HYMN FOR EPIPHANY 4 The Beatitudes
Updated: Jan 29
Text: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) Tune: There are many/see below
1 Bless'd are the humble souls, who see Their ignorance and poverty: Treasures of grace to them are giv’n, And crowns of joy laid up in heav’n. 2 Bless'd are the men of broken heart, Who mourn for sin with inward smart; For them divine compassion flows, A healing balm for all their woes. 3 Bless'd are the meek, who stand afar From rage and passion, noise and war: God will secure their peaceful state, And plead their cause against the great. 4 Bless'd are the souls who thirst for grace Hunger and long for righteousness: They shall be well supplied and fed With living streams and living bread. 5 Bless'd are the men, whose hearts still move And melt with sympathy and love; They shall themselves from God obtain Like sympathy and love again. 6 Bless'd are the pure, whose hearts are clean From the defiling pow'r of sin: With endless pleasure they shall see A God of spotless purity. 7 Bless'd are the men of peaceful life, Who quench the coals of growing strife; They shall be call'd the heirs of bliss, The sons of God, the God of peace. 8 Bless'd are the suff’rers who partake Of pain and shame for Jesus’ sake: Their souls shall triumph in the Lord; Glory and joy are their reward.
The Beatitudes are supremely rich and beautiful to hear, but fairly difficult to preach. Maybe it is simply too much to cover the breadth of all eight in one sermon. It is almost as if the Lord is pouring the good news and its blessing over us from a river filled to overflowing. Maybe more like one at a time to savor small sips from this gusher. Books by the hundreds have been written on them, a twenty-minute sermon will barely scratch the surface.
I like the present tense of Jesus' words. He is not saying go out and strive to be peacemakers, or mourners, or meek. He says that those who fit that description are indeed blessed. We can look around and see people who do fulfill those virtues and ascribe to them the blessings Jesus announces as he begins his great Sermon on the Mount. And in his list he is giving us a list of the kind of virtues he values in his kingdom.
Then, I cringe. Lord, have I been any of these things? Can you bless me if I haven’t? Maybe this is of the devil—to turn these rich words into condemnations? Especially of ourselves.
Isaac Watts does a nice job with the beatitudes in this now forgotten hymn. He doesn’t use Jesus’ pronouns, blessed are you, but describes the one who is meek and what he or she receives from the Lord. Those “who see/Their ignorance and poverty: Treasures of grace to them are giv’n, And crowns of joy laid up in heav’n.” What Watts does is give us more concrete examples of what is means to receive the ”kingdom of heaven.” It is an old rhetorical convention—to make clear by adding, or elaborating, on a theme. Feel these blessings pour down from our Lord. He comes with blessings for all his children and these beatitudes show us how faithful Christians live.
Watts, the son of a Non-conformist minister, was very bright but could not attend Oxford or Cambridge because Non-conformists were outside the established church. Watts did very well for himself at the schools for such students, and became a distinguished scholar of rhetoric, a poet, and reformer of English hymnody which ever since has borne his stamp—economical, and without any bumps. Furthermore, he rebelled against the Calvinist rigors of exact paraphrases of the Psalms, thinking that many of those he sang as a boy were rough hewn and to some extent not Christian because they were not informed by the New Testament.
This did not keep him from using the psalter as a source. His great hymn “O God our help in ages past,” is a peerless paraphrase of Psalm 90. He did what all innovators do—used what he had grown up with, mastered it, and then expanded what the form could say.
It is still true today that when a young person is asked to write a song, they use some form of the ballad stanzas—this one in Long Measure LM (eight syllables per line)—that Watts used for so many of his hymns. Even today, one can feel him on one’s shoulder tsk tsking if you have composed an inelegant line. As an English classicist, he sought to make his seemingly simple lyrics as economical, graceful and clear as possible. Those who follow him will hear those bumps in their own verse because they have been so well schooled by Watts without even knowing it.
An interesting book Hymns Unbidden argues that both William Blake and Emily Dickinsen learned from Watts how to write their poems as they whiled away the long sermons of their day by reading Watts in their hymnals. I have no doubt that is true.
In these libertine days when forms and strictures are regarded as keeping us from the truth, I would challenge the young to master these forms so they can effectively communicate with those around them the “endless pleasures they will see/A God of spotless purity.” Something to be longed for, yea hungered and thirsted after for righteousness’ sake.
Watts’ hymns are so many that we do not have their stories; he just wrote and wrote. As he lived, his health declined and he was taken in by friends who took care of him for many years. This is a metrical paraphrase like those encouraged by the Calvinists, except only for the Psalms, not the Gospels. It first appeared in Watts’ collection Hymns and Sacred Songs in 1709 with these eight stanzas. It can be sung to most any LM tune. It has not remained as popular as his greatest hymns such as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," but it is a worthy piece. This hymn is not very well known today, but there are hundreds of hymns on the Beatitudes as you will see below, including my version.
Graham Kendrick https://youtu.be/tWm2TpiqRUc