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.
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 an off’ring far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
I have been intrigued several times at the reaction of young people when hymns are sung. They seem to be put off and prefer the Modern tunes and choruses. This is not just a modern phenomenon. The writer of this hymn behaved exactly the same way during this teenage days and that is what led him to write many hymns thereafter.
When teenager Isaac Watts complained to his father about the monotonous way Christians in England sang the Old Testament Psalms, his father, a leading deacon, snapped back ‘All right young man, you give us something better.’
To Isaac Watts, the singing of God’s praise was the form of worship nearest to Heaven and he went on to argue: ‘It’s performance among us is the worst on earth.’ Young Isaac accepted his father’s challenge and eventually wrote a total of more than 600 hymns, earning him the title ‘The father of English hymnody.’
Even as a child Isaac had shown a passion for poetry, rhyming and such mundane things as everyday conversation. His serious-minded father, after several warnings, decided to spank the rhyming nonsense out of his son. But the tearful Isaac helplessly replied,
‘Oh father do some pity take,
and I will no more verses make.’
However, choirs, congregations and individual Christians rejoice to this day that the young man did not keep his impromptu promise. If he had, none of us would have the thrill of singing such all-time favourites as “Oh God Our Help In Ages Past,” “Am I A Soldier Of The Cross” or “Joy To The World.”
As a child, Isaac Watts was sickly and unattractive; yet, even by today’s standards he was clever beyond his years. He began the study of Latin at the age of four, and added Greek when he was nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen.
At fifteen the young poet turned his talents to the service of the church and the great career in hymn-writing began.
In his hymns Isaac Watts takes the Word of God, of which he must have been a diligent student, and distils it so that all is wisdom, beauty and comfort are set before us with plainness and power. No wonder, then, that C.H. Spurgeon’s grandfather, himself a great preacher, and in the line of the Puritans, would have nothing else but the hymns of Isaac Watts sung in his services.
Isaac Watt’s greatest composition must surely be “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.”
It has been called ‘The very best hymn in the English language’ and in it Watts, using only 16 lines, paints a soul-stirring picture of the Saviour’s death on the cross coupled with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love.
Couple of comments about the lyrics:
Tedd Smith once wrote; ‘It seems to me that Isaac Watts wrote this text as if he were standing at the foot of Christ’s cross.’ How blessed to reflect on the finished work of Christ Jesus, as summed up in the stanzas of this hymn. Let us examine this hymn stanza by satanza.
(1) Stanza One:
When I survey the wondrous cross. We need to “Survey” the Cross! “Survey” is defined as “to examine with reference to value; to view with a scrutinizing eye; inspect.” The majority of people never survey the cross. It holds no value to them and hence, it is not the “wondrous cross”! Before you can become a servant of the Lord, you must “survey” the cross. You must see and understand and appreciate its value to your life. Surveyors take their time to do their job. We need to take time to examine the cross, precept upon precept. Piece by piece and we will see that it is a wondrous cross. We will not be able to write a comprehensive survey report thereafter. We will only burst into worship.
Without the cross there would be no reconciliation (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20). Therefore, we are to “glory” in the cross (Gal. 6:14). The cross is the last thing most would want to glory in. After all, it was “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23). In reality though, the cross exposes what a desperate state we really are in. It exposes how utterly bankrupt we must be to make such suffering necessary.
On Which the “Prince of Glory Died. “ Christ is the Prince of glory. He is a Prince in every way. He is the “Prince and Saviour” (Acts 5:31). He is “the Prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).
“Prince” in the above passages means: “author, prince or leader, and ruler.” Hence, Christ is our Leader who brought us peace (Isa. 9:6). The Jews killed the author of Life (Acts 3:15). He is Prince (author) and Saviour – author of salvation (Heb. 5:8-9). He is the Ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5). The poet catches this wonderful truth in the poem entitled: “The Cross”
No love so great has e’er been known,
No grace so vast was ever shown,
No blood for sin could e’er atone,
But Christ’s who died for me!
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. The cross reveals the folly of human pride. It teaches us to say: “I never knew myself a sinner, nor recognized Christ as my Saviour,
“Until upon the cross I saw
My God who died to meet the law
That I had broken, then I say
My sin, and then my Savior.”
We will never be able to see on that old rugged cross “the wonderful glories of God’s great love” until we first see “our own unworthiness” and “pour contempt on all our pride.” Listen to the apostle Paul:
But whatever former things I had that might have been gains to me, I have come to consider as (one combined) loss for Christ’s sake. Yes, furthermore I count everything as loss compared to possession of the priceless privilege – the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth and supreme advantage – of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, and of progressively becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, or perceiving and recognizing and understanding Him more clearly and fully. For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs) in order that I may win (gain) Christ, the Anointed One (Phil. 3:7-8, The Amplified Bible).
