Joy To The World!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” (Psalm 98: 4-9 ESV)

It is certainly one of, if not the most, well-known Christmas carols. Most of us learned it at an early age and will sing it at least once during this Christmas season. As the Grinch would say, “It is both joyful and triumphant!” It captures so well the awe, wonder, and exuberance the shepherds must have felt that fateful night when an angel of the Lord appeared and announced “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 NIV)

imageThat is the image it brings to mind when we sing Joy to the World. However, it is not the image Isaac Watts had in mind when he wrote that familiar song. It was originally published in his 1719 hymnbook titled The Palms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship. How’s that for a catchy title?

Like many young people today, Watts found much of the congregational singing in the England of his day very uninspiring and lacking in passion. He once remarked “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

Seeking to energize congregational worship, Watts set out to write hymns based on the Psalms “in such a manner as we have reason to believe David would have composed them if he had lived in our day.” Some have called Isaac Watts the Chris Tomlin of his day.

Watts composed the words of Joy to the World based on Psalm 98, specifically the verses cited above. If you focus on those familiar lyrics, you can’t help but notice that there is no mention of those scenes and characters we all know so well from the Christmas story as told by Luke.

That is because Watts wrote the lyrics of Joy to the World with the Second Coming of Christ in mind, rather than his birth.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come: Let earth receive her King!…. Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns: Let men their songs employ! … He rules the earth with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

Several years ago, I began the practice of reading a different gospel account each month while continuing to read through the rest of the New Testament every six months. Following this schedule means that each December, I find myself both in John’s Gospel and in Revelation, John’s account of Christ’s return.

The combination of those two books of the Bible remind me that I live between two world-changing events – Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection and his promised return to gather those of us he died to save.

Just like a child on Christmas morning, as we celebrate his birth this year, may we equally anticipate and prepare our hearts for his promised return. Like Watts, may we long for that glorious day when the nations will indeed “prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

May each of you enjoy a Christ-filled and Christ-focused Christmas this year.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22: 17, 20 ESV)

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The Durability of Scripture

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NIV)

One of the world’s leading sellers of fine jewelry is well known for their slogan, “A Diamond is Forever”. But long before De Beers coined that phrase, God assured us through the prophet Isaiah that the same is true for God’s Word.

This week I read an article in The Guardian online about the oldest surviving complete Latin Bible, the Codex Amiatinus, which was produced by monks in Northumbria in 716 A.D. and taken to Italy as a gift for Pope Gregory II. It is being returned on loan to the British Library in 2018 for an exhibition on the history, art, literature, and culture of Anglo-Saxon England.

This Bible is almost 18” thick and weighs more than 75 pounds. It is reported that over a thousand animal skins were needed to make its parchment. I can only imagine the number of hours those monks spent producing that single volume of the Holy Scriptures.

When Johannes Gutenberg produced the first book on a printing press around 1439 (a Latin Bible), there were only 30,000 books of any kind in all of Europe. This works out to about one book for every 2,500 people.

Nearly eighty years later, when Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, twenty million books had been printed. More of those books were Bibles than anything else. Obviously, there was a great hunger for personal access to God’s written word.

We are blessed to live in a time when the Holy Scriptures are more widely accessible than ever before in the history of mankind. Here in my small office, there are seven Bibles, not counting four digital versions that are downloaded on my iPad.

Unfortunately, man’s hunger for God’s Word has not seemed to keep pace with increased access. I wonder sometimes if the Lord was speaking of the days in which we live when he moved the prophet Amos to write, “The days are coming, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I will send a famine through the land — not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 8:11 NIV)

Never take for granted the privilege of owning your own personal copy of the Word of God, translated into language you can easily understand and apply in your life. Never read it nonchalantly – you are hearing the words of the Lord.

Take the advice of the psalmist and begin each day with it. “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.” (Psalm 119:147 NIV) Reflect on its promises as you prepare for bed. “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” (Psalm 119:148 NIV)

More than all the worldly distractions clamoring for your attention each day, it has the power to transform your life. And it will endure forever as a lamp to your feet and a light for your path. (Psalm 119:105)

“The soul can do without everything except the word of God, without which none at all of its wants are provided for.” – Martin Luther