[Each Thursday, we "reflect" on a hymn suggested by our readers. Please add your favorites in the comments and we'll put them on our upcoming list.]
One of the most well-respected hymns of all time, Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was first published in 1707, and continues to be sung around the world. In fact, it is reported that Charles Wesley once stated that he would have given up all his other hymns to have written this one. (cyberhymal.org)
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was one of the earliest songs in English hymn history to break from simply singing Scripture or paraphrases of Scripture. While part of the song does paraphrase Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14, most of the hymn’s text is original poetry. It was one of the first songs in England to be sung widely despite this change, and, due to its success, it is one of the main reasons why most songs over the past 300 years have been original poems instead of simply quotations from Scripture.
The song originally had five verses. Most modern song books omit the original fourth verse, although the book Praise for the Lord still includes all five original verses.
The words to Watts’ hymn are powerful and picturesque. Very few songs can convey emotion the way these words do, and very few can stand the test of time the way this hymn has. The words, now over 300 years old, continue to express our thoughts as we look to the cross of Jesus.
Watts tried to convey the contrast between the amazing act of Calvary, and our own sinfulness. In fact, that is the basis of four of the five verses. The lone exception is the third verse (“See, from His head…”), where the singers are truly “surveying” the cross, and the focus is all on that act. In that verse, there is no change back to thinking of self.
My favorite verse, ironically, is the one that is most often left out: the original fourth verse. While I am not a poet, I think the words to that verse are some of the most expressive ever written.
I think most people love how the song ends, as we have taken a look at Calvary and we state what our response needs to be in these words: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Reflective of the “greatest command,” Watts helps us express that living for God is not only demanding, but it demands everything we have.
Here are the words to all five original verses from the song I think is Isaac Watts’ masterpiece:
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?
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.
As you share your comments, enjoy this a cappella version of of the song by the Gaither Vocal Band.