I received a request from a reader of this column to investigate the lyrics of the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” It seems the family had a discussion over Christmas about the phrase “the Lord is come.” Some versions of the song have changed it to “the Lord has come.” The question to consider is if this change has happened for any specific reason or just updated grammar.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), an English clergyman, penned “Joy to the World” in 1719. Over 454 hymns have been attributed to him, so he has some experience in writing musical lyrics. “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The major theme of Psalm 98, and the song, is that all creation makes a joyful noise for God is come to judge the earth and restore Creation. It became popular as a Christmas carol when Lowell Mason adapted a tune of George F. Handel’s in 1848. Mason’s arrangement has made the song the most published Christian hymn in North America since the 20th century.
Watts wrote, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” The verb tense is the present perfect of “to come.” The implication of a present perfect tense is that something started in the past but is still going on. So, the theological reasoning for the carol is that Jesus Christ came into the world at his birth to restore the Creation, which is still an ongoing activity of the Lord. The grammatical structure of the present perfect is subject + auxiliary verb + main verb. For centuries the English language used “be” as the auxiliary verb. Examples include Hamlet (1603) by William Shakespeare, “The Actors are come hither, my lord.” Jane Austen penned Pride and Prejudice in 1813, “Oh look, Charlotte is come.” And “It is come now,” wrote Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre (1847).
Whereas today we use “have” as the auxiliary verb for the perfect tense. Examples are: ‘We have eaten pie here,’ ‘I have put away all the laundry,’ and ‘She has had COVID19 since Monday.’ If written today the carol would probably be “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
Another question to consider is if it is appropriate to change song lyrics from the original version due to changing culture or grammar. Many songs have been altered to reflect a different view of gender pronouns and adjectives describing God. There are people on both sides of that argument to do so, sometimes leading to bitter exchanges.
The Christmas carol “Good Christian men rejoice” has often been altered to “Good Christians all rejoice.” And this issue is nothing new and modern. The Nestorians (5th century Christian sect) changed the term Theotokos (one who bore God) in liturgy and hymnody for theological reasons, to Christotokos (one who bore Christ), although the ancient Church continued to use Theotokos for Mary, the mother of Jesus. In 1739 Charles Wesley wrote, “Hark, how the welkin rings,” in Hymns and Sacred Poems. The word “welkin” means heaven or the celestial abode of God. A colleague, George Whitefield, altered the first line of the song to read, “Hark! The Herald Angels sing,” in 1753, over the protests of the author. In 1855 William Cummings adapted Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata, written to celebrate Gutenberg’s movable type, into the tune we sing today for “Hark! The herald angels sing.”
If you wish to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come,” you are keeping to the original words of Isaac Watts. If you sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” you are changing the grammar to reflect current English language usage. There is no theological or social reason for the change as both make use of the present perfect tense of “to come.” Whatever version of the carol you use, sing with enthusiasm and joy in the coming of the Lord.
Columnist John Kreutzwieser loves to research words and writes this weekly Word Wisdom column for Moose Jaw Express/MooseJawToday.com. He has an interest in the usage, origin, and relevance of words for society today. Greek and Latin form the basis of many words, with ancient Hebrew shedding light on word usage.
John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to email@example.com . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.
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