Saturday, May 21, 2011

Isaac Watts: My Soul, My Life, My All

I want to tell you today about a great man. He was a great not because he was big and strong because he wasn’t. He was 5 feet tall and had a big head. He was sickly most of his life. He could barely carry out his duties when he was 30 yrs old, and yet he has impacted the world.
He wasn’t a great man because he was smart. But he was very smart. He wrote books used as textbooks at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale.
He wasn’t a great man because of his family, but he came from strong and brave stock. His grandfather was the captain of a British warship in the mid 1600s; his father was a teacher and a deacon in a dissenting church during a time when England was persecuting the dissenters. His mother’s grandfather was a leader of the French Huguenots who were run out of France because of their faith.
No this man was great because he trusted in a Great God at an early age, and shared his faith with the world. I’m talking about Isaac Watts. 

He has been called the Reformer that Christians know by heart…but not by name.

     Now why should we know about this man? Well he is the father of English hymns, he influences hymn writers to this day, AND we sing a number of his songs in church.  So who was this man?
Let me set the stage for the world Isaac Watts lived in. 
Just 10 years before he was born the plague came to Southampton and decimated it. Many who could afford it fled to London and other larger areas. The poor were left with very few shops and industry and no real economy. Then there was the English persecution of the dissenters. Those who believed they should be free to worship as they see the Bible teaches. These were Baptist, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and later the Methodists.
Isaac’s own father a Congregationalist, was jailed several times for his beliefs. It was on his release from jail the first time that he married a young lady that very day. But then one year later when young Isaac was born, the father couldn’t be there because he had been locked up again. During this time many Christians died from malnutrition and disease that was rampant in these nasty prisons. His father was released the following year and slowly was able to start up his school again.
He started teaching young Isaac Latin at 4 years old. He began writing in Latin at 6, at 9 his father started teaching him Greek. That was also the year that he had smallpox!
But the next year he began to tackle French. Most English didn’t learn French in those days, but there were many French descendants, like his mother, in the area and he thought it was a good idea. Then at 13 he learned Hebrew.
     He was so bright that a wealthy Doctor volunteered to pay for his education at Oxford or Cambridge. But to do so, Isaac would have to renounce his family’s Dissenting ways, and pledge full faithfulness to the Anglican Church. Isaac couldn’t do that. So he went to a less prestigious academy established for dissenters. He graduated there at 20 and returned home for two years before he found a teaching position. It was during those two years, when Isaac wrote the bulk of his hymns. He was incredibly prolific.
     This whole hymn-writing hobby of his had an interesting start. The English of his day didn’t sing hymns. The Germans had for 100 years, but all they sang in England were psalms set to a rather somber and difficult meter.
One day Isaac was complaining after their church service that these songs are too cold and dark. The preaching at that time was sound biblical teaching by men with some good education in the Bible. But to him the songs didn’t seem to fit. So his father said. Why don’t you write something suitable for our congregation for this evening?
Some have said this was a sort of challenge, like someone saying, “If you think you can do better go ahead!” I think his dad knew he was up to the job.
     When Isaac was 6 years old he wrote a poem and showed his mom and she couldn’t believe he really wrote it.  So he went and wrote another, this time he used his own name.
I am a vile, polluted lump of earth
 So I’ve continued ever since my birth
   Although Jehovah, grace doth daily give me
     As sure this monster, Satan, will deceive me
       Come therefore lord from Satan’s claw relieve me.
           Wash me in thy blood, o Christ
             And grace divine impart
               Then search and try the corners of my heart
                 That I in all things may be fit to do
                   Service to thee and thy praise too.
He continued to write verses and poems, so one day his father says, “Isaac, you write a hymn.”
 More about that later but there are some other things you should know about this great man.  
Being strong in his faith, being the son of a teacher and having received a degree to teach and be a minister, he had some strong beliefs. One of which was, if you are going to try to love the Lord with all your mind you need to be a good thinker. He was influenced by the Empiricist philosophers of the day and took to science and philosophy very well. This was the movement that taught that knowledge came from empirical evidence that you could see and measure. It’s the basis of modern science. And because of this emphasis he became known as a great thinker. He wrote a book called Logic that was used as a text for many generations at Oxford, Cambridge, and even Harvard and Yale, it went thru 20 editions. He wrote about Metaphysics, he wrote the first book of verses for children, and it went thru 100 editions! He published a major work on astronomy and wrote catechisms for little children to learn about Jesus.
But it’s his hymns that made him famous. In spite of the influence of Watts by philosophy, Isaac Watts knew there was another source for knowledge than just observation. The other source? The Word of God received by faith.
     Among his great writings in Philosophy, Astronomy, and Logic, he wrote hymns like these:
Alas and did my saviour bleed
All hail the power of jesus name
am i a soldier of the cross
christ the lord is risen today
come ye that love the lord
Oh god our help in ages past
when i can read my title clear
jesus shall reign wheree’re the sun
joy to the world
when i survey the wondrous cross.
In America a printer by the name of Benjamin Franklin printed his hymnbooks. Nobody seems to know exactly how many he wrote. One man says 697, another over 700, another 750. But among his less famous ones are a couple that looked interesting:
That last title suggests something. Isaac Watts wasn’t just a man given over to the passion of Objective Thinking and Logic and Objective Theological statements. He was also the subjective experiential lover of Christ and man of faith.
Think about two of His greatest hymns for a second.
First, Joy to the World. Because of the tune that we sing it to this is one of the most joyful hymns but it’s also one of the most doctrinal! It’s all written in the third person. Listen:
From the text in Luke 2:10 I bring you good tidings of great joy.” Isaac Watts writes:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
But compare that to the next song, it’s all written in first person. Joy to the world is made up of objective truths about God. And he wrote many songs like that. But he also wrote songs like this: WHEN I SURVEY: 
From Gal 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. Isaac Watts made it very personal and wrote:
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

There is anguish here.
Anguish for sins committed.
Anguish for a life spent on self.
Anguish for the inadequacy of what we have to offer.
Anguish because God’s Holiness demands a price we can never pay.
Anguish because of the price our Lord, who loves us so much, paid on our behalf.
That leaves only one action. All the logic in the world can’t dispute that Jesus deserves our souls, our lives, our all.
     Does Jesus have your all today? Does He?


  1. Great post! If anyone asks me about great hymns and where to find 'em, I will say, "Watts in your hymnal!"

    Love the name acronym he made at age six!

  2. Thanks Eddie, I enjoy writing things like this. Its a little long for a blog, but great for a 35 minute sermon.


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