Joy to the World! The Lord is Come

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Dec 29, 2004

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Now, if you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Psalm 98, and if you do not have this handout–everybody have this handout? If you’ll keep that handout in hand, it's got the words to Joy to The World on it, so you won't have to balance both your hymnal and your Bible.

This is the final of our “Songs of Christmas” series, and it has been a joy and a challenge to do–although I’ll tell you, for me it's just been mostly pure joy! Derek, for whatever reason, took the harder hymns and carols for himself, and he gave me really good ones, so I have enjoyed every line of studying through these well-known and well-loved carols. And Joy to The World, as you already know, is Isaac Watts’ rendering of Psalm 98.

Isaac Watts–in his own day most people sang psalms in their worship services, and in England where he grew up, he didn't think that the metrical psalms that had been arranged for singing were very good. He didn't think their poetry was very good; he didn't think they’d been set to very good tunes; and so he set about the task of trying to do a better job of rendering those psalms, and he produced a book of songs to sing in worship. And this rendering of Psalm 98 was one of those that he produced in his book of psalms.

We generally only sing the second half of the hymn. You’ll notice on the right hand side of the page, Isaac Watts’ Psalm 98, but the first part of it, which corresponds to verses 1 through 3 of Psalm 98, we almost never sing. In fact, I'd bet there are some people here tonight who are looking for the very first time at Isaac Watts’ words for those first three stanzas. We know those final four stanzas pretty well–we've been singing them, most of us, almost all our lives. But he wrote an arrangement of this whole psalm in light of the realities of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Psalm 98 is a psalm about the coming of the Lord. Now, because it's in the Old Testament, that doesn't tell you whether it's about the first coming or the second coming. In fact, it's the New Testament writers who have to help us understand whether the Old Testament writers were talking about the first coming or the second coming, or both, in different parts of the Old Testament. Well, this is an Old Testament psalm about the coming of the Lord, and in light of the New Testament reality of Jesus Christ we see that it is indeed about Jesus’ coming.

When Watts arranged this new covenant rendering of Psalm 98, had in mind primarily Jesus’ second coming. The Advent season in churches that celebrate the church calendar not only entails the celebration of the first coming of Christ–His incarnation, His birth–but also His second coming — His coming again to save and to judge. And Watts viewed Psalm 98 primarily as a psalm about His second coming, but it has become associated over the last hundred years or so with Christmas as well as the second coming, and so we sing it almost every Christmas. It's a beautiful psalm, and a beautiful arrangement of Psalm 98.

Now, Psalm 98 is exhorting us to sing about the salvation, about the victory of God; and it uses language that unmistakably points us back to God's victory over Egypt in bringing Israel out of Egypt across the Red Sea, through the wilderness and into Canaan. The language points back to God's victory over the Egyptians in the Exodus. You will notice that this psalm doesn't contain direct instructions on right worship, on how we are to worship, but it is a psalm of worship to God. It is full of joy and exhilaration. And in this psalm, the psalmist in short order teaches us why we ought to praise the Lord, what our attitude ought to be towards the nations, what our hope is as Christians, and for whom and for what we ought to sing a new song.

In fact, in this Psalm tonight I want you to see three things. If you look at verses 1 through 3, I want you to see this call to worship that is issued by the psalmist; and in that call to worship he gives six reasons why we ought to praise God. That's verses 1 through 3.

Secondly, I want you to see this section, this next stanza in verses 4 through 6, where God calls on the nations to join in the joyful worship spoken about in verses 1 through 3. Now that ought to immediately have your antennae up. Why would the nations be rejoicing about the judgment of God? Just stick that question in the back of your mind. Why would the nations rejoice about the judgment of God?

And then, thirdly, if you look at verses 7 through 9, the call to worship is extended even to all nature in anticipation of the coming judgment of the Lord. And again we ask the question, why would the nations and all nature be joyful because of God's coming in judgment?

I want to look at those three things with you briefly tonight. First, this call to worship where six reasons are given why we ought to praise the Lord, in verses 1 through 3; and second, this call to worship for the nations to joyfully sing praise to God because of His judgment; and then finally, this call to worship for all nature in anticipation of the coming of the judgment of the Lord. So let's look at this together. Before we read God's word and hear it proclaimed, let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word, Your truth. We acknowledge that in this word You have revealed Yourself and Your will to Your people. We pray that we would see you in all Your glory tonight, in Jesus Christ; and that we would respond with glad and joyful praise. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word in Psalm 98.

