The hymn “Joy to the World,” published by Isaac Watts in 1719, is one of my favorites. But it’s not my favorite Christmas song—because it is not a Christmas song at all. The hymn is instead based on Psalm 98 and conceived by Watts as a proleptic anticipation of the premillennial Second Coming of Christ. The song details the arrival of Christ in glory as the Millennial ruler (vv. 1–2), highlights his sovereign power to remedy the meteorological, geological, and agricultural deficiencies of the physical earth in the aftermath of Adam’s curse (vv. 2–3), and exults in the mass conversion of both Israel and the nations at the close of the present age (v. 4).
Soon after Watts wrote the song (and perhaps in part because Watts wrote the song in the present tense), it was adopted by postmillennialists and reinterpreted as a hymn about the first advent of Christ. When Christ came to earth 2000 years ago, it was supposed, he established a kingdom in seed form that would gradually grow to envelope the whole world as its residents collectively began to “receive” him. After the demise of postmillennialism around the turn of the century, various proponents of realized eschatology adapted this second vision of the hymn, reconceiving the hymn further as one about Christ’s ongoing lordship over every sphere of life.
In truth, the spheres of life that Watts mentions have little to do with present realities. The rocks and hills do not shout for joy today, but groan in anticipation of the Resurrection (Rom 8:22–23); thorns not only continue to “infest the ground,” but served during the first advent as instruments of torture against our Lord; and the nations are surely doing a poor job today of “proving the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”
But all this will one day change—and we glory in the prospect. So perhaps it is not so irresponsible of us to sing the song during this season. It is, after all, the grand conclusion of Christ’s work on earth that was so humbly set in motion those many years ago. I will gladly sing the song with anyone who asks me to do so during this festive season. But I for one will be looking forward in history as I sing and not backward. Even so come, Lord Jesus.