Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
In England in the 1600s, singing in church was confined to simple melodies attached to the words of the psalms. Each line would be sung in turn by a precentor, and the congregation would follow. This was a slow, stilted and rather uninspiring process!
When Isaac Watts was 15 years old, he complained to his father that singing in church was nothing but tuneless dirges. Watt’s father, a Church Deacon, challenged his son that if he could do better with the worship he could go ahead and try.
Watts rose to the task in a big way and during his lifetime he wrote over 600 hymns! From that time, countless poets and composers have followed his example, and enhanced the way we worship God.
Many churches will sing one of Watts’ hymns this Easter. “When I survey the wondrous Cross” is written as though Watts is standing in front of the cross, gazing at the crucified Jesus, and taking stock of what this all means to him.
Incredibly, Watts describes the Roman device for capital punishment as a ‘wondrous cross’ and views this as an amazing scene of God’s love. The cross was indeed a sight of horror, but it was also one of love where Jesus died for our sins.
As Paul put it; “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Galatians 6:14
Watts realises that anything he has of value pales into insignificance when considering the magnitude of Jesus coming from the glorious realms of Heaven to live for a while on earth. As Watts looks at his Saviour dying in agonising pain, he knows there is no place for self-esteem; Jesus sacrificed Himself for us, securing our salvation and it is only about Him we should boast.
Watts uses an imagery of the starkness of the crucifixion with ‘sorrow’ and ‘love’. It was sorrow for our sin that took Jesus to the cross; it was not the nails that held Him there, but His love for us.
The final verse is about gratitude and commitment. What can we give to Jesus as a ‘thank you’? How can we repay Him? Even if we could give the whole world as a gift to Jesus it would be inadequate — a ‘present far too small’.
Our only proper gift can be to offer Him our own ‘soul, our life and our all’.
When I survey the wondrous crossTaken from: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the cross of Christ my God:
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life my all.
The feature image for this post is “Bernardino Luini – Crucifixion” – WikiCommons (PD)
Note: It is slightly cropped from the original, to fit the web page.