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HYMN 17 When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Galatians 6:14

Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Isaac Watts

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

4. 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.

Isaac Watts 1674-1748


Jesus carrying the cross. Titian

The cross is the darkest moment in human history. It is also the most glorious. We

crucify God’s Son, and he turns that death into a victory that will save us. That is a

paradox that horrifies and amazes us. “Sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Sorrow

for how we have treated him and love for us “while we were yet sinners.” How can

this be?

While reading the accounts of Jesus’ passion, I am overwhelmed to see how

everything that is done to get rid of Jesus God uses to bring us salvation. Judas

betrays Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders. He wants a revolution, but

Jesus is not that kind of revolutionary. So Judas betrays him, bringing Jesus to his

death and resurrection. Jesus was leading a revolution of a different kind, one that

would change life for the world forever.

The high priests attack him for saying he is God, just as he is about to prove he is.

The mockers beneath the cross cry out, “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”

But he remains on the cross until “it is finished” so he can save us.

Pilate puts a superscription on the cross, in three languages, giving Jesus the title

King of the Jews, mocking him. And yet, this becomes the first missionary epistle. All

can read the announcement and wonder.

The soldiers hired to keep the disciples from coming to steal the body and lie about

his resurrection ironically see his rising and become witnesses to the resurrection.

The cross baffles us and shocks us even as we run to it for succor. Here is something

we cannot fathom. All of God’s power and wisdom suffer humiliation on the cross in

order to save us. As Paul notes, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are

perishing but for us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

As Watts says, nothing we have not even our own beings—“our all”—can equal

God’s gift. We cannot pay the debt we owe, but we can live in thanksgiving and

praise. He says it much better than I. Even if we owned all creation, “the whole realm

of nature,” we could not pay him back. What he wants is you. He died to make it

possible for us to be in relationship with God. Only through him can we be

reconciled to God and live with him. Give yourself over to the Lord and relish this

new life.


Watts is known as the Father of English hymnody. He took the Calvinist tradition of

paraphrasing the Psalms that had outlived its time and began writing hymns based

on Scripture and about it. His sturdy language and masterful use of the conventions

of English poetic forms became models that taught many English writers like

William Blake and Emily Dickinson to write poetry. Many consider this his greatest

hymn, but there are others we will consider soon. Meanwhile, here are some of the

most thrilling versions of the hymn.

Luther College’s Nordic Choir under the direction of Weston Noble sang this hymn

as a closing anthem. Here we can enjoy it and see Weston at the Crystal Cathedral in

a thrilling performance. Weston used the tune Hamburg by Lowell Mason; the King’s College choir uses Rockingham. Both are well loved.


Nordic Choir/Weston Noble/Hamburg

Festival choirs with Weston/Hamburg

The King’s College Easter Service/Rockingham

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