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4 When I survey

1 AprilWhen I survey the wondrous cross with Pat Willson; summary awaiting proof checking.  Listen again via Spalding Baptist

Introduced by Frances Ballantyne, Pat thanked Frances for her talk on I stand amazed which, she said, she’s never heard before; a really powerful hymn.  Pat said that this week’s choice would have been sung by everyone, probably many times.

In the 2013 BBC Songs of Praise nationwide survey, How great thou art had topped the polls, In Christ alone came second and her choice for this series of Lent Talks, When I survey the wondrous cross had come in at number 18 in the list of favourite hymns.  It was written by Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) and it was published in Hymns and Spiritual Songs in 1707; he was the first son of a family of the dissenting tradition.  English dissenters or separatists were protestant Christians who had separated from the Church of England in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.  Dissenters, non-conformists or free churchmen were any English protestant who did not conform to the doctrines or practices of the established Church of England.  Though his training in Greek, Latin and Hebrew would have allowed him the opportunity to become an Anglican priest, Isaac chose to become the pastor of a dissenting congregation.  According to his own words, his life-long ambition was to be a servant to churches and a helper to Christians.  Dr Watts won the hearts of a large share of the English-speaking world over a long period of years despite the fact that as a child he was never strong and despite the fact that he was forced to resign a pastorate because of poor health.  For his latter years he was more or less an invalid but devoted himself in comfortable and happy surroundings to the writing of many beautiful hymns.  It was in fact an age of great hymn writers; Watts was a contemporary of Doddridge, the Wesleys, Newton and Cooper.  He wrote in a format of theology that is well suited for congregational singing.  He believed that hymns should echo the theme of the sermon and insisted that songs in the church should be amply evangelical and not just additives to the Psalms.  He thought that hymns should be freely composed and not just hold to the letter of scripture and that hymns should give straightforward expression to the thoughts and feelings of the singers and not merely record events in the distant past.  In fact Watts played a vital role in the evolution and creativity of hymnody as we know it today.  The majestic phrases of the deeply solemn hymn When I survey the wondrous cross are as moving today as when Watts penned them in 1707.

The hymn has been set to more than one tune but perhaps the most popular is that of Edward Miller who wrote the music in 1790, some 42 years after Watts’ death.  Watts is credited with writing up to some 600 hymns, however, looking through a list of some of them the only other one Pat recognised was Jesus shall reign where’eer the sun so it doesn’t seem as though the others caught on.  When I survey might was perhaps almost a ‘one-hit wonder’ – but, Pat said, nonetheless what a great hit.  She described When I survey as a majestic hymn has often been called the greatest hymn in the English language.  A contemporary of Isaac Watts said of it there may a few others equally great, but there is none greater.  All one needs to do to realise the truth of this statement is to sing this majestic hymn.

Let’s take a closer look at those words.  The first line, in fact the first three words When I survey, Pat noted, were not just ‘When I look at’, which would have fitted in, but survey, a much stronger idea.  The dictionary definition of survey reads to look at something as a whole, to measure it, to judge, a general or comprehensive view of something, to examine in detail, casting of eyes or mind over something.  So suggesting we are to look at the cross with our mind’s eye, using our imagination to a deep, meaningful and in a profound way.  And what sort of cross are we to imagine?  What do we see in our mind’s eye when we sing those words?  A bare, simple wooden cross as in the background there?  Perhaps an ornate ornamental cross as there are in many churches?  A simple palm cross, perhaps?  Or maybe a small cross on a chain such as many people wear, often touching without even realising it and sometimes holding on to?  Perhaps a crucifix with a figure of Christ on it?  Whatever type of cross or crucifix, the words of the hymn say it is a wondrous cross.  Wondrous – a poetic form of the word wonderful, defined as meaning marvellous, remarkable, surprising and unusually good or exceeding what was expected.  Jesus rising from the dead was certainly exceeding what the disciples were expecting.  As Jesus died on the cross, the hopes of the disciples must have died too, as they watched in fear and disbelief.

When Pat was in Bristol on Good Friday, we held a service part of which was the veneration of the cross and people were to come forward one by one and kiss a large crucifix.  This was something Pat had not seen before or experienced and she wasn’t at all sure about it, kissing a wooden object but it was explained to her that it was a gesture of respect to all the cross represented, the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.

The next line My richest gain I count but loss.  Is that meant to mean the richest gain in the material sense, a large house or monetary riches, a good job, a respected and prominent position.  Others might count this richest gain to be their friends, their families, perhaps their faith.  Pat wondered if the listener could just reflect for a few moments on what you might count to be the richest gain in your own life.  In truth, can we really count that thing we count as our richest gain as nothing but loss?

