Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: Martyrdom, by Hugh Wilson (b. Dec. 2, 1766; d. Aug. 14, 1824)
Note: Unfortunately, the Cyber Hymnal tries to combine the simple version of this hymn (set to the tune Martyrdom) with the reworked version of Ralph Hudson. The latter is more accurately called At the Cross. And though it’s popular in some circles, its trite and jaunty refrain completely ignores the sombre message of the text. For my further comments on this uncalled for mutilation of a great hymn, see here.
CH-1) Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
We are worms, every one. In spite of the fact that many modern editors change the last line of the first stanza of Watts’s hymn to “For sinners such as I,” that is not what Watts intended. The first stanza reads as I’ve given it above.
And it’s certainly biblical to say that. In the book of Job, Bildad raises an important question: “How then can man be righteous before God,” and he proceeds, “Man…is a maggot, and…a worm” (Job 25:4, 6). When David prays he cries out to God, “I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people” (Ps. 22:6). And in what are actually words of encouragement to Israel, the Lord says, “‘Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,’ says the LORD and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 41:14).
There is another text that should be included, though the word “worm” does not appear in it. Isaiah 1:18 is a summons to consider God’s message carefully:
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.’”
The words “scarlet” and “crimson” translate the same Hebrew word as that translated “worm” in the earlier texts. They refer to a dye made by crushing a certain kind of worm. It’s not difficult to suggest therefore that our sins are a product of our worm-like nature.
Worms are lowly creatures, often despised or trampled underfoot. Further, they are relatively weak and helpless. These are the qualities that the biblical imagery is meant to portray. We despicable sinners are totally helpless to rid ourselves of sin’s guilt and corruption. Isaac Watts, in another of his hymns called How Sad Our State by Nature Is, uses the same symbolism:
A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,
Into Thy hands I fall;
Be Thou my strength and righteousness,
My Saviour, and my all.
The older hymn writers weren’t afraid to be explicit about our sinfulness and its consequences. Modern writers and editors may want to gloss over the desperate nature of our fallen condition and get to the positive message of the gospel, but it’s a mistake. We can never fully appreciate what God did to save us until we get a clear picture of what we are outside of Christ. In another hymn, which draws its present title from the first line, Watts writes:
Lord, I am vile, conceived in sin,
And born unholy and unclean;
Sprung from the man whose guilty fall
Corrupts the race, and taints us all.
That’s clear and biblical theology, and an important starting point. Apart from the intervention of sovereign grace, we are utterly helpless and hopeless. And before we get the good news, we need the bad news.
“No degree of reformation, however great, no attainment in morality, however high, no culture, however attractive, no humanitarian and philanthropic schemes and societies, however useful, no baptism or other ordinance, however administered, can help the sinner take even one step toward heaven” (Statement of Faith, Child Evangelism Fellowship).
It’s in that context that we should sing, reverently, soberly, and thoughtfully:
CH-3) Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
CH-4) Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
1) What other hymns do you know that make clear our sinful, fallen condition outside of Christ?
2) How would you explain the gospel to an inquirer that appropriately includes both the bad news and the good news?