The Cross and Isaac Watts

Beautiful sunset as man bows down to pray God before a cross.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. – Philippians 2:8

Even as a child, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) liked to make rhymes. Once when scolded by his father for making rhymes in ordinary conversation, he responded, “Oh, father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.” But Isaac continued to write poems.

As an older teenager, he complained about the ponderous psalms the church was singing. His exasperated father told Isaac that if he was dissatisfied he should write something better. So he did. For the next two years the young Watts wrote a new hymn every week.

Issac Watts had much to complain about. He was only five feet tall, and his big head made his body look even smaller. He had a long, hooked nose. And he was sickly from his teenage years, when smallpox nearly killed him.

One woman fell in love with his poetry and wanted to marry him. Watts proposed to her, but his physical appearance caused her to reject him. One source says, “Though she loved the jewel, she could not admire the case which contained it.” He remained a bachelor all his life.

For his last thirty-six years he was an invalid, preaching only occasionally as his health would permit. But he wrote hymns continually, hymns of praise to God “for all our comforts here, and better hopes above.” As Isaac Watts knew so well, when we give praise to God, our personal concerns are put into proper perspective.

Few believers ever learn to truly love the cross of Christ. For though it offers great deliverance, it also demands great sacrifice. Isaac Watts drives this truth home through the words and music of one of his most powerful hymns of his day which has remained a classic in the church. It’s called, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Here is verse 1:

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the prince of glory died.
My riches gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Listen to the full hymn here

The music of the hymn was borrowed from Gregorian chant. Its rich, grave tones call those who sing it to realize the seriousness of Christ’s sacrificial death. What shall we offer to God in grateful return for His gracious gifts? All that we are and have is but a small offering in return for such a great love.*

And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:2


*William J. Peterson and Randy Peterson, “The One Year Book of Hymns.” Tyndale House Publisher, 1993. (January 20, February 8, March 5).

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