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Preaching the Great Hymns of Easter--“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

Notes & Transcripts

“Ye monsters of the bubbling deep, Your Master’s praises spout; Up from the sands ye coddlings peep, And wag your tails about.” Believe it or not that was a stanza from a popular hymn at the turn of the 18th century. We can thank Isaac Watts that we do not sing hymns with stanzas like this anymore!

The story goes that one Sunday after church, the eighteen-year-old Isaac complained to his father about the slow, monotonous, way Christians sang in English-speaking churches. At the time, congregational singing was a ponderous affair. A Deacon or Clerk would first read the verse that was going to be sung, followed by the droning of the congregation—usually without benefit of musical instruments. It was called lining-out. Thus the singing of a long psalm could become extremely tedious with every line of every stanza being repeated twice. It was hardly satisfying or spiritually edifying to sing in such a fragmented way.

All they sang were Old Testament psalms, and hymns that young Isaac termed “deplorable.” Isaac’s father, a leading deacon in the church, snapped back, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” By the next Sunday, Watts had produced his first hymn. The hymn was such a success with the congregation, that for the next two years, he wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. By the time he died, he had over six hundred hymns to his credit! He truly deserves the title The Father of English Hymnody. One church historian said we ought to instead call him “the liberator of the English hymn.” Not only did he produce superlative examples of his new approach to congregational song, he also opened the way for others to follow. His hymns quickly became popular throughout England, and for American Presbyterians and Congregationalists his psalms and hymns were almost the only songs they sang in their worship.

If Isaac Watts were alive today and we could test his IQ level he would probably register off the charts. At the age of four he was learning Latin and by the age of nine had learned Greek. By the age of 11 he had added French to his list of languages., and by the age of 13 Hebrew. He was also a student of theology and philosophy. Even as a child he had a passion for poetry and rhyming in such mundane things as everyday conversation. It kinda drove family and friends nuts. At one point, his serious minded father, after several warnings, decided to spank the rhyming nonsense out of his son. After the spanking a tearful Isaac replied to his father:

‘Oh father do some pity take,

and I will no more verses make.’

It seems that verse just flowed from Isaac Watts.

Many of the hymns that Watts wrote—including When I Survey the Wondrous Cross—were controversial among the churches of his day. It was the practice of that era to put the Psalms to music, and it was considered blasphemous to sing anything other than the Psalms. The controversy was the “worship war” of that day, and divided congregations just as the “worship wars” of our day are dividing congregations between contemporary and traditional worship styles.

Though Watts also followed the tradition of his day and put many psalms to music, he also believed that one could compose hymns that reflected one’s own thoughts and feelings. These hymns were termed “hymns of human composure” and they stirred up great controversy. Thankfully Watts did not acquiesce to the critics of his day, or we might not have hymns such as “Joy to the World!”, or, “Our Help in Ages Past,” or “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.”

Isaac Watts wrote "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" in preparation for a communion service in 1707. Originally, the hymn was titled "Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ," following the practice of the day to summarize a hymn's theme in the title. To this day many hymnologists consider "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" one of the finest Christian hymns ever written, and the very best hymn in the English language. It’s the first known hymn to be written in the first person, introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to the musical exposition of doctrine. Watt’s hymn-writing reshaped the future of church music, and inaugurated what is considered the golden age of hymn-writing.

Using only 16 lines of verse, he paints a soul-stirring picture of the Savior’s death on the cross coupled with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love.

The tune that we traditionally sing this hymn to is entitled Hamburg, and was arranged in 1824 by Lowell Mason who is often referred to as The Father of American Church Music. Almost single-handedly, he transformed American church music from the practice of using only auditioned professional chancel choirs to congregational singing accompanied by organ music. He was also largely responsible for introducing music into American public schools, and is considered to be the first important music educator in the United States. Southern Baptists have been singing this hymn ever since it first appeared in the 1850 hymnal The Baptist Psalmody. A few years ago, composer Bruce Greer, a graduate of Baylor University, arranged the verses of Isaac Watt’s hymn to an old Appalachian Folk melody that is becoming increasingly popular.

Con. Let me close with a poem by Vicky Beeching. She is a young contemporary English, musician, poet and worship leader. She now lives and records in Nashville. Some years ago, she wrote a poem that is especially appropriate as a conclusion to this message

O precious sight, my Savior stands,

Dying for me with outstretched hands.

O precious sight, I love to gaze,

Remembering salvation’s day,

Remembering salvation’s day.

Though my eyes linger on this scene,

May passing time and years not steal

The power with which it impacts me,

The freshness of its mystery,

The freshness of its mystery.

Behold the God-man crucified,

The perfect sinless sacrifice.

As blood ran down those nails and wood,

History was split in two, yes,

History was split in two.

Behold the empty wooden tree,

His body gone, alive and free.

We sing with everlasting joy,

For sin and death have been destroyed, yes,

Sin and death have been destroyed.

May I never lose the wonder,

The wonder of the cross.

May I see it like the first time

Standing as a sinner lost,

Undone by mercy and left speechless,

Watching wide eyed at the cost.

May I never lose the wonder,

The wonder of the cross.

Vicky Beeching (A young contemporary English, musician, poet and worship leader. She now lives and records in Nashville.)

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