Psalm 98

Joy to the world


Fig. 1. Isaac Watts, Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719).

Text. In 1707, Isaac Watts (1674–1748) had a grand design for a reformation of Christian worship. At the end of the first edition of his Hymns & Spiritual Songs (1707), he included “A short essay toward the improvement of psalmody; or, an enquiry how the Psalms of David ought to be translated into Christian songs.” In this essay, he argued that singing the Psalms congregationally is different from reading them theologically:

The design of these two duties is very different: by reading we learn what God speaks to us in his Word, but when we sing, especially unto God, our chief design is, or should be, to speak our own hearts and our Words to God. … Songs are generally expressions of our own experiences, or of his glories; we acquaint him what sense we have of his greatness and goodness, and that chiefly in those instances which have relation to us: we breathe out our souls towards him, and make our addresses of praise and acknowledgment to him (pp. 243-244).

As such, many Psalms, when sung in public worship, don’t make sense on modern lips from a geographical, situational, or theological perspective. To give an example of this concern, Watts described this shift of perspective from ancient Israel to modern-day Christ-worship:

Wheresoever he finds the person or offices of our Lord Jesus Christ in prophecy, they ought rather to be translated in a way of history, and those evangelical truths should be stript of their vail of darkness, and drest in such expressions that Christ may appear in ’em to all that sing (p. 247).

Watts’ goal of transforming the Psalms for Christian worship would take twelve more years to come to fruition, eventually culminating in The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719 | Fig. 1). Psalm 98 is an example of how Watts chose to change the perspective from one of an impending prophecy of salvation to one of a historically fulfilled event, giving us “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”

Watts included a note with his two hymns based on Psalm 98 (the other being “To our Almighty Maker God”):

In these two hymns which I have formed out of the 98th Psalm, I have fully exprest what I esteem to be the first and chief sense of the holy Scriptures, both in this and the 96th Psalm, whose conclusions are both alike.

In his paraphrase, covering Psalm 98:4-9, Watts captured the sense of calling on all earth and nature to praise the King, the righteous judge. Watts omitted any references to instruments because his congregation sang unaccompanied, in keeping with their conviction that this was proper New Testament practice. Hymnologist Carl Daw has explained some of the other unique features of Watts’ paraphrase:

One of Watts’ notable additions to the psalm is the line “Let every heart prepare him room.” There is nothing so personal or interior in the original, which uses entirely public and large-scale imagery about the whole earth, seas, and mountains. It is easy to see how that line might be perceived as a reference to the Bethlehem narrative, especially the “no room for them in the inn” verse (Luke 2:7). …

Less obvious is the attention given in the third stanza to sins, sorrows, thorns, and curse; presumably this cluster of images is derived from Genesis 3:17-18, God’s curse upon the ground because of Adam’s sin. It may well be that Watts has made a connection between that passage and Paul’s assertion that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22 KJV), that is, until the coming of the Messiah.[1]

Tune. The tune most widely associated with Watts’ text is ANTIOCH, often poorly attributed in hymnals to either George Frederic Handel or Lowell Mason, neither of which is the proper author. This tune appeared at least four times in short succession around the same date, 1832-1833. Since three of the collections were published without dates, the exact succession is difficult to determine.

Possibly the earliest is Charles Rider’s Psalmodia Britannica, vol. 4, no. 87, p. 949, where the tune was called COMFORT (Fig. 2). The first four volumes are undated, but the fifth is marked 1832, thus putting volume 4 some time earlier, possibly 1831. Notice how this earliest form of the melody is very close to the modern carol tune, except for the opening descending scale, coming down to 3 rather than to 1, and the upward leap near the end, again only a displacement from 3 instead of 1 (a sixth rather than an octave). Notice also the curious ascription, “Partly from J. Leach.”

Fig. 2. Charles Rider, Psalmodia Britannica, vol. 4 (ca. 1831), no. 87, p. 949. Melody in the third voice.

Another of these early appearances was in Thomas Hawkes’ Collection of Tunes (Watchet: Thomas Whitehorn, 1833 | Fig. 3), where it was called COMFORT. The attribution to “Author unknown” suggests that the tune had appeared earlier in another collection or through some other resource yet to be determined. This version of the tune has the same overall shape as the famous carol tune, but it doesn’t descend the entire scale in the first phrase and doesn’t return to the high tonic in the second phrase, among other small differences.

Fig. 3. Thomas Hawkes, Collection of Tunes (Watchet: Thomas Whitehorn, 1833). Melody in the third voice (tenor).

Hawkes’ collection was keyed to A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, with a Supplement (London: John Mason, 1831). Hymn 405 is Charles Wesley’s “O joyful sound of gospel grace” and Hymn 741 is Wesley’s “How large the promise, how divine.”

Around the same time Hawkes’ collection was published, this tune appeared in Thomas Clark’s Congregational Harmonist, vol. 3 (London: W. Blackman, n.d.), also dubbed COMFORT and paired with Wesley’s “O joyful sound,” without attribution (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Thomas Clark, The Congregational Harmonist or Clerk’s Companion, vol. 3 (London: W. Blackman, n.d.). Melody in the third voice (tenor).

