I just can’t get “Joy to the World” out of my head. This is because I’ve noticed something odd about the way most people record it or perform it in churches today. Four verses were written, but verse three is omitted almost every time.
I wonder if verse three is so theologically explosive that people just don’t want to deal with its implications.
To set the stage, here are the facts about the hymn itself:
- “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts, the guy who basically invented hymns as a way to move beyond the Psalter (setting the Psalms to music, word-for-word) and add variety to church music.
- Watts, according to his own account, wrote “Joy to the World” to encompass the themes of Psalm 98, “let the mountains sing together for joy.” Psalm 98 is a common reading in various lectionaries for the time period around Christmas Day. This may be why “Joy to the World” is now known as a Christmas hymn.
And here are a few facts about the omission of verse three:
- “Joy to the World” has been recorded by dozens of artists. The following list is not exhaustive, but all of these popular recordings omit verse three (as far as I can tell from reading the lyrics — I didn’t take time to listen to them all): The “secular” recordings of Johnny Cash, Faith Hill, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, Anne Murray, and Percy Faith all leave it out (as does the Disney Sing Along version). Surprisingly, though, Chris Tomlin, Casting Crowns, Third Day, the David Crowder Band, Avalon, and Point of Grace also omit it (as does the Veggie Tales Christmas recording).
- The only popular recordings I could find in my admittedly limited research that kept verse three were those by Big Daddy Weave and … drum roll, please … country music crooner George Strait.
To be fair, some musicians argue that the translation of a hymn into a pop format requires that it be trimmed to three verses. Verses one, two, and four seem to create a coherent narrative, so cut verse three. Others might point out that many of these artists are quite solid theologically, so there must not be anything nefarious about the omission.
But still, Strait and Big Daddy Weave managed to leave verse three, which only increases my curiosity. So that you can judge for yourself, here are the words to the mysterious third verse:
No more let sin and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
What’s so controversial? This: Watts implies that Jesus’ redemption isn’t just to change your heart and serve as a source of personal spiritual comfort; it’s for the physical world too. As Christ’s redemption spreads, blessings should replace sin, sorrow, and thorns, “far as the curse is found.”
C.S. Lewis implies something similar in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the children ask Aslan what it means that the White Witch has failed in her plan to destroy him:
It means … that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still that she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.
So we have Watts, Lewis, Strait, and Big Daddy Weave on one side: Redemption is both spiritual and physical, both for saving from sin and for the turning back of the curse. It’s about heaven but also about earth. What redeemed people do on earth really matters. Get busy, people.
On the other side, we have lots of recording artists and probably a few theologians: Christ’s redemption doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference in people’s actual lives, so it must be a sort of metaphorical, spiritual kind of transformation. Let the world grow strangely dim – it’s all about heaven.
Of course, I’m grossly oversimplifying the issue, and being tongue-in-cheek in the process. But I’m curious: Do you believe verse three? Would you omit it? I’d welcome your thoughts on the Summit Facebook page.