The words of this hymn carry us to the very horizons of this age, from its bright dawning to its shadowy dusk, from the decree of the curse to its ultimate banishment. In between these polarities, in the midst of the messy and broken story of humanity when very few were even looking, God entered the fray of that sorrowful symphony of Adam that had been playing for far too long and introduced a joyful strain.
Yet as shepherds stood in wonder on that night, the fields where they tended their flocks were not singing. The thorns were still growing, the oppressed were still weeping. Although Jesus would escape to Egypt, the other infants of Bethlehem felt the cold grip of mortal sorrow rather than the gladness of immortality. Then and now the floods are not repeating sounds of joy. They are wreaking devastation. How, then, can we sing this anthem as we look toward the celebration of the birth of Jesus? Are we just naïve and deluded, imagining a joy that doesn’t even exist?
Advent means coming, and this season is not just about remembering when Jesus came in the meekness of the manger but also the expectation of when Jesus will come again in glory. It is in this, our blessed hope, that we find the answer to all of our deepest longings for joy. It is then, when Christ returns to the earth that He died to deliver, that even creation itself will break forth in rejoicing as this hymn describes.
Paul describes how creation has been subjected to futility in this present evil age (Rom. 8:20, Gal. 1:4). While the idea of rocks and fields rejoicing may seem strange, Paul actually says that it is “anxiously longing” and “groaning” right now. What is so dramatic, so unspeakably glorious, that it could cause trees and rivers to worship? The apostle calls it “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Rom. 8:23) Although profound, these words to the church in Rome were not novel. Many centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had described this very thing:
Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. (Isaiah 26:19)
All sorrow we experience in this age is ultimately either a precursor to or an outworking of death. This means that the resurrection of humanity, the overthrow of the grave, is the fulfillment of all of our joy. In just one chapter earlier in Isaiah, we find some of the most hope-giving words in the entire Old Testament.
The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.” (Isaiah 25:6-9)
No one has ever mistaken a lavish banquet for a somber affair. God is going to come and throw a party for the entire earth and swallow up death forever, causing His people to be glad and rejoice in Him! This prophecy is echoed and elaborated by John at the close of the book of Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” (Revelation 21:3-5)
No more mourning, or crying, or pain. Only joy! It is when the sons of men are set free from the bondage of death that creation will be brought forth into the glorious liberty of the children of God in the regeneration of all things (Rom. 8:21, Matt. 19:29). Hear the words of the Psalmist:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11-13)
He is coming! All of creation will rejoice, thorns will not infest the ground, the curse will not be found, the wolf will lay with the lamb, and all things will be made new. The reason we sing this carol at Christmas is not only because of the meaning of Advent, but also because the life of Jesus and His triumph over death is a first-fruits of the joy the earth will experience at His second coming (1 Cor. 15:20). He is the firstborn from the dead, the firstborn of all those who are found in Him who will rise in that glorious Day of His return (Rev. 1:5, Rom. 8:29). And He has sent forth the Spirit into our hearts as a pledge, guaranteeing that our hope will not disappoint (2 Cor. 5:5). Our anxious longing will surely give way to joy that we will not be able to contain – the infinite gladness of immortality.