Then the hymn moves on in the same vein: I pour contempt on all my pride; what is true humility?  Not ‘I’m a really humble person’ or ‘I’m proud to be humble’.  Our speaker remembered from years ago a poster which said ‘I used to be conceited but now I’m perfect’.  Real humility is the thing to be seeking after, the servant heart that Jesus demonstrated.  As William Temple put it, ‘Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts, it means freedom from thinking about yourself at all’.  Do we ever go very long without thinking about ourselves?  And this humility is spelt out in the words of the next verse.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God.  In fact the whole hymn is based on those words based on a verse from Galatians 614   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.  The original title of the hymn was Crucifixion to the world by the cross of Christ.

Then the words of the hymn move on to All the vain things that charm me most; vain things are things we may hanker after.  I remember reading of a businessman who hankered after having his own yacht moored at the local marina and finally he achieved his dream and proudly invited all his friends and colleagues to a party on his yacht to show it off.  But, as he proudly stood on the deck and looked around, he was dismayed to find that his yacht was in fact the smallest one moored there.  His achievement had a hollow ring to it.

The dictionary definition of vain is unsubstantial, empty, of no effect and vain things come in many guises, activities that occupy and waste time.  Yes, it’s good to spend time relaxing watching TV or playing computer or video games, but sometimes these things can take over, even become addictive.  Perhaps too much vanity in our appearance, spending too long in front of a mirror.  That’s not something I actually like to do these days because there’s always that old woman looking back at me.  Pat saw a T-shirt on holiday which read ‘Appearances are important – always remember to wear a smile’.

The next verse paints a powerful picture: See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.  Remember how Jesus saw his mother at the foot of the cross and the disciple he loved standing nearby.  As he was dying, Jesus had that love and concern for his mother but also he had that great love for each one of us, love mingled with sorrow.  Described as a Man of sorrows in the Servant Song in Isaiah – but Pat’s own feeling that Jesus’ love for her also has sorrow.  Pat’s own experience is the reality that love.  Pat experienced it in a hospital bed and felt cocooned in warmth and love and she know that was before she became a Christian and that day she became a Christian because she knew the reality of that love.  And then he’s also got sorrow for me, for each one of us.  He’s filled with love and compassion when we weep, he weeps with us.  A couple of weeks ago, Robert mentioned the Footprints verse, being carried during our most difficult times and I hope that’s an experience we can all share here knowing that we are carried in our difficult times.

In the last line of this verse, Did thorns compose so rich a crown?  If you’ve ever pricked your fingers on a bramble or a thorn, you know how painful that can be.  This crown of thorns pushed roughly onto Jesus, not just to cause more pain but also as a mockery.  So Jesus gave up his crown in heaven for a crown of thorns.  Jesus was and is a king and this crown intended as mockery was actually an excellent symbol of who and what Jesus came to accomplish.

Originally to the hymn there was a fourth verse which goes:
His dying crimson like a rose spreads all his body on the tree
And I am dead to all the glow and all the glow is dead to me

Again, a powerful image but over time it has come to be omitted; Pat wondered if that was because that was too graphic an image - of dying crimson being blood.

And now the last verse in its entirety:
Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all

Once, after this hymn had been sung in the church of St Edmund in London, a priest, Fr Ignatius, repeated the last two lines of the hymn and he added, ‘Well, I’m surprised to hear you sing that; do you know that all together, you put only 15s in the collection plate this morning?’  Originally, the word was ‘present’, not offering’ but present doesn’t mean as much as offering.  Offering means so much more, offering in worship, offering in sacrifice, offering devotion.  My soul, my life, my all – these three pledges are the climax of the hymn are a sacrifice that once had only been required from those taking monastic vows.  Going back to a story of William Temple in 1931 at the end of the Oxford Mission where he lead a congregation in the university church of St Mary the Virgin in the singing of the hymn When I survey, he stopped the congregation just before the last stanza and asked them to read the words for themselves.  ‘Now,’ he said, ‘if you mean them with all your heart, sing as loud as you can; if you don’t mean them at all, keep silent.  If you mean them, even a little and want to mean them more, sing them very softly.’  The organ played and two thousand voices whispered; for many who participated, it was a never to be forgotten experience.


It’s a wonderful hymn; so let’s spend some time reflecting on the hymn.  Anything that may have spoken to you this evening or simply to give thanks to Jesus for all that he has done for us on that wondrous cross, let’s pray

The version of When I survey played at the close was from the album Journey into the Morn by Iona; see also their YouTube page