused his proposal, for she was completely unprepared for what she saw standing before her: a little man “only five feet tall, with sallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes, and a death-like color.” And that was that. As historian and writer Ernest Emurian so eloquently put it, “That was as close as Watts ever came to committing matrimony.” He remained a bachelor until his death in 1748.
It is fitting that Watts should be the author of the beautiful Joy to the World!—a hymn which you will almost certainly sing this season.
In Old Testament times, the Lord God “married” the people of the Mosaic covenant and was a husband to them. Of the numerous prophets that sounded this theme, Jeremiah used it in chapter 31 of his prophetic tome and then recorded God’s complaint that they had broken the covenant. And so in that same chapter God promised that he would make a new covenant, one that could not be broken.
Almost six hundred years after Jeremiah wrote those words, in the fullness of time, God himself appeared as the bridegroom for his beloved people. But the magnificent prophecies of his appearing had caused many of those born under the old covenant to expect something different.
He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:11)
He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isa. 53:2–3)
Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee. (John 7:52)
Some, however, by the grace of God, saw past his lackluster appearance and the scars of a harsh life living under the curse of Adam’s sin that he came to bear for us. One of those graced to see past the lack of beauty and majesty would write of him,”We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Perhaps John was referring to the event on the mountain when he, along with Peter and James, saw Jesus transfigured, but I do not think this is so. The “we” seems to be inclusive of every one of their company. It was not everyone without exception who saw (or sees) his glory, but it was more than just those who were on the mountain with him who saw his glory.
I don’t know what ever became of Miss Elizabeth Singer. I wonder if she ever regretted not accepting Watts in person. By all accounts, he was marked by meekness, pious humility, deep empathy, and love for others. He had a fond affection for children (being, by all accounts, childlike himself his whole life). He had a tender heart toward the disadvantaged, and showed no partiality in his treatment of people, whether the one in his company happened to be Lord Abney or a beggar on the streets of London. For Isaac Watts knew that whatever he did for the least of Jesus’ brethren he did for Jesus himself.
Christmas is upon us again. Extravaganzas will be put on, and much that happens this time of the year will make what goes on at church look positively dull by outward appearances. But it is there at your church, and not at the extravaganzas, that you will have a better glimpse of what happened two thousand years ago and why it happened.
In a day of phenomenally rich and beautiful celebrities and rock-star-status politicians, Jesus can appear pretty lackluster. I hope that during this Advent season you will see past the façade of their vain and passing glory, and that Jesus will appear to you to be “fairer than ten thousand.”
The world will mark the passing of another year, as it goes about its business of distracting itself from Christ in the celebration of the very holiday that bears his name. I pray that you will be graced by God to behold his glory, the “glory as of the only Son from the Father”—and that your heart will echo with the familiar strains that I imagine will burst from your lips: Joy to the world! The Lord is come!