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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: All Saints, by Henry Stephen Cutler (b. Oct. 13, 1825; d. Dec. 5, 1902)
Note: This is a lesser known 1707 offering by Isaac Watts, “the Father of English Hymnody.” In a day when his church sang only the Psalms, he argued that, good as they were, they were incomplete as to what they taught. Christians needed songs that spoke, for example, of the death and resurrection of Christ and its meaning. It is the latter that is the focus of this great hymn, published over three hundred years ago.
The tune All Saints is also used with the hymn The Son of God Goes Forth to War. It treats the hymn as consisting of three eight-line stanzas. The hymn is also sung with tunes appropriate for four-line stanzas. There are a number that might do (in Common Metre, 22.214.171.124), but it should be a one with some lift and life, not a slow meditative melody. Try Azmon, that is commonly used with O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.
Isaac Watts’s hymn is loaded with Scriptural references and allusions. A review of some of these will show just how solidly the song is rooted in the Word of God.
CH-1. “Hosanna is a Hebrew prayer, a cry to the Lord to “Save now!” (cf. Mk. 11:9). And a number of times Christ identified Himself as the Light (“the light of the world,” Jn. 8:12). So the gospel challenge is, “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14). Christ took on our humanity, clothing Himself in the same “clay” from which Adam was formed (Gen. 2:7). He became Man so that He might die to save us.
The reference to “the iron gates of death” likely comes from the words of Jonah, in the belly of the great sea monster. (“The earth with its bars has closed behind me forever,” Jon. 2:6). And Christ, by His omnipotent power “tore the bars away,” rising from the dead (Jn. 10:17-18; Matt. 28:5-7).
“The tyrant’s sting” speaks of the power of Satan to keep men captive to his will, and in fear of death if sin is not dealt with (I Cor, 15:55-57; cf. Heb. 2:14-15). Through His payment for sin, His own resurrection, and the gift of eternal life, Christ has rendered Satan powerless to destroy. “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15).
CH-1) Hosanna to the Prince of light,
That clothed Himself in clay,
Entered the iron gates of death,
And tore the bars away.
Death is no more the king of dread,
Since our Immanuel rose;
He took the tyrant’s sting away,
And spoiled our hellish foes.
CH-2 speaks of Christ’s ascension in triumph. “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:7-8). And since Christ’s resurrection body still had the scars of His crucifixion (Jn. 20:27), and John in his heavenly vision, saw Christ pictured as “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6), I believe Christ will have those “scars of honour in His flesh” for all eternity.
As Head of the church (Eph. 1:22), Christ is the source of many blessings for us (Eph. 4:11-12; Phil. 4:13, 19). The claim that “Jesus fills the middle seat” is a little strange. At His ascension, Christ was seated at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 10:12). He is actually seated on the Father’s throne (Rev. 3:21), awaiting the day when He will come again to this earth and claim His own, messianic throne, the throne of David (Isa. 9:6-7; Lk. 1:31-33).
There is no “middle seat” involved. I suspect that Watts is proposing there is a seat for each Person of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but we are never told that. Revelation 4:5 says, “Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.” Commentators differ on the precise meaning, but there is a common belief that this speaks of the sevenfold (perfect) Holy Spirit, or the ministry of the Holy Spirit (cf. Isa. 11:2). In that case He is seen “before the throne.” Perhaps the seventh and eighth lines could be altered to read: “Our Jesus fills an honoured place / On the celestial throne.
CH-2) See how the conqueror mounts aloft,
And to His Father flies,
With scars of honour in His flesh
And triumph in His eyes.
There our exalted Saviour reigns,
And scatters blessings down;
Our Jesus fills the middle seat
Of the celestial throne.
CH-3 is a great call to praise, for what God has accomplished through our crucified, risen, and glorified Saviour, the “incarnate God.”
CH-3) Raise your devotion, mortal tongues,
To reach His blest abode;
Sweet be the accents of your songs
To our incarnate God.
Bright angels, strike your loudest strings,
Your sweetest voices raise;
Let heav’n and all created things
Sound our Immanuel’s praise.
1) Is this a hymn you would use, either at a Communion Service, or on Easter Sunday?
2) What are some of the things Christ accomplished for us by His resurrection and ascension?