When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Hymn Stories
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Isaac Watts stands as a titan of the English hymn, with over 750 hymns to his name. In fact we might say that he is the father of hymns in the English speaking world as he led the charge for hymns. Now, that might sound odd to a modern ear, but at the time that Watts was writing there was a strong opposition to hymns. Why? Because they were human inventions, and as such could be flawed in their theology. Hymn words tend to stick in the mind, and what if a flawed hymn became popular and kept ringing around in the memory? Surely, it would be better simply to stick with singing psalms which are, after all, reliable.
So went the argument, but Watts challenged it. Through his efforts, and the richness of his writing, hymns became a staple of the English church and remain so to this day.
There were early indications of his poetic talent. The story is told of how, as a young boy, Watts was caught with his eyes open during prayer. When asked why this was so, he answered:
A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.
This was seen as flippancy, and Watts was punished. He then responded:
O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.
There is a lot more to be said about Watts, and we might return to him again at some stage. One of his better known hymns is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, which at the time (1707) was a rare departure from singing Biblical texts. It is a meditation on the crucifixion and our response to the overwhelming love of Christ. You may know the words well, but do read them afresh.
When I survey the wond'rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy'd,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the Death of Christ my God:
All the vain Things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his Blood.
See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down!
Did e'er such Love and Sorrow meet?
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown?
His dying Crimson, like a Robe,
Spreads o'er his Body on the Tree;
Then am I dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.
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.