Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Psalm 98 - “The Metrical Paraphrasers are at the Door”

Christmas Day
Sunday, December 25, 2005

(little toy plays “Joy to the World”)

I don’t think Isaac Watts would be impressed. Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” in 1719, and I’m not sure he’d be impressed with a toy Santa playing the congas to his hymn. I’m ready to get rid of this little toy, but unfortunately, our son, Samuel, loves to watch it and dance to the songs. Some Christmas I’ll have to explain to Samuel why Daddy’s not a fan of this toy that goes on and on and on.

So Isaac Watts who wrote “Joy to the World,” one of the most triumphant Christmas hymns, wouldn’t be impressed by this little toy, but the truth is, when Watts wrote his hymn, there were a lot of people who weren’t impressed with his hymn. . .even when it was played on an organ.

Watts received a lot of criticism. Living in England at the turn of the 18th century, Watts was a Calvinist Christian. The Calvinists only allowed metrical settings of the psalms for use in worship. That means all songs sung in church had to be very close translations of the psalms, including every line in very similar phrasing. What Watts had done with “Joy to the World” is a metrical paraphrase. “Paraphrase” means to rewrite something in the spirit of the original but using your own phrases to give the sense and meaning of the original but not having to reproduce it word-for-word. “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98, verses 4-9, but it doesn’t completely match the phrases in that psalm.

So if some carolers show up at your door singing “Joy to the World,” tell everyone in the house that the metrical paraphrasers are at the door. I know, it doesn’t sound as quaint as calling them carolers, but calling them metrical paraphrasers will help you remember that “Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of Psalm 98.

Isaac Watts had complained as a teen that no one seemed to be showing their faith while they were singing the psalms. He started writing hymns, because he wanted to find ways to put words on people’s lips that were true to Scripture but also were words that people would understand. He wanted their hymns and songs to use words from their daily lives.

This was very controversial. It’s hard for us to imagine Christmas Day without “Joy to the World,” and yet, that’s what some leaders at the time of Isaac Watts wanted. They didn’t want anyone singing hymns by Watts.

That’s like slamming the door on the Christmas carolers. Saying that Isaac Watts was all wrong, that’s like slamming the door on those carolers. Could you imagine slamming the door on carolers?

The RYMS, our youth, and others who were with us a few years ago caroling in the neighborhood don’t have to imagine someone slamming the door on carolers; it happened to our group. Our eager youth rang a doorbell to sing a carol, perhaps even ready to sing “Joy to the World,” and someone opened the door, heard the song, and quickly shut the door again. Some people just didn’t want to hear any Christmas carols, didn’t want to hear about Jesus.

But now, could you imagine someone slamming the door because they didn’t think that “Joy to the World” was an appropriate Christmas hymn? That’s what people were doing to Isaac Watts and others who were writing hymns that paraphrased the psalms, hymns that were their own creations. The metrical paraphrasers are at the door, singing “Joy to the World,” proclaiming the love of God and the promise of salvation, and there were some ready to slam the door.

Yet, the people who spent so much time on saying that his hymns were no good, they missed out on what “Joy to the World” teaches us, how this hymn reminds us of the words of Psalm 98, how these words we’ve grown to love reflect the truth of God’s Word.

Let’s look at Psalm 98. Open your hymnals (Lutheran Worship) to page 338 in the front of the hymnal, that’s the small numbers on the bottom of the page. On page 338 you’ll find Psalm 98. We’ll look at how Psalm 98 inspired Isaac Watts to write the words of “Joy to the World.”

Now, first of all, the hymn Watts wrote for Psalm 98 has two parts. We only know the second part, “Joy to the World.” Part 1 of his hymn is based on verses 1-3, and actually works very nicely with the same melody. Click here to see Part 1 via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

The second thing I should mention is that while we sing “Joy to the World” and other metrical paraphrases, and we sing hymns that are simply creations of hymn writers, this in no way means that we consider hymns to be more important than Scripture itself. Hymns are tools to teach the truth of Scripture. Just as we use plain language in sermons, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and everyday conversation in order to teach other about Jesus, so our hymns try to speak freely about Jesus. Yet, just because “Joy to the World” teaches us about Jesus doesn’t mean that the hymn is more important that Psalm 98 itself.

