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The hymn that we know as “When I survey the wondrous cross” by Isaac Watts (1674–1748) was originally published in 1707 as a communion hymn, appearing in the third part of Watts’ Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with the title “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ” and a sub-title reference to Galatians 6:14.[1]

What follows is a sort of lectio-divina meditation on this hymn, which has been described as “arguably the most moving, and even perhaps the greatest of the hymns of Christendom.”[2]

Stanza 1

When I survey the wond’rous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory dy’d,
My richest Gain I count but Loss,
And pour Contempt on all my Pride.

The hymn begins with an unusual word: “Survey”—not “behold” nor “perceive,” but “survey.” At first glance, it appears a somewhat formal and cold word. But, in the Oxford English Dictionary “survey” is defined thus: “To take a broad general, or comprehensive view of; to view or examine in its whole extent—to consider or contemplate as a whole.”[3] In asking us, therefore, to “survey” the cross Watts is urging us not to be content with a brief and hasty glance at the crucifixion of Christ, but to look at the full extent of the significance of the cross—for rightly viewed, it is a place of wonders.

The second line originally was “Where the young Prince of Glory dy’d.” Watts changed the original line to the present one when it was pointed out to him that the New Testament puts no particular emphasis on the age of Christ at his death. It is worth remembering that when the hymn was first published Watts himself was a young man of thirty-one. It may have been this that brought home to him the fact that the Prince of glory laid down his life in the bloom and vigour of his manhood.[4] The title “Prince of Glory” that Watts gives to Christ is drawn from 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Christ is described as the “Lord of glory” and where the phrase “of glory” indicates Christ’s natural right to glory.[5]

Lines 3-4 of this stanza are obviously taken from Philippians 3:7–9. In the light of the cross Paul saw that he had to write off as sheer loss his own righteousness. It simply was not good enough for God. Instead, he had to humble himself and accept by faith God’s gift of righteousness in Christ crucified.[6] A serious, prolonged reflection on the cross leaves no room for spiritual pride. Properly viewed, the cross leads to a tremendous humbling. 

Stanza 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 to his blood.

This second stanza brings us back to the theme verse that Watts assigned to this hymn: Galatians 6:14. When Paul penned these words, he did so as one whose standards of value had been turned upside down—the world he knew, like Watts’ world and our world, boasted in many things, pursued many things, was charmed by many things. In the light of the cross, however, their value is either negated or minimized. “The cross enables us to sort out our priorities and rethink our scale of values.”[7]

Watts’ high Christology in this stanza is especially noteworthy. Who is Christ? He is “my God.” Watts wrote these words in a day when the intellectual and theological climate increasingly regarded the doctrine of Christ’s deity with suspicion and the doctrine of the Trinity was under heavy attack.[8] In this way, the hymn is a means of apologetic response to the intellectual currents of the day and a way of inculcating doctrine in the hearts of the faithful.

But these words also serve to highlight the wonder and amazement that should be ours as we think about the cross. That the sinless Son of God was willing to die in order to break the power of this vain world over the human soul—should this not cause profound wonder and awe at the love of Christ and of the One who sent him into this world to save sinners?

Stanza 3

See from his Head, his Hands, his Feet,
Sorrow and Love flow mingled down;
Did e’re such Love and Sorrow meet,
Or Thorns compose so rich a Crown?

As we look at the cross steadily—as we survey it—we see the supreme revelation of God’s heart of love for sinners. “See, from his head, his hands, his feet”—it is blood that flowed—but the one who “surveys” the cross properly sees “sorrow and love.” Sorrow—Christ’s sorrow in his death (see Isaiah 53:3); love—his love for us (see Romans 5:8). “Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?” Watts’ rhetorical question clearly expects a “no” for an answer.

Again, Watts looks at the crown of thorns, and sees not the cruel wreath of thorns but a glittering crown encircling Christ’s brow. What is the cross to the one who views it aright but a revelation of the kingship of Christ over sin and the world, over death and the devil.

One might be inclined to argue that the flowing wounds in this third stanza and the robe of crimson in the fourth are not meant to be visualized, that they are conventional Christian images, not intended to startle or to bother the mind’s eye. The injunction to “See” and the vividly pictorial quality of the images indicate otherwise.[9] Yet, Watts’ stress does not linger on the visual—the last two lines of stanza 3 pose rhetorical questions that are focused at the heart.[10]

Stanza 4

His dying crimson, like a Robe,
Spreads o’re his Body on the Tree,
Then am I dead to all the Globe,
And all the Globe is dead to me.

