Isaac Watts’ great paraphrase of Psalm 98 has been voted, evidently, the most popular Christmas hymn in North America. It’s more of an Advent, rather than Christmas hymn and could be used at any time of the year (though it would be a brave minister or worship leader who suggested its use in the summer!)
O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
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 live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Joy to the World; the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Saviour reigns! Let men their songs employ; while fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains repeat the sounding joy.
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.
He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love.
For me, this is a perfect marriage of words and music – and singing it draws me in to its truth. It moves me. Without a doubt my favourite carol.
St Augustine, fifth century North African bishop, said ‘those who sing pray twice’. Singing brings our whole selves into the act of praise, uniting heart and mind, words and melody. We may cringe with embarrassment when asked to join in an action song, or to dance whilst we praise, but children and young people often embrace the embodiedness of worship in these ways. Learning British Sign Language or Makaton can further ensure our bodies are caught up in our worship, and connect us more deeply to the meaning of the words we sing.
The Wesley brothers understood that the theology that takes root in our lives is the theology we sing, rather than the theology we hear. Most of us could probably quote more hymns and worship songs by heart than Bible verses, and certainly than sermons!
I write at a time when singing together is not possible (to help prevent the spread of Covid 19). I pray the situation will have improved by the time you are reading this. How much harder it is to praise and worship in isolation – how much do we long for the time when we can gather to worship and sing in a foretaste of the courts of heaven when the unnumbered throng of all people groups will sing praises together.
For me the very act of singing this hymn ushers in joy. Joy in my heart. Joy to the world. What better way to mark the ending of one year and the birth of the next than to respond to the Biblical command to sing to the Lord with these wonderful and powerful words.
Help us to lift our voices in praise to you, our Lord and saviour, Unhindered by self consciousness, Knowing our heartfelt praise will always sound sweet to your ear And in harmony with the eternal praise of heaven. Joy to the world. Amen.
Dr Sam Richards, serving as Head of Children’s and Youth Work, member of mayBe community, Oxford.