Merry nearly Christmas!
Let all their songs employ! Repeat the sounding joy!
We sing these beautiful phrases every Advent/Christmas season. They're part of verse two of the beloved hymn "Joy to the World."
But, if I'm honest, in all the years of singing "Joy to the World," I've never actually understood what those words mean. Songs employ? Sounding joy? What did dear Mr. Isaac Watts mean when he composed those stanzas back in 1719 in England?
"Joy to the World" is considered one of the most published hymns of all time and has appeared in over 1,387 hymnals. It's often sung in congregations on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Interestingly, Watts was actually writing about Jesus' second coming when he composed the hymn and not baby Jesus in a manger. (You'll notice this year as you sing it that there are no mentions of wise men, shepherds, a star or a baby king.)
Yet, since a life of Christian faith celebrates all three comings of Jesus (infant Jesus, the second coming of Jesus, and the daily coming of Jesus into our lives), the hymn is perfectly appropriate any time of year!
At the heart of Watts' poetic hymn is an invitation to joy. Abundant, deeply rooted contentment. He invites all of creation to participate. The hymn is based on Psalm 98 which describes rivers, seasons and mountains singing joyfully to God. (Take a moment to read the Psalm; I think you'll love "Joy to the World" even more after you do.)
In the original version, the second verse reads, "Let men their songs employ." These days, more inclusive versions read, "Let all their songs employ." The "their" is us. Watts is inviting all of us to let our songs employ. The employ Watts is describing has nothing to do with getting a new kind of employment.
An alternative and older meaning of the word "employ" is "to use as an instrument of meaning." Employing all our songs is about using all that we have and all that we are to proclaim the good news that is Jesus. For some of us, our song is art. For others, it's great conversational skills. Some sing through gardening, baking or woodworking. We all have songs that we can employ to extend the love, peace and compassion of Jesus.
The other part of verse two that has long puzzled me is the phrase, "Repeat the sounding joy." What on earth is sounding joy and why are the fields, floods, rocks, hills and plains repeating it?
Sounding means, "having a magnificent sound." How perfect! Watts is saying that all the parts of nature employ their magnificent sounds to repeat joy. He invites us to do the same. Joy on repeat.
The angel in Luke 2:10 says, "I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people." The story of Jesus, from beginning to end, has always been a story of great joy for everybody. Jesus is joy for the world — joy that repeats not just this weekend but all year long.