I’ve found that no matter what life throws at me, music softens the blow. Bryce Anderson
So now, we come to our first hymn in our collection written by Isaac Watts, acclaimed by many as the Father of English Hymnody. As we mentioned in our introduction, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote over eight hundred hymns throughout his lifetime, but it just wasn’t the volume of hymns written that impresses us, but it is the uniqueness of his lyric writing that has given Watts his unequaled place in church history. You see, in Watts’ day, the Church was singing only the written words of the Psalms. And while you and I today might see nothing strange with that, it’s only because we have grown up in a church culture that has long had the liberty to compose a “new song,” written in the language of the common man…an idea first conceived in the mind of the great music reformer, Isaac Watts!
One historian calls the music of Isaac Watts “the hymns of human composure.” This means that Watts wrote his lyrics in simple meter, using a rhythmic style that the everyday man or woman could easily sing and to which any church organist could easily adapt any simple melody to. And then, there were the words themselves. In today’s hymn for example, Jesus Shall Reign Where-er The Sun, first published in 1719, Watts took the biblical text of King David’s Psalm 72, reworked its’ themes using a New Testament perspective, while using powerful lyrics that flowed from Watts’ biblically-sound, yet very creative imagination! As one music historian, writing for hymnary.org, states it:
(Watts) interprets (Psalm 72) using a Christological lens. The king referenced in the psalm is Christ, and could be no one else. Watts understood that the Old Testament best makes sense in light of the New, and vice versa. There are many different stories in the Bible, but they are all part of the one great Story.
Originally written in eight full stanzas and embracing the entirety of Psalm 72, here’s five verses most of us in churches still sing today:
Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun,
Doth His successive journeys run;
His Kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
To Him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown His head;
His Name like sweet perfume shall rise,
With every morning sacrifice.
People and realms of every tongue,
Dwell on His love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim,
Their early blessings on His Name.
Blessings abound where e’er He reigns:
The prisoner leaps to lose his chains,
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blest.
Let every creature rise and bring,
Peculiar honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud Amen.
This last stanza of Watt’s hymn, which refers to every creature rising up and bringing their “peculiar honors to our King,” is made much more meaningful when we better understand the specific “peculiar” (or unique) gift given by God to Isaac Watts. Apparently this amazingly gifted songwriter of 800+ hymns, was a lover of words from a very early age and was constantly speaking to people in rhyme. Music historian, Albert Edward Bailey, tells of one childhood account where Watts’ love of speaking in prose got him into a bit of trouble with his oft-impatient school-master father. As Bailey writes it:
(Watts’) precocity showed itself in insatiable reading, and in versifying in season and out. His conversation was so annoyingly metrical that after various prohibitions against rhyming, his father started to (discipline) him, where-upon the rhymester cried out through his tears:
O father, do some pity take,
And I will no more verses make.
Thank goodness that young Isaac Watts didn’t follow through on those promises made under great duress to his earthly father, and he continued throughout his lifetime to use his very “peculiar” and unique gift of prose to compose some of the most memorable hymns in church history!
My prayer: Father God, my desire is to embrace my unique and “peculiar” gift that You’ve given me, and like Isaac Watts, use it to bring glory and honor to the precious name of Jesus Christ, the King. In and for Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So what “peculiar” gift has been granted to me? How might I invest that gift, through the empowerment of the Spirit, for the greater glory of God?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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