When I Survey The Wondrous Cross
March 21, 2019
This beautiful hymn was written by Isaac Watts, the “Father of English Hymnody,” for communion. Of the hundreds of hymns Watts composed, this is one of his most beloved texts.
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.
To survey something is more than to simply look at it. When we survey something we appraise it – we measure its value. How can we possibly put a value on the cross? Philippians 3:7-8 says, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Rubbish – that’s the value of our pride and vanities in light of the cross. The cross is wondrous. An instrument used for torture and death wondrously became God’s instrument for saving humankind. (Albert Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns)
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.
This verse is inspired by Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Worldly things lose their charm and should be left behind in light of Christ’s sacrifice.
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?
In John 19:34 we read, “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” This brutal and revolting image described by John becomes a beautiful image in Watts’ hymn – a mixture of love and sorrow. The last phrase of this verse reminds us that the thorns on Jesus’ head are costlier and more precious than the jewels of any earthly crown.
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.
The word amazing has certainly been overused in our culture. When Watts used it, it was a brand-new word meaning “astounding, astonishing, wonderful, great beyond expectation.” (Oxford Dictionary) We cannot “pay back” God for Christ’s amazing sacrifice on the cross. Instead, the conclusion of this great hymn reminds us of the words of Paul in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”
Sylvia Trimmier – FLPC Organist