Watts is notable for the high quality of his hymns. But it is more than that which gained him the reputation of being the Father of English Hymnody. In the established English church of his day, only the Psalms were sung. The creation and use of new hymns was looked upon by some as an attempt to add to the Bible, and it was therefore considered off limits. There was some openness to change in the nonconformist church the Watts family attended, but the old tradition still hung on.
However, a young Isaac Watts argued with his father Enoch, a deacon in the church, that if they only sang the Old Testament Psalms they were missing a lot of New Testament truth. Finally, his father told him that if he thought he could produce something suitable to go ahead and try. Watts was only in his mid-teens at the time, but he had a sound grounding in Bible knowledge and a gift for poetry. With his father’s encouragement, he set to work.
The next Sunday morning, the congregation had a new hymn to sing, prophetic of much more to come. It began:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne.
Prepare new honours for His Name,
And songs before unknown.
(You can see all eight stanzas of this ground-breaking hymn on the Cyber Hymnal.) The assembled believers were delighted with the new song, and asked for more. The young man began producing a new hymn each week, and did so for a couple of years. He made an even stronger contrast between Old Testament and New, between the far side of the cross and today, with the following hymn. It is based on several verses of Scripture.
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of Thine,
While, like a penitent, I stand,
And there confess my sin.
The Old Testament sacrifices were accepted by God, when offered in faith, but they were not the final answer to sin. The shed blood of an animal could not pay our debt (Heb. 10:11). These offerings pointed forward to Christ, who came to do just that (Jn. 1:29; Heb. 9:12). The third stanza of Watts’s hymn alludes to the way the offerer placed his hand on the sacrifice as a sign of identification with it (Lev. 1:4). It was a way of saying, “This innocent substitute is dying instead of me.” We do the same, when we identify ourselves with Christ on the cross, by faith.
Eventually, in his lifetime, Watts would create over 600 hymns. Still today, 300 years later, most hymn books contain quite a number of them. (For a bit more about this significant figure, see Today in 1748.) Here is a sampling of the songs of Isaac Watts still in use:
Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed? (At the Cross)
Am I a Soldier of the Cross?
Begin, My Tongue, Some Heavenly Theme
Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove
Come, We That Love the Lord (We’re Marching to Zion)
I Sing the Mighty Power of God
Jesus Shall Reign
Join All the Glorious Names
Joy to the World
Not All the Blood of Beasts
Not What These Hands Have Done
O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Sweet Is the Work
There Is a Land of Pure Delight
When I Can Read My Title Clear
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
A brilliant scholar, Dr. Watts was a master of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. He authored about 60 books on a variety of subjects, but the work for which he is justifiably remembered today is the writing of his hymns. And hymn historians are in general agreement that the best of these–judged by some to be the greatest in the English language–is When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. There is little that can match, or even approach, the sublime poetry of the third stanza, with its imagery of the blood of Christ representing an outpouring of sorrow and love.
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?
The hymn was published in 1707, and was particularly intended for use at the Lord’s Supper. The author based his thoughts on Galatians 6:14, “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.” Paul means there that this sinful world had lost its attraction for him and, for their part, the world of unsaved men and women had broken fellowship with Paul, sensing he was no longer one of them. The cross is a great dividing line in the Christian’s life.
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.
Here is an earnest choir of high schoolers singing a beautiful arrangement of this superb hymn. Though at some points, the voices show an understandable lack of maturity, they do a fine job. But I pray that, as you listen, you will realize far beyond that what a wonderful Saviour we have!