February 23

Songs for the Lent I: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

Besides pulling old-time gospel songs to the surface, we got another series of optimistic songs about faith. That’s called “Gospel Joy”. Thought it might get confusing over time, but the more I dig into their histories, the better I understand how they’re both a necessity to faith building.

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Majority of hymns are laments. One we cannot miss is the “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Before you watch the embedded video, you might want to get some napkin first.

Fernando Ortega in “ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”

Song’s Anatomy

What’s with this hymn that makes it hard to sing?

It could be the powerful image it painted. Imagine the Suffering Christ beside earthly possessions. Would they not pale in comparison to Jesus’ cross?

Though the content is devotional, it’s heavy on poetic devices. He used an oxymoron, a paradox, and rhetorical questions. Examples are the following:

“My richest gain I count but loss”
“Did e’er such love and sorrow met, or thorns compose so rich a crown?”

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” became known as Isaac Watts’ crowning achievement. First published in “Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1707,” it has outlived three centuries. Today, it’s a staple song for Good Friday. In its entirety, it’s deeply emotional. Watts’ aim may have been to prompt response.

Said to be based on Galatians 6:14, it was originally intended as a communal hymn. The verse was later eliminated from the later versions. The probable reason is to highlight the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and our response to it. Nevertheless, singing this hymn gives us plenty to contemplate for the Lent.

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
(Omitted verse)


The hymn has been set to different melodies. Prominent ones were the Hamburg (Lowell Mason, 1825), Rockingham (Edward Miller, 1780), and the Eucharist (I.B. Woodbury). Most familiar to us was that of Edward Miller. Music critics would say that his Rockingham is one of the finest long-meter tunes ideal for four-part harmony.


gospel, hymn, Isaac Watts, lent

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