“A Psalm.

‘O sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation; he has revealed His righteousness
in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy 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
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.
Let the sea roar and all it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness,
And the peoples with equity.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Why the joy? Why Joy to the World? What's the joy about in this song? Well, there are at least three answers to that. The first answer about that is because of the Lord and what He has done. Why ought we to be full of joyful singing to the Lord? Why ought we to be full of praise to the Lord? Because of who the Lord is, and because of what He has done. And you’ll notice here that the psalmist gives us six reasons for praising the Lord in verses 1 through 3.

I. Why we ought to be full of praise to the Lord.

First of all, he says–notice–that “He has done wonderful things.” Now, you know because you’re good Bible students that “wonderful things” in the Old Testament is a term that the prophets like to use to describe the miraculous saving acts of God; so when Isaiah is talking about what God did in bringing Israel out of Egypt and bringing them across the Red Sea on dry land, what does he call it? He calls it “a wonderful thing.”

And so when the psalmist says, “The Lord has done wonderful things,” he really means wonder-full things which cause our hearts and minds to be flooded and filled with wonder and bafflement. God's saving act on behalf of His people is wonderful in the strictest sense of that word. It is marvelous; it is supernatural; it is a miraculous intervention of God on our behalf.

The children of Israel, pinned against that Red Sea, ready to be destroyed by the Egyptians, having already been released from their bondage through a series of miraculous plagues against Egypt, and God's subjugating Pharaoh, who was considered to be a god. By His own might he subjugated Pharaoh; He brings Israel out; the people think they’re going to be destroyed; and what does He do, but open up the sea and let them walk through on dry ground! It is a wonderful thing in the strictest sense of the word: a miraculous, saving act of the Lord. And Isaiah uses that language in Isaiah 59 and Isaiah 63 to talk about the works of the Lord.

And so the psalmist begins by saying, ‘we need to praise the Lord because of His wonderful works.’ In other words, these Jewish people, these believers in the Lord from the Old Testament, could look back and see the way that the Lord had marvelously and miraculously delivered them.

Secondly, look again at verse 1. He says “His right hand and holy arm have gained the victory for Him.” So the second thing that we're going to praise God for is that we haven't delivered ourselves: He's done it on His own. Not only has He done a wonderful thing; not only has this miraculous deliverance been given, but He has delivered us all by Himself. This is Israel confessing that it was God's right hand that prevailed, God's right arm that prevailed.

You remember what Moses is told by God? You remember what Moses then tells the people of God? “Stand still and see the salvation of God.” What did Israel contribute to the parting of the Red Sea? Nothing. Sit there and watch what I'm going to do, God says. He saves them by His right arm. They contribute absolutely nothing to it. The victory over Egypt is entirely of the Lord.

Then, look at verse 2. Thirdly, he says “the Lord has made known His salvation.” He has shown Himself; He has shown what He is like in His work of salvation. In other words, in the very act of redeeming Israel, God has shown us what He is like. He has given us a glimpse into His character. And what is He like? He is a gracious and merciful God, because was the problem that Egypt was sinful and Israel was righteous, and poor Israel was just being oppressed by mean old bad sinful Egyptians? No. The Israelites tried to worship other gods, even as God was saving them. No, God in saving the Israelites didn't show that if you are good you get saved, and if you’re bad you get condemned. He showed that if you’re going to get saved, it's not because you’re good, it's because I'm good; it's because I'm gracious; it's because I'm merciful. God revealed His own character, His own graciousness in saving these sinful Israelites from their plight.

Then, look again at verse 2. He says “He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.” In other words, He is putting right all wrongs in public. He has revealed His righteousness to the nations. If we take the picture of Israel being brought out of Egypt, the picture is this: “Though Pharaoh claimed to be a god, though Pharaoh claimed to have a right over My people, though Pharaoh claimed that it was right for him to oppress My people, I, the Lord God, in judging Egypt, in bringing Israel out of bondage, am making a public declaration to everybody that Pharaoh and his oppressive regime were wrong, and that I have delivered My judgment on them because of their sins.” He was publicly putting right the wrong, and so He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. That's the fourth thing that he says in this passage.

