Hymn Guide: Joyful, Joyful

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“Joyful, Joyful” is a hymn so classic that it sometimes feels cliche. Presbyterian clergyman Henry van Dyke wrote the text alongside the Ode to Joy, from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. But inside this familiar topic, set to a familiar tune, there is unexpected theological substance. It does not treat joy as mere happiness. Instead, it acknowledges the simultaneous reality of “sin and sadness.” Joy emerges as a dynamic gift from God to his creatures precisely because they need their Creator.

Verse by Verse

The hymn begins with a jubilant invocation of joy in the adoration of the “God of glory” and “Lord of love”:

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Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee
Op’ning to the Sun above
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
drive the dark of doubt away
Giver of immortal gladness
fill us with the light of day

Note, however, that alongside such joy, there are also “the clouds of sin and sadness” and “the dark of doubt.” The hymn does ask God to drive these negative emotions away. It is not as a prerequisite to joy. Rather, joy is experienced first, and very much at the same time, as the more challenging emotions.

Theologically, this reflects what C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy, that joy “must be sharply distinguished both from happiness and pleasure.” Joy is not the complete possession of untroubled happiness. Rather, it is a desirable longing that has caught a glimpse of the divine and then yearns for more. This kind of joy is what the natural world experiences at the coming of the Lord, the theme taken up in verse 2:

All Thy works with joy surround Thee
Earth and heav’n reflect Thy rays
Stars and angels sing around Thee
center of unbroken praise
Field and forest, vale and mountain
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea
chanting bird and flowing fountain
call us to rejoice in Thee

The language here recalls the Psalms, where the “sea roars,” the “trees exult,” the “rivers clap their hands,” and “the hills sing for joy forever” (Psalm 96:11-12, 98:8). God’s creation is hard-wired for joy; God’s creatures have a proper longing for their Creator. We humans can forget this on account of our fallen condition. However, we need only look at the natural creatures to realize that all things are designed to rejoice in God.

Thus the third verse holds out the hope of God’s forgiveness, whereby we, too, can experience this joy:

Thou art giving and forgiving
ever blessing, ever blest
well-spring of the joy of living
ocean-depth of happy rest
Thou the Father, Christ our Brother—
all who live in love are Thine
Teach us how to love each other
lift us to the Joy Divine.

Notice how God is now described metaphorically in the language of joyful creation: he is the “well-spring of the joy of living” and the “ocean-depth of happy rest.” Thus, from the example of joy in creation, we move to the source of joy in God himself. It is he who can “teach us how to love each other” through the gracious gift of his “Joy divine.”

The final verse invites us into this drama of created joy, drawing on the creation sequence of Job, where God “laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:4-7):

Mortals join the mighty chorus
which the morning stars began
Father-love is reigning o’er us
Brother-love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward
victors in the midst of strife
joyful music lifts us sunward
in the triumph song of life

The reference to father-love and brother-love alludes to the different Greek words for love in 1 Thessalonians 4:9. There we see the sacrificial agape of God grounds the philadelphia, the brotherly love, of Christians in the church. Joy, in other words, flows from God to us and then to each other. This overflow of joy is then manifested in shared spiritual struggle, shared victory, and shared music.

Note for Musicians: The final verse illustrates an important aspect of the hymn-tune: the “syncopated beginning of the last line.” Thus in this verse, where the last line begins, “Joyful music lifts us sunward…,” we have a powerful syncopated opening on “Joy-” Westermeyer cautions against having the “last line squared up on the beat and the syncopation removed. This modification drains the tune of its life and destroys it. Congregations not only can handle rhythms like this, but delight in them.”

On Video

The first video is a rendition by the Libera Choir, an Anglican choir resident at St. Philip’s Norbury in South London. The second is the famous rendition with Lauryn Hill and Whoopi Goldberg from the finale of Sister Act 2, which has now become a staple of gospel choirs.

Photo by Angie on Unsplash.

Published on

June 21, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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