Hymns of the Cross: When I Survey

Isaac Watts is the author of two of the most widely known hymns of the cross. Since my favorite, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed,” was the subject of a very good article by Ryan Martin at Religious Affections, I will be content to encourage you to read that there.

The other, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” often falls prey, I fear, to the obscurity in plain sight those things which seem overly familiar to us tend to suffer. If you were slightly disappointed upon seeing the title of this post…well, case in point.

But poems that are widely known are often so known because they simply are so good. I think you’ll agree that any text about which Charles Wesley allegedly said he’d rather have written it than all his own hymns likely bears up under re-examination.

Additionally, this hymn illustrates a very good reason to be cautious when omitting stanzas from a song (or tacking on additional stanzas or choruses, for that matter). Note here how an idea or image from the last line of each stanza is echoed or used as a point of departure in the first line of the next; for instance, “…all my pride” in stanza one is followed by “Forbid…that I should boast” in the second, and so on.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

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.

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.

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?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

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

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