Hymn Guide: When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

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“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is one of the first hymns written in the English language; three hundred years later, it remains one of the finest. Isaac Watts composed and published the text in his groundbreaking 1707 work, Hymns & Spiritual Songs. Because of the emphasis on the cross, it is especially fitting for the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14th), the season of Lent, and Good Friday. Watts also designated it specifically as a communion hymn, sung to humble the heart in preparation for the Eucharist.

The hymn is sung to multiple tunes in long meter, especially Rockingham in England, Hamburg in America, and sometimes O Waly WalyMorte Christe, Eucharist, or Job. That it works across so many tunes underscores the spare power of the text.

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Verse by Verse

Taken at a literal level, “the wondrous cross” is a highly paradoxical idea. A cross is an instrument of suffering and death, fear and shame. We ought to look on it with loathing. And yet, through the sacrifice of Christ, the very “Prince of glory,” the cross has become “wondrous,” capable of inspiring admiration, gratitude, and love. It confounds our categories.

Verse 1

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.

In its first publication, Watts noted that this hymn was inspired by 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.” Everything we have or accomplish pales in comparison to the surpassing glory of Christ giving himself to us through the cross. Watts introduces the idea at the end of the first verse and develops it in the second.

Verse 2

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 through his blood.

Note the repetition of the personal pronoun, the subjective “I,” that makes this hymn deeply personal. This reflects a stylistic borrowing from the Psalms, which are also deeply personal, many of which are also written in the first person. It’s no mistake that Watts was also a master of psalm-writing, and he wrote in a time when most parish churches sang metrical settings of the psalms.

Verse 3

The third verse exhorts us to contemplate more deeply what we see on the cross. At first glance, we see a broken body with poured-out blood. But the sorrow of this suffering is not the only story. We also see an image of love mingled with sorrow, a sacrifice made on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus fulfills his own teaching from John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

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?

Verse 4

Watts originally wrote a fourth verse, which is rarely sung today:

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

There are two reasons we should consider restoring this verse to the hymn. First, the depiction of Jesus’ blood as a crimson robe rightly situates Jesus’ blood as a kingly vestment and draws attention to the royal status we share when we receive the blood of Christ. Second, this verse cites the second half of Galatians 6:14, completing the thought from the second verse and showing how little the world means in comparison to the surpassing glory of participating in Christ.

Verse 5

The final verse begins as a kind of personal response to the gift of Christ’s cross but then recognizes that there is no fully adequate response. This gift of love is “so amazing” and “so divine” that the only proper answer is the return of the whole self in submission and worship of God.

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.

On Video

The first video is sung by the choir of men and boys at King’s College, Cambridge. It is set to Rockingham, the traditional English tune. The second video, sung with guitar by American Anglican singer Wendell Kimbrough, is set to O Waly Waly. This video includes a lesson for anyone who wants to learn how to play this tune on the guitar.


Photo by Alicia Quan on Unsplash.

Published on

September 13, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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