Lenten Hymns and Their Story

March 06, 2023

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

When Isaac Watts [1674-1748] published his many hymns, he divided them into three sections: 1] hymns that paraphrased texts of Scripture, 2] hymns of human composition on divine subjects, and 3] hymns “for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  Both Scriptural citation, Galatians 6:4, and the title “Crucifixion to the World by the cross of Christ,” clearly mark “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” as a hymn of the Lord’s Passion, and one would expect to find it to be placed in the second section.  However, he included it with the hymns concerning the Lord’s Supper.
Having composed and published much poetry for private devotional contemplation, Watts recognized that his hymnody was written for congregational singing.  For this reason, in the second edition of the book, he wrote that much of his writing may be too poetic to be sung in a congregational setting.  How incorrect he was, as the church over the years has been happy that he submitted his work nonetheless, for publication.   
This hymn opens by announcing a single activity: the poet will “survey the wondrous cross.”  To “survey” implies a comprehensive evaluation of the whole.   At the heart of this “survey”, and at the heart of this hymn, stands the great paradox: the theology of the cross.  That which the world hates becomes our font of praise. 
This hymn is divided into two main sections.  The first two verses offer a poetic paraphrase of Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” 
The next section, the poet offers a deeper, closer inspection of the cross only to experience a higher, more comprehensive reevaluation on the world.  The writer moves from the particulars of Christ’s body to the whole body and from the world to the particulars of our life in this world.
Beginning at Christ’s head, the writer’s gaze flows downward over the crucified body, finding within Christ’s flowing blood both God’s sorrow over sin and His merciful love toward sinners.  Recognizing that Christ’s death is Christ’s reign of love, the writer returns his gaze to Christ’s head, only to see it is richly crowned in thorns.  
All this is why the writer has the congregation sing this love as being “so amazing, so divine.”

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.

LSB 425

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