Posted by: rcottrill | November 25, 2011

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 16, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: Hamburg, by Lowell Mason (b. Jan. 8, 1792; d. Aug. 11, 1872)


Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The Cyber Hymnal includes six stanzas of this hymns, but hymn books that I’ve seen use only four or five. Though it makes a valid point, last one seems rather anticlimactic, but here it is.

CH-6) To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.

Lowell Mason indicated that the source of his tune, Hamburg, was a Gregorian chant or plainsong. The beautiful tune Rockingham also fits this hymn. (You can hear it played at the Cyber Hymnal link.)

This hymn deserves a place in the top ten of anyone’s list. Personally, I’d place it in the top three or four hymns in the English language. In over 300 years since it was written, it has hardly been surpassed. Charles Wesley was himself an outstanding hymn writer, with at least a couple of his songs worthy of inclusion in the top ten. But Wesley is reputed to have said he’d give up all that he’d written to have been the author of this one.

We can no longer “survey the wondrous cross” of Christ in a physical sense. There is even some doubt as to where it was located. We know the place of execution was outside the walls of Jerusalem (Heb. 13:12). But the walls have been destroyed and rebuilt several times, and the city enlarged. We simply don’t know the exact location of Calvary (kranion, in Greek, meaning skull), or Golgotha (from the Aramaic word gulgoleth, meaning skull).

Our visit there must consist of an envisioning of the scene in our mind’s eye, based on the Word of God, and energized by faith. And when we do that, sincerely, and thoughtfully, we’re overwhelmed by what “the Prince of Glory” did for us (cf. I Cor. 2:7-8). How could we exchange the wealth of all the world for the eternal salvation wrought for us there? How could we ever take pride in our own achievements, when compared to Christ’s? With the Apostle Paul we say, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).

CH-1) 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.

CH-2) 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.

As we see Christ’s bleeding form, and are gripped by the reason for His agony, the holy hush is broken only by our own weeping–not so much for His approaching death, because we know how the story ends. But for our own folly and sin that made the cross necessary. How can we cling to all this sinful world has to offer, if it will mean abandoning Him (cf. I Jn. 2:15-17).

CH-3) 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?

CH-4) His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

What can I give Him in return. Salvation is ours by the grace of God. We can do nothing to earn it or pay for it. And yet, love responds to love, and we readily pledge Him our love and loyalty, and our sacred service.

CH-5) 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.

There are echoes of Romans 12: 1 here. And some worship leaders suggest, as a variation, that the congregation sing the last two lines:

Love so amazing, so divine,
Shall have my soul, my life, my all.

1) The Apostle Paul speaks of “the offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11). In what sense is the cross offensive to some?

2) Of all the hymns in the English language, what are the top ten, in your view? (Not just your favourites, but the ones you consider the best hymns of all.)

3) What qualities should we look for, in determining the worthiness of a hymn?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Response to Question #3:

    1. Doctrinal/theological depth. (Doctrinal accuracy is assumed.)
    2. Well-crafted, high-quality poetry. (No “sloppy rhyming”)
    3. Music that supports and complements the words. More than just 1 – 4 – 5 – chords.

  2. Question #2:

    1. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
    2. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
    3. Great Is Thy Faithfulness
    4. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
    5. Immortal, Invisible
    6. All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
    7. Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven
    8. Holy, Holy, Holy
    9. And Can it Be
    10. Not What My Hands Have Done (LEOMINSTER tune)
    11. Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart

    • A fine list. Thanks!

  3. I am singing this at my morning Bible Study today and including some of your hymn story. Thank you for putting this together. Such a wonderful, magestic hymn! I’d put it in the top ten too!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, and all the joys and blessings of the Easter season to you!


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