Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: Hugh Wilson (1776-1824)
1 Alas, and did my Savior bleed, And did my Sov'reign die? Would He devote that sacred head For such a worm as I? 2 Was it for crimes that I have done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, And love beyond degree! 3 Well might the sun in darkness hide And shut his glories in, When God the mighty Maker died For man the creatures' sin! 4 Thus might I hide my blushing face, While His dear cross appears; Dissolve my heart in thankfulness And melt mine eyes to tears. 5 But drops of grief can ne'er repay The debt of love I owe; Here, Lord, I give myself away, 'Tis all that I can do.
MEDITATION Worm theology! How many sermons have we heard against that? A good plenty. Too many, maybe. It's is a kind of literalism that wearies me.
First of all, Psalm 22, which is on the mind of Jesus as he is dying on the cross, so he cries out in its language, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” If one reads further, one hears the psalmist crying out, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.”
So one worm dying for another? If the Psalmist and Christ can think of themselves as worms, could I?
Secondly, the sermons would always go to creation and how God pronounced creation good. Of course. That is why our sins are so execrable. We have defaced God’s image in us and desecrated the temples we were made to be. Not good.
This may stretch it too far, but a worm, or chrysalis, changes into a butterfly. The butterfly is a symbol for Christ. Like the worm, Christ was without comeliness, Isaiah 53:2, then suddenly he becomes beautiful, like a butterfly at Easter.
Salvation brings us new life, the old worm is dead and the new life emerges beautiful and filled with color. Okay, so most people aren't marinated enough in Scripture to get this. Hymn editors have shrunk from the worm for the past 150 years. "For sinners such as I" is the most common revision. It was what the editors of the Concordia chose and thus what I grew up with.
On reading this hymn again—it has been a long time since I remember singing it in church—I see the scandal of the cross stated vividly and plainly. This isn’t just general sin Jesus is dying for, sin that bad people caused him to suffer for. This is my transgression. “Was it for crimes that I have done/He groaned upon the tree?” Yes. "This is love beyond degree."
Of course, the sun goes dark before this shameful thing—what Christ had to die for. Watts adds a new image—this should embarrass me. I should blush in shame. But all I can do is weep and “give myself away” in other words, shed the old so the new can emerge.
Watts’ hymn brought the writer of the hymn yesterday to faith as it did Fanny Crosby. In 1850 Fanny Crosby went to the altar praying for peace. She wanted the light. It had eluded her several times before. They were singing this hymn. When she got to the phrase, "Here Lord, I give myself way," it came to her. "My very soul was flooded with a celestial light. I sprang to my feet, shouting 'hallelujah' and then for the first time I realized that I had been trying to hold the world in one hand and the Lord in the other."
The song helps me say and then see what Jesus had to do for me and all I can do for him. No wonder it has brought thousands of sinners to the altar, grieved by their sins, their worminess, who have risen up new and recreated, like lovely butterflies.
Once, I taught Vacation Bible School to a group of fourteen year olds in Decorah, beautiful adolescents bursting with their new lives. The VBS text the church provided began by describing what a good group was versus a dysfunctional group, making sure they could spell it properly with a y. I said forget it. Every morning we went to the Whippy Dip, the local ice cream store. I bought them ice cream cones and we would ride out to one of the beautiful parks around the city. Then I would read to them from the story of David.
One gorgeous June morning, the sky blue above us, the trees and fields luscious green, we were sitting at the cut, a concrete sluice outside the city. I was reading about David’s dancing before the Lord. One boy, who was hardly listening, started jumping from one side of the causeway to the other. When David was rebuking Michal who was embarrassed about his dancing with abandon before the serving girls, the boy continued dancing. Shall I not dance before my Lord? Then I looked at the girls. Several monarch butterflies were landing on their ice cream sweetened fingers. Hardly a breath of air moved. The sun shone on their hands and faces. New life all around.
Isaac Watts wrote this around 1707 so it appeared in his collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs. These hymns really broke new ground for the Calvinists. They were not paraphrases of psalms, but hymns. He called this hymn Godly Sorrow arising from the Sufferings of Christ.
The collecton dealt with a variety of biblical texts. Watts used the language of Scripture very faithfully, but went on to say more about his own response to the scriptures in his hymns. This freed up writers like Charles Welsey and many others to do the same and really made it possible for English hymnody to flourish.
It is probably his most famous hymn after "O God our Help in Ages Past" and "When I survey the wondrous cross."
There are two tunes, one a version of a Scottish tune, that Hugh Wilson edited for it. The other by Ralph Hudson is also popular.
Grace Community Church
The Worship Network
Stonebriar Choir and string quartet/lovely arr. By Murphy
Contemporary riffing on Hudson with an added refrain