Friday, April 10, 2020

When I Survey

But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.  -  Galatians 6:14 

The cross still stands outlined in stark relief against the backdrop of time. After all of the books, poems, songs and sermons about it have been exhausted, it still calls to us. The sacrificial death of an innocent in place of the guilty captures the attention of even the most jaded.  It reaches out to us with pierced and blood-stained hands. It begs a response. That, with grateful humility, we sacrifice ourselves and shoulder the weight of a cross of our own to follow the One Who died there.  

Isaac Watts is known as the “Father of English Hymnody.” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” has been said to be the best of his over 700 hymns. It is the hymn that forms the bridge between psalmody and hymnody as the common practice for congregational worship.  

Watts was born in England and raised in a family of Dissenters. His rigid deacon father disciplined him for constantly composing verses.  One time, after several warnings, Isaac received a spanking for his rhyming, to which he responded woefully, “Oh, father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make." He disliked the strict and awkward metrical psalms that were sung for congregational worship at the time, so when he complained about them, his father rather sarcastically told him to come up with his own.  That comment launched Watts’ hymn writing career.  

Although Isaac was frail and sickly, he was highly intelligent, training in Greek, French, Latin and Hebrew.  He became a pastor, but soon left the ministry because of illness.  He lived the final years of his life as an invalid, continuing to write his many hymns.  

Watts had very specific goals for his hymns. He wanted them to parallel the theme of the sermon, to be evangelical in nature, and to reflect personal experience, not just a recounting of past events.  He wrote about Old Testament events in light of the truth of Christ.  His texts were composed to fit the most common meters, allowing them to be sung to a variety of tunes, and almost all of his lines expressed a complete thought. This was important because at that time, the song leader would “line out,” the songs in such a way that the leader would sing a phrase, and the congregation would repeat it.  

Published in 1707, in Watts’ first book of hymns, “When I Survey,“ appeared titled, “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ,” under the topic “Prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper.” The song employed poetic devices that contribute to its power, such as oxymoron, paradox, and rhetorical questions. It is a song, like its subject, that insists upon a response.  It is interesting to note that the pledges at the end of the song - “my soul, my life, my all,” were formerly vows that were required before entering monastic life.

Typical of a Watts’ hymn, the words have been sung to several hymn tunes. The most commonly used are HAMBURG, written by Lowell Mason in 1824, based on a Gregorian chant; and ROCKINGHAM, composed by Edward Miller in 1790.

Often in our eagerness to rush to the victory of the empty tomb, it’s easy to neglect a full embrace of the bitter beauty and aching love displayed at the cross. We need to sit and grieve its terrible costliness, and the sin that caused it. There, God proves that there is no length to which He is unwilling to go to win our hearts. His passionate pursuit of us cost Him everything, a price He willingly paid. So, we don’t just celebrate an unoccupied grave. With full hearts, we also commemorate the avenue that Jesus took to get there. And the only response that proves our grateful sincerity echoes these words that Isaac Watts penned so long ago:

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.  

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.

Resources: - “Hymn Stories:  When I Survey.”  Tim Challies. -  “The Story Behind When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  Liz Tolsma. - “Hymn Story:  When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  Clayton Kraby. - “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” - “Hymn Story:  When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  Richard Niell Donovan. - “History of Hymns:  “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Rachel Tillay.

- Joy Barnett

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