- Luke Hildebrand
"And Wonders of His Love"
As Christmas approaches once again, our thoughts turn to gift exchanges, great food, and warm gatherings with family. In short, our hearts are filled with the anticipation of giving and receiving love as we try to surround ourselves with as much of the season as possible. This includes the Christmas carols we listen to and sing. Many of these are secular carols about humans showing love and generosity, but the most important to any Christian are the hymns that remind us of God’s love for all mankind. One of these Christmas hymns is “Joy to the World,” the most popular of its kind in the 20th century.
The song ends by repeatedly praising King Jesus Christ for the “wonders of His love.” This line is often overlooked, for it seems that all we hear about God from the mainstream church is His love for us, but what wonders does the song speak of, and how can knowing them deepen our understanding of love beyond giving gifts to family once a year? Let us look at the context of “Joy to the World,” for surely a song that praises God for the wonders of His love will allow us to explore the depths of it anew.
Ironically, the context we are looking to for clarity comes with its own complicated history and meaning. “Joy to the World” was originally a paraphrase of Psalm 98, specifically verses 4-9, included by English poet Isaac Watts in a collection he published in 1719. The song tells of the heavens and earth rejoicing at the coming of King Jesus. Watts saw the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament, so some lines are added that are not in Psalm 98 to display Christ as the fulfilment of the coming king. The song was later modified and rearranged by German composer George Frederic Handel, and even later by Lowell Mason, a music educator from Boston. This series of events shows the wonders of God’s love in themselves, for none of these men knew each other. It shows God’s hand at work even today because from these three strangers came one of the most joyous carols of worship.
The modern church, however, because of the additions Watts made to his paraphrase, debate the meaning of the hymn. Many modern scholars, both professional and amateur, argue that because he inserted lines not found in the Psalms believe Watts speaks of the second coming of Christ instead of the first, particularly the line, “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…” They believe it shouldn’t be a Christmas carol. These lines added by Watts can speak in a physical sense of a world fully purified, something that has not yet come to pass. Thus, the modern view by many is that by speaking of the wonders of His love, the hymn praises God for doing what He said He would by bringing about our salvation by the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also parallels the prophecy of His second coming in Revelation 19:11-21. This sounds good, but we do not take as truth what a man like ourselves might believe. We instead should look to what the Bible says in Psalm 98.
At first glance, Psalm 98:4-9 seems to corroborate the modern interpretation of Watt’s additions. It speaks of all creation celebrating the coming of the Lord and His righteous earthly reign for eternity. This does not consider the context of the psalm, though. Psalm 98 was written before Jesus’ birth, so the original readers from the time of the Old Testament rightly read it as a celebration of the victories God had already given them and a proclamation of the victory the Messiah’s first coming would bring. In other words, given a true study of the historical biblical context, “Joy to the World” rightly belongs in the category of Christmas Hymn. Psalm 98 also can speak of Christ’s victories in a spiritual sense, so the people that originally sang it celebrated Christmas before the holiday existed. Now that’s faith, celebrating the birth of Jesus hundreds of years before He was born.
In the end, while it is good to resolve the context of “Joy to the World,” it both matters and does not matter for the purpose with which we began exploring this Christmas carol. It does matter in learning the context of the song reveals to us the great steadfast love God has shown throughout history in fulfilling His promises made to the Jewish people. On the other hand, it does not matter because regardless of which interpretation you believe for this Christmas carol, they all portray God’s perfect love for mankind. Be it the Jews awaiting the first coming of the Messiah or us the second, they all point to a perfect plan set in motion before the world was made. This is God’s plan for our salvation, sacrificing His only Son to pay for the consequences of each of our personal sins so that we might be reunited with Him when this life ends. So next time we sing of “the wonders of His love” in a Christmas carol half-heartedly, looking forward to earthly presents and food, let us remember that the true wonders await us after we leave this earth all because the Son of God was born in a humble manger, because of His Father’s wondrous love for us all.