HYMN 17 When I Survey The Wondrous Cross
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: Lowell Mason (1792-1872)
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
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
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
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