Now, “Joy to the World,” part 2 of his hymn, is based on verses 4-9. Verse 4, there on page 339 in your hymnals, says, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,/Burst into jubilant song with music.” When Watts wrote that first line of his hymn, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” that’s his way of giving us that shout for joy. Remember Watts grew up hearing his fellow churchgoers singing Psalm 98 in a version that said, “All earthly creatures, praise the Lord God/And sing for joy at His behest.” The singing for joy gets swallowed up in the awkward English phrases, buried there in how the psalm is translated. While those words remain true to Scripture, Watts instead puts the “shout for joy” on our lips as we sing those four first big notes, “Joy to the world.”

And why not give us a hymn that truly shouts for joy? Psalm 98 declares the marvelous things that God has done. When Psalm 98 was written, the writer could look back and see God’s power in creating the world, saving His people from slavery in Egypt, and being with His people in the Temple. Yet, now that Christ has come, now that Christ was born this day, our shouts for joy take on an even more triumphant tone. The Savior is here. God has sent His Son to save His people from sin and death. Isaac Watts gives us this full shout for joy with those four notes, “Joy to the world!” By criticizing Watts, people were missing out on the sermon he was preaching just with those four victorious notes. The world can sing and shout with full joy, because Christ the Lord has come!

Watts was changing up how the words of Psalm 98 were translated for singing in order to help the people sing out the meaning of Scripture. Jump down to verses 7-8 of Psalm 98 where it says, “Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;/The world, and all who live in it./Let the rivers clap their hands,/Let the mountains sing together for joy.” These words match the idea in many psalms that all of creation praises God.

What Watts does with these verses is a wonderfully poetic way of driving home the point that the whole Creation celebrates the Savior. Watts takes these different parts of the created world, puts them all together in that one line in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,/Repeat the sounding joy.” Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. Watts the poet puts all of that together to really emphasize that every portion of God’s Creation is celebrating today. It’s a truth based on Psalm 98, put into different words in poetry, in order to remind us today as we’re out and about on Christmas Day that every field, every body of water, every rock, every hill, every plain that we see praises God for sending His Son into the world.

Back now to this little toy Santa playing “Joy to the World” with a conga beat. Isaac Watts might not have been very impressed by this version of his hymn, but I guess, even if this little toy annoys me, I still catch myself singing along with it while Samuel dances. It still gets me singing those words which are inspired by Psalm 98. And that’s exactly what Watts left room for with his hymn—our praises to God can use any kind of music.

Look at verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 98. “Make music to the Lord with the harp,/With the harp and the song of singing,/With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn.” The psalm offers up examples of instruments that the people might use to make music to God. The psalm isn’t meant to say that worship songs only could use harps and trumpets and ram’s horns. It’s a way of saying, “Grab whatever you have, and use those instruments to praise God.”

Well, Watts, I think, felt funny that the church kept singing about harps and ram’s horns when the church wasn’t using harps and ram’s horns. The church was mainly using the organ. So that’s why in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” Watts wrote, “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!/Let all their songs employ.” In other words, use all of the songs, all of the music, all of the instruments you can find to praise God. When Watts wrote “let all their songs employ,” I doubt he could’ve imagined it, but he opened the door to letting his hymn, his words of praise to God be sung while accompanied by piano, orchestras, concert bands, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, marching bands, keyboards, banjos, fiddles, jazz bands, DJ’s mixing on the turntable, and even little toys. Watts might not have imagined all of those kinds of instruments, but his words carry the spirit of Psalm 98. Let all our songs employ, let us use all of our instruments and music makers to praise God.

This morning we’ve used the organ, the piano, handbells, solo voices, all of our voices. Later Kylie and Mara will use their violins. Why are we using all of these different kinds of music makers? Why raise our songs in so many different ways? Because we’re shouting for joy to the Lord using whatever we’ve got to praise His Name. Just like the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains are celebrating God with the noises they make, we’re making a joyful noise to the Lord.

We’re making this joyful noise, because Jesus Christ is born this day. Jesus came from His eternal place in heaven, was born as a child, lived as a man, suffered, died, and was buried, and then rose again from the dead. Jesus did this in order “to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray,” to save us from sin and death, to give us life after death. That’s why we’re singing today. That’s why at the close of the service we’ll sing “Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts. We’re shouting for joy today, because God sent His Savior. We don’t have to fear death anymore; we don’t have to worry that He’ll judge us to death for our sins. We have songs of joy on our lips this morning, because salvation is here.

During the offering, the handbells will play “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and the reason we sing of Christmas, the reason that the bells ring of Christmas, the reason that Bowmans play the organ and piano and violins of Christmas, the reason we all sing of Christmas today is because Jesus has come to save us! Joy to the world, the Lord is come!