Rev. Chip Hammond
From the time he was a young man, Isaac Watts had a storied history within the church. This son of a deacon rebelled against the “cheap doggerel currently in use in the services of public worship” and had begun to write his own hymns, at first to the consternation and then to the delight of his father, whose church began to use them for worship.
Watts studied for and was ordained to the ministry of the Anglican Church. While at his first charge, Independent Church in London, he produced his Hymns and Spiritual Songs which contained the then-new Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
In 1712 Watts’ health took a turn for the worse forcing him to resign his pulpit, much to the protest of the congregation. Watts accepted the invitation of Sir Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London, to recuperate at his spacious estate. The friendship deepened and Watts became the Private Chaplain of the Abneys, staying with them for thirty-six years. Upon his departure, Lady Abney remarked, “It was the shortest visit a friend ever paid a friend.”
It was there at the Abneys in 1719 that Watts published his Psalms of David Imitated. It bothered Watts that many of the Psalters in use in the Christian church were mere translations that made no mention of Christ. Using the method of the apostles, Watts applied the fulfillment of the Psalms explicitly to the Son of God in his incarnation. When he came to the Ninety-eighth Psalm, Watts penned these words in paraphrase:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room, And Heav’n and Nature sing.
The tune which so famously now accompanies it was written by George Frederick Handel and adapted to the hymn by Lowell Mason many years after Watts’ death.
What kind of man writes such beautiful sacred poetry? Miss Elizabeth Singer thought that she knew. She fell in love with the man through his published writings believing that in Watts she had found her soul-mate. Maintaining the “dignity of a lady” that the custom of those days demanded, she nevertheless had a meeting of the two of them arranged though a friend.
Watts was no dummy. There could be only one reason Miss Singer wanted to meet him. He came prepared to propose marriage, which Miss Singer promptly refused, for she was completely unprepared for what she saw standing before her: a little man “only five feet tall, with sallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes, and a death-like color.” And that was that. As Ernest Emurian has so eloquently put it, “That was as close as Watts ever came to committing matrimony.” He remained a bachelor until his death in 1748.
It somehow seems fitting that Watts should be the author of Joy to the World!
The Lord God had betrothed the people of the Mosaic covenant and was a husband to them. Jeremiah recounts this in chapter 31 of his prophetic tome, but then records God’s complaint that they had broken the covenant. And so in that same chapter God promises that he would make a New Covenant, one that could not be broken.
Almost six-hundred years later, in the fullness of time, God himself appeared as the Bridegroom to betroth his beloved people. The magnificent prophecies of his appearing had caused many of those born to that covenant to expect . . . something different.
“He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.”
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Some, however, by the grace of God and not their own goodness, saw past the lack-luster appearance of his tradesman upbringing and the scars of a harsh life living under the curse we bear due to Adam’s sin, and that he would bear for us. One of those would write of him,
“We beheld his glory, glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
I don’t know what ever became of Miss Elizabeth Singer. I wonder if she ever regretted not accepting the man in person. By all accounts, Watts had a life that was marked by meekness, pious humility, deep empathy and love for others, a heart for children and the disadvantaged, and showed no partiality whether in the presence of Lord Abney or a beggar on the streets of London, knowing that whatever he did unto the least of Jesus’ brethren he did to Jesus himself.
In a day of phenomenally rich and beautiful celebrities and rock-star-status politicians, Jesus can appear pretty lack-luster. I hope this Advent season you will see past the façade of their vain and passing glory, and that Jesus will appear to you to be “fairer than ten-thousand.”
The world will pass another year going about its business distracting itself from Christ in the celebration of the very holiday that bears (or used to bear) his Name. I pray that you will be graced by God to “behold his glory; glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father;” and that your heart may echo with the familiar strains I delight to imagine spontaneously bursting from your lips: Joy to the world! The Lord is come!