Nature with open volume stands: Isaac Watts

Bible Study

Nature with open volume stands: Isaac Watts

Bible Study by David Wright

This hymn starts with the praise of God as Creator.

Verse 1 is reminiscent of many of the Psalms, which were the main form of praise in Watts’ youth. Every aspect of nature reflects God; this verse speaks to everyone – even urbanised people like me, who can still see the sky and who so often long for the country. Verse 1 is not sufficient in itself as a hymn of praise, therefore verse 2 starts significantly with the word ‘but’.

Watts was, in his time, a revolutionary influence on worship. The Psalms only spoke of a Messiah: they could not praise Jesus Christ as God. Watts speaks directly of ‘the grace that rescued man’ (2:1), a key concept in Paul’s epistles. The message of the cross is summed up (3:4) as power, wisdom and love – a reflection of Paul’s phrase ‘Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:24). The hymn was originally entitled Wonders of the Cross.

Watts’ original verse 4 read:

Here I behold his inmost heart,
where grace and vengeance strangely join,
piercing his son with sharpest smart,
to make the purchased pleasures mine.

This verse has been deleted from some hymnbooks, but the image of vengeance is not of an arbitrary and unpredictable God, but of righteous condemnation of sin. ‘Vengeance is mine . . .saith the Lord’ comes in the New Testament (Romans 12:19). And we need to reflect on God’s judgement if we are to understand his grace in Christ. Line 4 of this verse probably refers to Romans 8:32 ‘He that spared not his own son . . . how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’

We cannot fully grasp the meaning of the crucifixion: Watts aptly reminds us of this in the phrases ‘grace and vengeance strangely join’, and the ‘sweet wonders of the Cross’ (4:1). But we can recognise that his Spirit – and ours – draws ‘noblest life’ (4:3-4) from the cross. And so the hymn moves forward (verse 5) to think of praising and worshipping God for ever.

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