WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS
Isaac Watts, 1674–1748
Carrying His own cross, He went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified Him. (John 19:17, 18)
While preparing for a communion service in 1707, Isaac Watts wrote this deeply moving and very personal expression of gratitude for the amazing love that the death of Christ on the cross revealed. It first appeared in print that same year in Watts’ outstanding collection, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. The hymn was originally titled “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ.” Noted theologian Matthew Arnold called this the greatest hymn in the English language. In Watts’ day, texts such as this, which were based only on personal feelings, were termed “hymns of human composure” and were very controversial, since almost all congregational singing at this time consisted of ponderous repetitions of the Psalms. The unique thoughts presented by Watts in these lines certainly must have pointed the 18th century Christians to a view of the dying Savior in a vivid and memorable way that led them to a deeper worship experience, even as it does for us today.
Young Watts showed unusual talent at an early age, learning Latin when he was 5, Greek at 9, French at 11 and Hebrew at 12. As he grew up, he became increasingly disturbed by the uninspiring psalm singing in the English churches. He commented, “The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship most closely related to heaven; but its performance among us is the worst on earth.” Throughout his life, Isaac Watts wrote over 600 hymns and is known today as the “father of English hymnody.” His hymns were strong and triumphant statements of the Christian faith, yet none ever equaled the colorful imagery and genuine devotion of this emotionally stirring and magnificent hymn text.
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.
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.
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?
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.
For Today: Matthew 26:28; Luke 7:47; Romans 5:6–11; Galatians 6:14
Can you say with Isaac Watts: “my soul, my life, my all”? Sing as you go—