These former things that could have been counted as gains for Paul consisted of his honours in the Jewish religion. All of these things he counted loss – instead of service to be recorded and worthy of honours, they were rather sins and crimes condemned, and sorrowed for through life. Can we learn this great lesson? All gains out of Christ are losses for Christ! Nothing compares to a life lived in Christ Jesus. For Christ’s sake Paul did lose everything . . . that is the total of his old life’s values. His own family probably regarded him as a disgrace to Judaism. His fellow Pharisees considered him a traitor to the cause. The Jews in general thought of him as a renegade. Oh, yes, he paid the price, but it was well worth it. He lost the Jewish world (the old life with its values) in order to gain Christ Jesus, Lord of all. So did He – and so must we!
(2) Stanza Two.
Stanza tow two teaches us that we should boast or glory only in Christ’s death.
“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, People boast in many things. More often than not it is in the wrong things and to our own shame. The Jews boasted in the Law and in their relationship to God (Rom. 2:17,23). They were proud of their relation to the true God, but they were woefully lacking in their adherence to his will.
I hope their condition doesn’t describe many of us today! We say that we have the truth as distinguished from human creeds and doctrines of men. We boast of being in the one body as distinguished from human denominations. And yet, do we often fail to display in our lives the spirit and conduct that should be forthcoming from such a relationship. We must understand that it is not enough to profess respect for God’s word. We must keep it. If we violate God’s word we dishonor God. God is honored when we live in keeping with our profession.
2. Some boast of their great wealth. The Psalmist speaks of “those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches” (Psa. 49:6).
3. Some boast in their own works (Eph. 2:8-9). We are not saved by works of our own merit, that we may boast or glory in what we have done. We are saved by works in the sense of doing the works God has appointed. Even here, the merit is not in the work, but it proves our faith in doing what God commands of us. In this sense we are saved by faith and works. No works, no faith! (See Jas. 2:17-81.)
Save in the death of Christ my Lord; We should boast or glory in the Lord and his sacrifice (Rom. 5:6-10). I like the way the New International Version translates those verses. The apostle Paul said: “Therefore as it is written, let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood. I must be willing to sacrifice all for the Lord. It is really sacrifice when we are willing to give up the things which “charm us most.” What are you willing to give in exchange for your soul (Matt. 16:26)? This is a very poignant question when we realize that Christ sacrificed so much for us.
How we ought to thank the Lord every day we live for taking the punishment for our sins that we might not have to take it. What a blessed sin offering.
(3) Stanza Three
From verse three we learn of our Lord’s suffering and love.
“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.”
And, my O my, how our blessed Lord did suffer! Have you ever really considered what was really included in the “many things”? (Read Psa. 22:8,14-22; Isa. 53.) All of this is horribly unfolded as we read the gospels. He was forsaken of the Father. He was scorned, despised and rejected. He was mocked and taunted and they hurled insults at him. They would shake their heads at him, spit in his face, slap him, hit him with their fists, and flog him. Finally they killed him in the most excruciating way known to man!
Our Lord was truly “familiar with sufferings” and esteemed not. The most precious One to ever walk this earth was pierced, crushed, afflicted and led as a “lamb to slaughter.” He was truly “the man of sorrows.”
But praise be to God, when the blood flowed from those royal arteries, it was sorrow and love mingled and they met as they ran down and dripped to the ground below. Please notice why Jesus suffered. It was because he loved us so much! Because of his great love he “died for our transgressions,” “took our infirmities,” “carried our sorrows,” “was crushed for our iniquities,” and “his wounds brought us peace and healing.” He bore our sins in his body on the tree, he was sacrificed for our transgressions.
They put on his head a rough, sharp crown of thorns the pain racked his head and the rivulets of blood tricked down his face – but thanks be to God that He now wears a glorious crown as King of kings and reigns over his kingdom at the Father’s right hand (see Phil. 2:5,11, New International Version).
Peter said, “Behold, we have left (forsaken) all and followed thee” (Matt. 19:27). The Lord said, “So, likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:33). Paul said he had suffered the loss of all things for Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). God demands our all! Are you willing to give it? This begins with the giving of myself to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5).
It is evident that many do not appreciate God’s great love for they do not reciprocate with their lives. Rather than give all, most give none or very little! Many are glad that Christ gave his all, but they want to give very little! They do not want to even give of their time to come worship. My, my, but how they appreciate his love, so amazing, so divine. How ungrateful can we be? Remember, love gives! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (Jn. 3:16). Do you love the Lord? Are you a Christian? Will you give yourself in obedience to his will?
Finally, how enriching to be able to voice our reconsecration to the Lord’s service in the words:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.