Then if you look at verse 3, he has two more things to praise God for. The fifth thing is that the Lord “has remembered his lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel....” In other words, He has remained true to His promise. You remember when God was speaking to Abram in Genesis 15, and He was making that covenant with him–do you remember what He said? He said, ‘Abram, I want to tell you that your descendants are going to go down into Egypt, and they’re going to be held in bondage for 430 years, butt I am going to bring them out.’ And so, when Israel comes out all that they can say is, ‘Lord, You did exactly what You said You were going to do. Just as You promised to deliver us, You did.’ The Lord remembered His lovingkindness. He remembered his grace and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; though His people had languished in Egypt, He did not forget His promises to Abraham. In fact, do you remember what Moses tells you in Exodus, chapter two? It says that the sound of the cries of the children of Israel went up to the Lord God–and then what does it say?–that He remembered the promise that He had made to Abraham. And this is exactly what's being celebrated in this psalm. The Lord does not forget His promises. Though you wait long, you will not wait in vain.

Sixthly, we're to praise God because He has (we're told here) made known His salvation to the ends of the earth. “All the ends of the earth have sent the salvation of our God.” And so what is being said here is that the Gentiles, the nations, have seen God's marvelous deeds. Word of the Lord's victory has spread.

You may recall when the children of Israel were poised to go into the land of Canaan, and a group of Canaanites from a particular city came to them–Gibeonites–and claimed not to be from the land of Canaan. They wanted to make a treaty, a covenant, with the Israelites and they claimed to not be from the land of Canaan. They tricked the Israelites into making a covenant with them. Well, later on when the trick is found out, the Israelites say, “Why did you lie to us?” And they said, ‘Look, news has already spread here that you crossed the Red Sea on dry land, and that you've come into the land of Canaan on dry land, and that you've already wiped out Jericho and Ai. Word had already come here.’ This is what this psalm is speaking about. It's saying even the Gentile nations have heard of God's judgments.

But think about it for a minute, friends. Can this psalm and the glorious truth of God's deliverance of the children of Israel in Egypt and the news of that deliverance spreading to the surrounding Gentile nations...can that reality fulfill the fullness of the meaning of verses 1 through 3 in this psalm? I mean, listen to that language: “All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” We get what the psalmist is pointing to there, but can the fullness of those words be exhausted by the neighboring nations’ knowing about God's victory over Egypt?

Well, hold that thought in the back of your mind. Why the joy? We've gotten an answer in verses 1-3: Because of who God is, and because of what He has done for Israel.

And there's a point in this for us. As new covenant believers, it is important for us to rehearse God's past mercies to us, or we will become unthankful, ungrateful people; and we will not be able to endure the times where God's mercies are not so obvious; and those times always come in life.

And if we do not celebrate God's obvious mercies and recognize that those are not just the happenstance of fate and chance, but they are the deliberate gifts of God to us, then we will begin to doubt God's goodness when the trials of life come. And so it is important for us to look back in our own experience and remember God's mercies to us, and praise Him for it! Thank Him for it! So that when the trials come, we will not be able to say, ‘Lord, You haven't ever heard our prayers. You haven't ever come to our rescue. You haven't ever been there in our time of need.’ Because He has, over and over; but we forget to praise Him for it. And when we forget to praise Him for it, we become forgetful of His mercy and grace to us. And so there's a lesson for us to learn, as well.

II. Believers ought to expect, want, desire and work for the nations to praise the Lord.

Now, secondly, look at verses four through six, because this is quite surprising. You know, after you've read verses 1-3 you could see a reason why every believer in Israel ought to praise God. Verses 1-3 have given you all the reasons you would ever need as a believing Israelite to praise God. But look at the very first sentence of verse 4: “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth...” Now, wait a minute! Why should all the earth shout joyfully to the Lord because of the Lord's deliverance of Israel? Well, listen to the rest of that section–verses 4-6:

“Shout joyfully to the Lord all the earth; break forth and sing for joy 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 shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.”

Now why would the nations want to shout joyfully to the Lord? Who's joyful here? The nations? Why are they joyful?

See, this psalm expresses the desire of the Old Testament saint that all the nations would come to participate in the joy of the Lord. “Shout joyfully”–or, in your King James...do you remember how it goes in the King James?–“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord...” Remember memorizing that as a child? “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands...”... all the earth. Shout joyfully, or make a joyful noise means to spontaneously shout in greeting to the King in His moment of victory.

In the Roman Empire, after great victories were won there would be parades, and the Roman armies would be led by their generals, and perhaps by the emperor himself, back into the city of Rome; and there would be wild cheering and celebration by the Romans of this great victory that had been won.

