Although The Hymnal 1982 places “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” within the “Jesus Christ our Lord” section, this hymn is typically sung during Lent, bearing particular meaning any time during which we ponder Christ’s suffering and death. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) published this hymn in his Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707. Watts, although a proud Englishman, was a Dissenter, meaning he was not a part of the Church of England. Yet, Watts’ contributions to the Church of England were great.
Before Watts, in both the Anglican and the Dissenting churches, only psalms (and a few canticles) were sung liturgically by the congregation. Although the Lutherans on the continent had been singing hymns for almost two hundred years, it was Watts who wrote the first “hymns of human composure” in the English language, of which “When I Survey” is one of the first. In other words, although its language and metaphors are scriptural, the hymn is not verbatim or even paraphrased scripture, but doctrine codified personally and poetically. Watts’ hymnals soon influenced the Church of England to relax its requirements for congregational singing, resulting in the great burgeoning of English hymnody in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
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.
In this exceptional hymn, Watts distills the vast cosmos down to a heartfelt realization of the Saviour’s suffering and death. Watts’ mind comprehended the universality of theology—the word “survey” appears in many of his hymns and can be likened to a person standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, taking in a spatially-vast and aesthetically-wondrous vista beyond the realm of human control or understanding. Watts approaches theology like this—he stands at the border of the cosmos trying to comprehend the vastness of God’s being and actions, realizing the greatest of humanity’s wisdom is merely foolishness to God (“My richest gain I count but loss. . .”) The world, to Watts, is comprised of “vain things that charm me most,” which he then will “sacrifice them to His blood.” Is this not the point of the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday? The culmination of a Holy Week which began festively on Palm Sunday now leads to three days in which we ponder the sufferings and death of Christ.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Watts’ third stanza paints a crucifix in verbal imagery—from “His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down,” echoing Paul Gerhardt’s evocative hymn “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.” (Hymnal 169) Is a crucifix, by definition presenting Christ on the cross with the crown of thorns, not representative of both “love and sorrow”? We might consider how revolutionary this language is—at least in English—particularly as sung by Dissenting Calvinists who would certainly never countenance an actual crucifix in their church!
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a treasure far too small;
Love so amazing so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Watts’ final stanza again places the singer on the precipice of eternity—even if the “whole realm of nature [were] mine, That were a tribute far too small,” reminding us this Lent, as only a Calvinist like Watts can, of our own inability to redeem ourselves. Understanding that makes the events of Easter morning evidence profound, not cheap, grace.
May we use this Lenten season, with its rich hymnody, to ponder this profound grace.
On the right: Isaac Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) from the collection of Benjamin Kolodziej, showing the extra stanza four which is no longer sung. Click on the image to enlarge.