Ever since 1757 this fourth stanza has been omitted.[11] One can see why. The picture of Jesus bathed in his blood which, “like a robe spreads o’er his body on the tree,” is so striking and startling as to be almost revolting.  But plainly Watts intends it to be so. He wants to shock and disturb us, to jolt us out of any complacency and make us see in the crucifixion of Jesus the fearful and horrible thing it is.[12]

When Paul wrote Galatians 6:14, crucifixion was considered so horrible, so loathsome that the Latin word crux (“cross”) was considered unmentionable in polite Roman society. Even when a person was being condemned to death by crucifixion the sentence used an archaic formula which served as a sort of euphemism: arbori infelici suspendito, “hang him on the unlucky tree.”  Similarly, the Greek word for “cross,” stauros, inspired comparable dread and disgust.[13] Evidently Watts is seeking to recapture something of that shock with the first two lines of this stanza.

Lines 3-4 are a further reference to the theme verse, Galatians 6:14. The importance of the conjunction “then” should not be overlooked. If we “survey” the cross properly, it radically alters our relationship to the world. We who embrace the cross and make it our boast become alienated from the world—its evil and corruption, its empty pomp and show, its false values and standards.[14]

Again, note, as in stanza 3, Watts begins with a vivid picture that he wants us to visualize—the physical violence of the crucifixion—but this is not where he wants us to remain. He wants us to see the horror of the crucifixion—but to go beyond it to its meaning: for the stress in lines 3–4 falls on our death to the world.[15]

Stanza 5

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.

This stanza well depicts what lies at the heart of Watts’ evangelicalism—the cross. But notice, he views the cross against the vastness of this world, surrounded by the vast distances of the universe. Watts regularly gives his hymns a cosmic background.[16] By the early eighteenth century, the scientific revolution that shattered the mediaeval earth-centred universe was complete—through the work of scientists like Nicolaus Copernicus (1475–1543), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and above all, Isaac Newton (1642–1727). The universe was seen to be much vaster than had been hitherto thought. Watts was deeply impressed by this.  In his hymns there is a great sense of “the spaciousness of nature, of the vastness of time.”[17] It is this cosmic outlook that lies behind and informs this first line of the final stanza.[18]

This vast universe—were it even within Watts’ purview to give—would not be a gift large enough to repay God for what he has given us through the cross. What Watts does have, though, is his soul—what he is—and his life—what he does—and his all—what he has. God’s total and amazing love demands his total and awe-filled surrender.[19] The very same point is made in the final stanza of “Alas! And Did My Saviour Bleed?”:

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.

Finally, we see in this last stanza the keynote of worship: wonder at God’s amazing love and desire for intimacy with men and women.[20]


[1] For a critical edition of this hymn and the version used in this essay, see Selma L. Bishop, Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spiritual Songs 1707–1748: A Study in Early Eighteenth Century Language Changes (London: Faith Press, 1962), 353.

[2] Peter Newman Brooks Hymns as Homilies (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1997), 58.

[3] Cited Donald Davie, The Eighteenth-Century Hymn in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 40.

[4] Frank Colquhoun, Hymns That Live (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980), 78. Colquhoun’s reflection on this hymn has been both a model and of immense help in this essay.

[5] Benjamin B. Warfield, Lord of Glory (1907, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 223–224.

[6]  Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 78–79.

[7] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 79.

[8] Sadly, some of Watts’ later writings on the Trinity reveal a degree of confusion on what is the most important of Christian doctrines.

[9] Madeleine Forell Marshall and Janet Todd, English Congregational Hymns in the Eighteenth Century (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1982), 45.

[10] Marshall and Todd, English Congregational Hymns, 45–46. Note Watts’ poetic devices or inclinations: his first line well exemplifies his fondness for piling up words or phrases. See Bernard Lord Manning, The Hymns of Wesley and Watts (London: Epworth Press, 1942), 96.

[11] See Davie, Eighteenth-Century Hymn, 40, for the date.

[12] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 81.

[13] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 271.

[14] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 81.

[15] Marshall and Todd, English Congregational Hymns, 45–46.

[16] Manning, Hymns of Wesley and Watts, 83.

[17] Manning, Hymns of Wesley and Watts, 83.

[18] Manning, Hymns of Wesley and Watts, 83, 97–98.

[19] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 82.

[20] Gordon Rupp, Six Makers of English Religion 1500–1700 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957), 118