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joy to worldThat’s right: Men. Not “Let us our songs employ,” or “Let all their songs employ,” but men.

That’s how Isaac Watts wrote it back in the eighteenth century, when he wrote Joy to the World.

This line gets changed from “men” to “us” or “all” pretty often in performances of the song. I know why it gets changed: “Men” sounds like an invitation for just the guys to sing, because “men” sounds like “the males in the audience.”  I don’t have a problem with making sure everybody knows they’re included, and language does change over time.

But when Watts wrote it, he meant “men” in the sense of “human beings.” And that matters in this song: The second line of the second verse needs to go out of its way to specify that human beings are doing the singing.

Why? Because Joy to the World is a versification of Psalm 98, and Psalm 98 posed a problem for Isaac Watts. That psalm exhorts “all the earth” to make a joyful noise to the LORD, going so far as to command the sea to roar, the rivers to clap their hands, and the hills to sing for joy together before the LORD.

Hills don’t sing, though; not literally. And though Isaac Watts was a poet who knew all about techniques like personfication, he was also a careful Bible interpreter who knew that his songs were going to be used as tools for teaching. He wanted to teach people what Psalm 98 actually means by what it says. His solution was to portray humans as using their human songs, which would then echo off of the “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains.” Men would employ their songs, and nature would “repeat the sounding joy.” At the coming of Christ, all creation is an echo chamber of praise for this “new song” (Psalm 98, verse 1) that we, we men, sing to the Lord. Humanity has the leading voice in bringing all creation to sing articulate praise to God. The redemption of the earth comes through a man, a human being, who redeems and rules and blesses, weeding out sins and sorrows and even thorns, “far as the curse is found.”

Isaac Watts was no dummy, and we ought to thing twice or thrice before tweaking his lyrics. They are almost always deeper than moderns give them credit for when they tweak a word here or there, because we rarely join him in the biblical meditative process he went through in crafting them. If you’re invited to sing along with a tweaked version of Joy to the World this Christmas, by all means obey your host (and the song!), and join in the singing. Men and women alike, let us, let us all, employ our songs.  As men.

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