I've experienced some little inkling of that myself. I was in St. Louis in 1985 in the fifth game of the League championship series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and I was in the high altitude nosebleed section, in the middle of Busch Stadium. We were way up in the upper decks. We had gotten complimentary tickets, and we cut class that day so that we could go out and see this ball game.

It was the fifth game; the series was tied 2-2. Los Angeles had won two games; St. Louis had won two games; it was the ninth inning; there were two outs, two strikes, two balls, nobody on, and Ozzie Smith was at the plate. Now, most of you don't know anything about Ozzie Smith, but he was a great defensive player, a very light-hitting shortstop. When he got hits, he got singles.

And we had a little black-and-white TV up with us so that we could see replays, and up on the screen, right before Ozzie Smith came up to bat, Mike Shannon read out a little factoid, and it said, “In 1, 564 major league at-bats from the left hand side, Ozzie Smith has never hit a home run.” And then Mike Shannon said to Jack Buck, “Wouldn't it be a great time for Ozzie to smack one!”

And sure enough, I can hear Jack Buck making the call now: “It's a fast ball to the belt; here's the pitch....swing! and a long fly ball into the deep right field! It might...it is...go crazy, kids, go crazy! It's a home run for the Wizard!” Now Busch Stadium sang for a half an hour after that hit! I promise you! I was there, and they were singing...they wouldn't go home! The team came out four times to tip their hats and tell them....they just sat up in the stands singing for a half an hour! It was a wild celebration! A great victory had been won–they sang!

And this is exactly what's being encouraged here: “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” Look at that next phrase in verse 4: “Break forth and sing for joy...” You remember that expression? That's an expression that comes over and over in the Book of Isaiah. Bach picks up that expression in his glorious Christmas Oratorio. Have you ever heard the wonderful chorus, Break Forth, O Beauteous, Heavenly Light? Well, that's right out of Isaiah. That phrase “break forth” indicates a delight too great to be restrained; and the instruments that are mentioned here are all parts of the temple worship, and were used on festive occasions. So the people of God are being exhorted to look back on the Lord's great deeds, anticipate the coming of the King, and sing praise to Him.

III. The coming of the Lord is the hope of the Christian.

But there's still a mystery. “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth.” Why should all the earth be invited into this praise? Well, look at verses 7-9. The mystery gets deeper. Here the whole of the world is invited to participate, not just the peoples of the earth, but even the earth itself:

“Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains sing together for joy
before the Lord; for He is coming to judge the earth....”
 

Now, wait a minute! So the world is supposed to sing for joy because God is coming to judge? That's what the Psalmist says. But wait a minute. Would you be happy knowing that God was coming to judge and condemn you? Is that something that you would sing a song of praise about? No. You would only sing a song of praise about the Lord's judgment if you, by His mercy, have been spared that judgment.

You see what the Psalmist is speaking about. The Psalmist is talking about all nations of the world coming to a saving knowledge of the living God; all the ends of the earth coming to embrace the grace of the God of Israel. The Lord is coming to judge. If everything had already been put right in the Lord's victory over Egypt, there would be no need for Him to come again to judge. His people still face tribulation, and so there is a promise of encouragement held out to them of His future judgment. But the nations and the whole world are invited to join in singing for joy for that. The Psalmist is assuming the peoples of the world coming to saving faith in the God of Israel. It's not universalism, of course. But it's a desire based on what we would call the Great Commission, to see men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation resting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as He is offered in the gospel; and thus, to sing to the Lord a new song.

Ah! now, I didn't mention that, did I? “A new song.” Why sing to the Lord a new song, in verse 1? What is that new song? It's not just a command to learn a new hymn, or learn a new anthem, or learn a new song. The “new song” must be sung because the Lord has done something new on your behalf; and the new song is identified for us in Revelation 5:9, which says,

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and
break its seals, for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood
men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

And that is why Isaac Watts rendered this song “Joy to The World, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King.” The new song is the song of praise that we lift up to God because of the coming of Christ into this world, and so Watts has given us a beautiful new covenant rendering of Psalm 98. You see the Psalm itself in your left column; you see a beautiful old covenant rendering of that song in the middle column; and then, you see Watts beautiful new covenant rendering of that psalm in the final column.

Let's close our worship tonight by singing together, then, Joy to The World, No. 195. Let's sing.

Grace, mercy and peace to you, in the end of this year, in the year to come, and always. Amen.

 

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