In this printing, notice how the tunes are associated with the same Methodist collection published by John Mason that Hawkes’ had used for his tunebook. Notice also how Clark’s version is nearly identical to Hawkes’, except for changes in the harmonization toward the end. Clark’s four-volume set is generally dated ca. 1828-1835, with 1828 representing the first printing of John Mason’s Methodist collection. Clark’s volume 3 might predate Hawkes’ collection (1833) and could be Hawkes’ source.

One other collection from this time period uses a form very much like the modern carol tune, but still with an opening scale descending to the mediant (third). In William Holford’s Voce di Melodia (ca. 1833-1834 | 3rd ed. shown at Fig. 5), like the others, this tune was called COMFORT. Here the associated text was “O the delights, the heav’nly joys” by Isaac Watts. Holford’s version closely resembles Rider’s version (Fig. 2).


Fig. 5. William Holford, Voce di Melodia (ca. 1833-1834). Melody in the third voice.


Holford seems to be the first to connect this tune with Handel. This tune has never been found among the works of Handel, but it does bear a resemblance to various strains from Messiah. The opening phrase, especially in these early British versions, recalls “Glory to God” (mvt. 17) and/or “Lift up your heads” (mvt. 33), while the third phrase recalls the opening strains of “Comfort ye” (mvt. 2). This latter association may very well be why the tune was called COMFORT, but the tune as a whole should not be credited to Handel, except perhaps as the tune’s inspiration.

Shortly thereafter, the tune crossed the Atlantic and was adapted by Lowell Mason (1792–1872) for his collection Occasional Psalm and Hymn Tunes (Boston, 1836 | Fig. 6). Mason credited the tune as “arranged from Handel” and he initiated its famed pairing with “Joy to the world.” Mason’s biggest changes to the tune were in the first phrase, both in the descending scale and in the upward return. Mason’s original printing also included a curious second ending and pickup notes that have not endured.

Fig. 6. Lowell Mason, Occasional Psalm and Hymn Tunes (Boston, 1836).

Mason reprinted this tune in other collections, including Carmina Sacra (1841). Perhaps the most important of his subsequent printings was in The National Psalmist (1848 | Fig. 7), where he doubled the rhythms and refined the opening phrase. This version best represents the tune as it has been adopted as a Christmas carol, except his slight change to the final leap, making it a sixth rather than an octave.

Fig. 7. Lowell Mason, The National Psalmist (1848).

Another key feature of this 1848 printing is Lowell Mason’s interesting editorial note:

This tune is here republished from Carmina Sacra, though as is believed, in an improved form. It has been very popular for Choir and Singing School practice, to which it should, perhaps, be principally confined, since it cannot be appropriate to many Psalms, Hymns, or to the ordinary circumstances of Public Worship.

Legacy. In spite of Lowell Mason’s doubts about the suitability of ANTIOCH for public worship, this text/tune pairing has become a staple among Christmas carols, especially in the United States. In Britain, this pairing appeared in Thomas Clark’s revision of The Union Tune Book (London, 1854), for example, where the tune had been renamed JERUSALEM, but in spite of both text and tune being born in Britain, their proliferation there was slow. The editors of the Irish Companion to Church Hymnal (2005) explained:

The tune became very popular in America, so much so that at one time “Joy to the world,” sung to ANTIOCH, seemed to be an essential feature of any Christmas scene in Hollywood films. Meanwhile, the tune had crossed the Atlantic again and recently it has been included in an increasing number of hymnals; but it is only in the last few years that the hymn has been sung in the British Isles with anything like the enthusiasm that is common in America.[2]

Pastor and hymnwriter Matt Boswell explained the greater legacy of the carol:

From the first time this hymn was published … to the pews of our churches today, its powerful call to “repeat the sounding joy” continues. The joyful theme we hear in this hymn is two-fold: it is a joy that looks back on the incarnation and one that also looks forward to the second coming of Christ. … We rejoice looking back on the faithfulness of our God, and we also rejoice looking forward to what God has promised in the future. We sing between what is and what will be, the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of our faith.[3]

for Hymnology Archive
13 December 2018
rev. 22 March 2019


  1. Carl P. Daw Jr., “Joy to the world,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 139.

  2. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Companion to Church Hymnal, ed. Edward Darling & Donald Davison (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), p. 257.

  3. Matt Boswell, “Joy to the world,” Sing! An Irish Christmas (Nashville: Getty Music, 2018), pp. 68-69.

Related Resources:

John Wilson, “The evolution of the tune ANTIOCH,” Bulletin, HSGBI, vol. 11, no. 5 (January 1986), pp. 107-114.

“Joy to the world!” New Oxford Book of Carols, ed. Hugh Keyte & Andrew Parrott (Oxford: University Press, 1992), pp. 270-274.

“Joy to the world! the Lord is come!”

Alan Gaunt, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:,-the-lord-is-come