Nearly 300 years ago, an English clergyman called Isaac Watts published Psalms of David Imitated (1719). Though he didn’t write it for Christmas, a song from that book is now a beloved Christmas hymn – “Joy to the World.” It’s based on the second half of Psalm 98, the part that imagines seas roaring and floods clapping their hands (in the KJV) when the Lord returns. Watts gave the psalm a New Testament focus.
A few years ago, my husband Allan was getting ready for graduation and I was trying to help. As the Grade 8 teacher he had to prepare a paragraph describing each graduate – something funny and meaningful. Each one included a prayer for God to bless the student’s plans for next year as well as a passage from Scripture picked with that person in mind. Easy, right?
Like wedding texts, the verses we gravitated to at first were the familiar ones – usually from the Psalms, Proverbs, prophets or New Testament. Wisdom is like honey; press on toward the goal; work for the Lord, not for men – that sort of thing. I remember paging through the Bible in search of something for a shy, quiet girl. She was a terrific artist. For her text, we skipped over the popular passages and settled on something simple yet profound: the first five words of Genesis.
“In the beginning, God created. . . .”
It’s not a promise, a proverb or the usual encouragement to run the high-school-shaped race after Grade 8. Instead, it’s the beginning of a story. It’s a word picture that tells us something fundamental about ourselves and who we worship.
“In the beginning, God created.” Full stop. Creating was the very first thing God tells us he did. We were created by the Creator to create, to live creative lives. This reserved Grade 8 girl made eye-popping drawings, and in so doing joined the wonderful chorus of all creation since heavens and earth began. Praising our Creator God by making things, as he made us.
I’m not sure all that came through in a 30-second graduation-day speech, mind you. They have stuck with me, though – those first five words of Genesis.
Let heaven and nature sing!
Nearly 300 years ago, an English clergyman called Isaac Watts published Psalms of David Imitated (1719). Though he didn’t write it for Christmas, a song from that book is now a beloved Christmas hymn – “Joy to the World.” It’s based on the second half of Psalm 98, the part that imagines seas roaring and floods clapping their hands (in the KJV) when the Lord returns. Watts gave the psalm a New Testament focus. The earth is making a joyful noise because, Watts says, “the Saviour reigns.”
In the early 1800s, an American choir director named Lowell Mason set Watts’ lyrics to a tune adapted from fragments of Handel’s Messiah, first performed in 1742. Mason added a “fuge” – repeating lines – at the end of each stanza. This works very well for “repeat the sounding joy” but sounds a bit stranger with echoes of “far as the curse is found.” Though one writer I came across thought this stark description of total depravity sung three times would have fit Watt’s Reformed theology very well (Michael Hawn, A History of Hymns).
This Christmas, I hope that you sing Watt’s jubilant hymn at least once! I hope you are showered with acts of love, small versions of the wonders of Christ’s love for us. I hope that you help deliver blessings from the Saviour far and wide, further even than the reach of that curse. A pot of soup, plate of cookies, sweater, card, decorated window, pageant or concert – these are all special and meaningful acts of creation.
Praising our Creator God by making things, as he made us.
Like a Psalm rewritten by a British minister, set to music in the U.S. for us to enjoy hundreds of years later.
Look! The choir director is raising her arm to bring everyone in.
Listen! How can you feel anything but joy with the opening note for “JOY,” optimistically high? Voices run down the steps of the octave, like a kid running downstairs to greet you at the door: “to the world. The Lord. Has. Come.” (Quick breath). “Let earth. Receive. Her King!”
There’s that arm again, directing melodic traffic: “Let ev-e-r-y heart! Pre-pa-re him room.”
Now the staccato beat of the fuge, like a percussion section, like a drumroll before the finale: “and heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing.” Then the final, majestic “he-aven,” which launches itself up eight notes mid-word! before descending swiftly back to earth for the triumphant “And na-ture sing.”
You could likely find some Reformed theology (creation, fall, redemption) in that, too.
Or, like when that child runs over for a welcome hug, you could just close your eyes and enjoy it.
Have a blessed Christmas!