In the second line, Watts says “Let earth receive her king.” Note that the object of the first two lines has changed, from world to earth. I don’t think this was a slip of the pen or poetic variation in his writing. Watts was not only a hymn writer, he was theologically grounded. I think he was carefully writing sound theology into the lyrics of his songs.
It would be wonderful if we had more Christian songwriters today who were theologically astute. Too often today we must slog through new hymns lacking any real content. So many churches have moved into a sort of “Eastern mode” reflected in the endless repetition of low-content choruses that sound and function more like a mind-numbing Hindu mantra than a rich, content-filled hymn. May God forgive us and may He raise up a new generation of Isaac Watts–true theological composers.
I think Watts is making a careful distinction. The earth refers to the place where we reside, a part of the larger created order. This is in contrast to the world which speaks of people and institutions. Watts understands that Christ is King, not only of Heaven, but also of the temporal realm; He is the King of both the world and the earth.
Here, we must be careful not to think from an Atheistic-Materialistic framework and reduce the earth to a machine. While the earth is not “alive” as neo-paganism teaches, it is filled with living things. Psalm 19:1-4 reminds us that creation praises the Creator: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
Johannes Kepler, the great Christian philosopher and astronomer, called this voice of Psalm 19 the “music of the spheres.” The ancients called it musica universalis.
So what is the earth to do? She is to receive her king.
Watts is making a significant theological point. Christ is not only the King of the world, He is also nature’s king. Psalm 98:4, from which Isaac Watts drew inspiration for this part of his hymn, reminds us of the earth celebrating the coming of the Lord: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.” The Apostle Paul confirms this in Romans 8:19-22 when he says that all of creation is awaiting redemption. Creation is to be redeemed with the coming of her King, His Kingdom, and with the revealing of the sons of God.
In line three we move from the macro, the world and the earth, to the micro, the heart of each individual. ” Let every heart prepare Him room.” The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all sinners and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The great Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn puts it this way, “The line separating good and evil, passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” It is the human heart that is broken and in need of salvation. Thus Isaac Watts reminds us that each of us is to prepare our heart for receiving our King.
This image is a particularly lovely one. When a young couple is expecting their first child, what do they prepare for the baby? A special room in their house. When a family is expecting a guest to come to their home, what do they do? They prepare a room for them. Each human being is to prepare a room in their heart to welcome their Lord and King.
Now Watts ends this stanza with a chorus, “And heaven and nature sing.” Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing!”
-Darrow L. Miller