The Story Behind Joy To the World

Simple manger with straw in it and a crown sitting atop the straw

One of the most familiar and popular Christmas songs is Joy To the World. This song, along with Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, The First Noel and several others, is a part of nearly every Christian Christmas celebration. I remember being in a children’s choir and belting out the signature line, “Joy To the World!” — all of us terribly out of tune but singing as loudly and with as much mustered joy as possible. It helped that our choir director, Mrs. Westlund, had a huge, infectious smile and her big eyes encouraged us even further. She showed joy on her face as we sang, so we must have been doing it right.

Just the other day, though, I learned some interesting things about Joy To the World that changed my understanding of the song. First off, the song resulted from the efforts of three different men.

Isaac Watts wrote a poem in 1719 that is the lyric foundation of Joy To the World.

In 1741, George Frederick Handel wrote the great Messiah, parts of which later became the tune for Joy To the World.

Sometime around 1830, Lowell Mason, a publisher, composer, and choir director adapted Watts’ poem and used parts of Handel’s composition to create the hymn Joy To the World.

All of that is quite interesting, but here is the part that changed my understanding of the song. Watts’ poem was inspired by three passages in Scripture:

What is interesting about those passages, particularly those from Psalms 98 and 96, is that they point to the Messiah’s second coming, not his birth, the first coming. Go ahead and take a moment to read those passages. They are linked to the text so that you can get to them easily.

Do you see the allusions to his return?

Now, take three minutes to listen to Joy To the World with a fresh perspective — that our Savior is coming again. Click here for a rendition of the song by Casting Crowns.

For me, this makes Joy To the World a new Christmas song. It is equally fitting for his humble, lowly birth as well as for his magnificent, triumphant return.

I pray that this new insight into an old Christmas tradition will bring new joy and hope to your leadership this week. All the people we work with need the hope that our Savior brings. The knowledge of his love and the change the Holy Spirit has made in your heart can point them to the newborn King and the Savior on his eternal throne.

Merry Christmas!

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Pro Church Media. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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