Sadly, our period in history is not, by any means, the first to argue, fight or shoot at one another over our opinions about what does and does not make a worthy song of worship. Nor is ours the first in which there were scores of people in the congregations who sang the words of their worship songs from habit and rote memory, rather than from heart and with imminent understanding -- even during such ’high holy seasons’ as Christmastime.
In the first half of the 18th Century in England, many of the hymns that we still fondly remember and sing today were written. Some of them were popular from their inception and kept with the traditions of their day. Others sought to make adjustments respective to a changing and adjusting people and were met with great criticism. Interestingly enough, of those that continue to survive and be sung today, the most prolific hymn-writer was one of these ’radicals.’ Isaac Watts, the author of such hymns as ’O God, Our Help in Ages Past,’ ’I Sing The Mighty Power of God,’ ’When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,’ ’At The Cross,’ ’We’re Marching to Zion,’ and many others, was met with great controversy by his own contemporaries. In fact some of the church leaders of his day insisted that no ’sound Christian’ should ever sing a hymn written by Isaac Watts!
One of his earliest and most controversial songs, however, grew to become one of today’s most popular and endeared Christmas carols - "Joy To The World," written in 1719. What, you may ask, could be so controversial about "Joy To The World"? In Watt’s day many of the most prominent Christians (especially the Calvinists, of which Watts himself was), taught that ALL songs sung in church MUST be very close, literal word-for-word translations of the Psalms. When Watts wrote "Joy To The World," he based the lyrics on Psalm 98. However, rather than write it as a very close, literal word-for-word translation, he re-wrote it as an expressive paraphrase.
Why would Watts so ’buck’ the traditions and conventions of his day, especially in relation to communicating Scripture? It starts with his experiences as a teen, where he became increasingly frustrated that so few people seemed to be genuinely showing or understanding their faith while they were singing the psalms in the traditional form. He began to write his own hymns in order to bring more life and understanding to worship. To accomplish this, he sought to write songs that remained true and accurate to Scripture, but that would also be expressed in words and ways that people would more easily understand, remember and celebrate.
(From a sermon by Todd Leupold "Joy To The World" 12/21/2008)
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