So far in my series Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth I seemed to be skipping right over Isaac Watts, but by pure coincidence I’ve now selected two of his in a row. This week’s selection is “When I Survey the Wond’rous Cross”, composed by Watts in 1707, being at that time “significant for being an innovative departure from the early English hymn style of only using paraphrased biblical texts.”
This is one of those hymns which make for “good theology,” though to be honest, there isn’t a lot of theology in it. What is there is of course deeply significant, and it’s become a common Easter hymn for Good Friday in particular. My childhood memories of this are of course that the song was veerrrryyy sslllooooowww… and the lyrics a bit cryptic, but I don’t think I was ever baffled by them. Older now and able to reflect upon them, they naturally become deeply significant, and a moving point of meditation.
When I Survey the Wond’rous Cross
When I survey the wond’rous 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?
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.
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.
The Northumbria Community has a beautiful Celtic-flavoured version of the song on one of their CDs; it changes the tune a bit but manages to sound traditional without being traditional… that makes sense. Give it a listen: