Words by Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748)
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.
As I read and meditated on the words of this hymn, I could not help but be tempted to examine the doctrines behind this hymn. You will understand in a moment why the temptation to do so. As you will notice, this man came from what we can say a protestant of protestants. The Church of England had protested from the Catholic Church, but he came from the group that felt that the Church of England’s protesting was only a stone throw away. He really wanted to protest very far away and hence the radical stance he took. I must say that I rarely get into theological scripts but I think this one will be an exception. The nature of the hymn and its writer necesitates so.
Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) wrote as many as 600 hymns, including Joy to the World and Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed. The stories behind many of his songs are unknown, but the singing of his beautiful music over the past four centuries, has resulted in several heart-warming tales being documented.
Isaac Watts was born July 17, 1674, at Southampton, England. He was born into the home of “non-Conformists” in the days when Dissenters and Independents were persecuted by the Church of England. Fortunately this intolerance lasted only a short while after his birth. Isaac Watts with his over 600 hymns in his life has been called the father of the English hymn. His poetic gift was revealed at a young age. As a child during family prayers he penned one of his first poems, it was simply:
“There was a mouse for want of stairs,
Ran up a rope to say his prayers”
Many years later he write such great words as:
“See from His head, His hands His feet,
Sorrow and love flowed mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.”
From his birth his father would read the Word of God to him and pray for him. His father was a godly preacher and a Nonconformist to the Church of England. His father was sent to prison twice because of his convictions. His family were Dissenters or Non- conformists. The Dissenters were Protestants who did not think that the Church of England had separated enough from the doctrines of the Roman Catholics and refused to conform to the Church of England.
Isaac was born in 1674 and was the oldest of nine children. At the age of eleven his father addressed a letter to all of his children encouraging them to “frequently to read the Scriptures – get your hearts to delight in them – above all books and writings account the Bible the best and read it most – lay up the truth of it in your hearts”.
Isaac Watts was saved at the age of fifteen and by the age of sixteen he had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. When Isaac was about twenty he became dissatisfied with the singing of the Nonconformist Congregation. At that time it was viewed as sinful to sing songs that were not taken from the Scriptures the majority of which were Psalms or metrical Psalters. His major complaint was the quality of the writing, his father challenged him if he did not like what was being sung to do something better. Over the next two years, from the age of twenty until he was Twenty two, he wrote the majority of his hymns. He was greatly criticized by both the Roman Catholics and the nonconformist who called his hymns “uninspired” because they were not direct quotations from Scripture. His reply to this was “…if we can pray to God in sentences that we have made up ourselves (instead of confining ourselves to the Our Father and other prayers taken directly from the Scriptures), then surely we can sing to God in sentences that we have made up ourselves”.
Isaac Watts wrote Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed in 1707, it originally had six stanzas and no refrain. The original tune as intended by Isaac Watts is not known, but in 1800 Hugh Wilson began using his original music composition entitled Martyrdom. In 1885 Ralph F. Hudson added the refrain and the tune that we know use and know as “At The Cross”.
It is interesting to note before we explore the doctrinal content of Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed, the in 1850 at the age of thirty, Fanny J. Crosby went to the altar at the Thirtieth Street Methodist Church in New York City. She had been to the altar twice before by had not received the peace she sought. While at the altar the congregation was singing the hymn “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”, according to her own testimony and in her own words she says:
“…it seemed to me that the light must indeed come then or never; and so I arose and went to the altar alone. After a prayer was offered, they began to sing the grand old consecration hymn, ‘Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, And did my Sovereign die?’ And when they reached the third line of the fourth stanza, ‘Here Lord, I give myself away,’ my very soul was flooded with a celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting ‘hallelujah,’ and then for the first time I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other.”
Isaac Watts was a brilliant young man and because of his intellectual acumen and proclivity to study he was encouraged by his friends and a prominent Southampton physician to go to one of the Universities, at their expense, in hopes that he would eventually be ordained into the Church of England. Because of his background and being raised as a Dissenting Nonconformist, he refused and rather chose a nonconformist academy. He started preaching at the age of twenty-four and became pastor of a well-know independent congregation in 1702, he died on November 25, 1748.
Couple of comments about the lyrics: For those that do not mind getting a little deep into theology, the doctrinal content of “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed” could be examined from a plethora of Christian Theology, Justification, Propitiation, Christology, Anthropology, Haematology, Soteriology just to name a few, for all of these are contained within the lines of this hymn. We will however, briefly explore the doctrine of propitiation as found in the lines of “Alas and Did My Saviour Bleed”.
The word propitiation appears 3 times in our King James Bible, Romans 3:5, I John 2:2 and I John 4:10. In both instances in I John the Greek word for propitiation is hilasmos, In Romans the word is hilasterion. The word is “used of the cover of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies, which was sprinkled with the blood of the expiatory victim on the annual day of atonement (this rite signifying that the life of the people, the loss of which they had merited by their sins, was offered to God in the blood as the life of the victim, and that God by this ceremony was appeased and their sins expiated); hence the lid of expiation, the propitiatory”. The word hilasterion is actually translated as mercy seat in Hebrews 9:5
“And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly”.
The Lord Jesus Christ became our propitiation. A good definition of the word is that Jesus Christ satisfied the holiness of an offended God and a broken law. There are two other occasions that you find the word meaning propitiation, it is translated from the Greek word hilaskomai which means to make propitiation, and it is translated as “be merciful” in Luke 18:13 “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” and “make reconciliation” in Hebrews 2:17 “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” This propitiation, no doubt is what Isaac Watts had in mind as he penned the words “Alas, and did my Saviour bleed and did my Sovereign die”
Isaac Watts may have taken the thought for his line “for such a worm as I” from Psalm 22:6 “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.” Since Psalm 22 is prophetic and descriptive of the events of the crucifixion, it is enlightening to the mind of Watts as to the play on words. To the world, as they crucified the Lord Jesus Christ, he was a worm, but in reality, it is sinful man who is the worm. David no doubt referred to this in Psalm 22 and it is likely that Watts was making reference to this as well.
We see a glimpse of propitiation in the lines “Was it for crimes that I had done”. Yes it was for my sins, yea, and the sins of the whole world that Jesus Christ willingly laid his life down.
From the lines “And love beyond degree” Watts no doubt had the words of Jesus himself in mind for in John 15:13 the Lord Jesus declared that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” One thing that is amazing about the love of Jesus and his “laying his life down” is that we were not friends, we were enemies as is declared in Romans 5:10.
When the Lord Jesus died, darkness was upon the whole earth. This darkness is referenced in Watts original fourth verse and is found in Luke 23:44. The Bible says that this darkness was from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. The Jewish day started at six A.M. not midnight as our days start, so this was mid day, the whole earth was dark. What was the significance of this darkness and what caused it. Some try to explain this miracle away by saying that it was an eclipse of the sun, but this could not be the case. Jesus was crucified during the Feast of Passover, this always happened at the time of a full moon and an eclipse cannot happen during a full moon, also, an eclipse would not last for three hours so this cannot be the case.
This was of a divine origin. Darkness is a sign of punishment. When God punished Pharaoh there was darkness. These three hours was the time that God was punishing the Lord Jesus for our sins and no doubt, he did not want the world to see this. This is what Watts was referencing and it is why Watts declared in his last verse and that we as well can proclaim, “Here, Lord, I give myself away ‘Tis all that I can do.