A reading and reflection for Sunday, December 23, 2012.
The twenty-second day of Advent.
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Psalm 98 NRSV
Perhaps you've never heard of Isaac Watts, the 18th century prolific hymn writer. Watts grew up in a Protestant home in England and wrote approximately 750 hymns. You might have never heard of him, but you've probably heard and sung some of his more popular hymns such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" or "The Lord My Shepherd Is" or "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past."
What is particularly interesting about Watts and his hymn writing is that he often took his inspiration from the biblical psalms. In fact, there is an entire book called Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts that includes paraphrased hymns, based on every single one of the 150 biblical psalms.
Now, what does this have to do with Psalm 98? Well, chances are that you've sung Watts' paraphrase of this psalm without even realizing it. Perhaps you're familiar with the following song:
Watts turned Psalm 98 into one of the most enduring pieces of poetry that is commonly sung at Christmas time. However, there really is nothing about this text that needs to be confined to the Christmas season. Watts interpreted Psalm 98 as the song we will sing when Christ comes again and the world is made right. That is a song that deserves to be sung by Christians all year round!
What is interesting is Watt's third stanza which begins: "No more let sins and sorrows grow..." Unlike the other three stanzas, there is no direct textual basis for this stanza in the words of Psalm 98, so it would seem to indicate that Watts was including a bit of his own theological convictions about the coming of Christ. For Watts, when "all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God" (v.3), the planting and harvesting of sins, sorrows, and thorns will be over. The curse upon humanity, delivered in Genesis 3, will be overturned and replaced with blessing.
This is a profound thought and one that perfectly summarizes all of this psalm into one neat four-line stanza. Indeed, the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem was the beginning of the end of the curse. Though we look around and see evil and hatred and anger and jealousy, though we still kill and commit acts of violence, we see in the infant Christ the beginning of the end. We look into the eyes of that baby and we see God's redemption beginning to dawn, the rays of light are peeking through the shadowy darkness. For those tiny, fragile hands will gather up a new people of God, those tiny, wrinkly feet, will walk the painful road to the cross, securing our redemption. The overturning of the curse has begun, the substitution of blessing in its place has started. Yet, it is not yet complete, and so, with Watts, we long for the day when all the earth will sing together: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come."
1. Read Genesis 3. What do you think about God's words to the serpent, and the first humans?
2. If Jesus is the beginning of the end of the curse, what does that mean for your life?
3. Are you still acting like we're cursed?
Listen to this version of "Joy to the World." Does it help to hear the song with a new tune so you can appreciate it a bit more?