For This Week: Teaching with Hymns

“Born July 17, 1674, Isaac Watts entered a deeply troubled Britain. . .” 

And so begins Douglas Bond’s wonderful profile of “the Father of English hymnody” – Isaac Watts.  This week in morning worship we will sing Watts’ well-known hymn “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place.”   If you and your family would like to know more about Isaac Watts and the inspiration behind this particular hymn, read on for an article including several excerpts from Douglas Bond’s masterful work “The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts.”

“Disease and disaster were not the only afflictions on Britain at the time of Watts’ birth (1674).  The nation was still struggling through massive, interrelated religious and political upheavals.  Earlier in the century, Roman Catholic-friendly Stuart monarchs had begun to assert their divine right and to rule as absolutists over both state and church.  Puritans and Separatists who were able fled to the American colonies for religious freedom” (Bond  1-2)

This was a time of great struggle for those who wanted real reform and biblical worship within the English church and to enforce the lawful limits of authority over tyrannical kings.  This led to a bitter and bloody civil war fought between Parliament and Charles I of England with Parliament emerging victorious and beginning to implement meaningful reforms.  It was during the height of the war, in fact, that the monumental Westminster Confession of Faith was compiled in London. 

After the reinstatement of the monarchy, the sons of King Charles I (Charles II and James II) both began to introduce practices within the church that were objectionable to Puritans. They also began to persecute those who would not worship according to their dictates as head of the English Church. 

Bond continues: “For refusing to acknowledge the king as head over the church, and for failing to be licensed to preach by the local bishop, John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned for twelve years, and many other ministers suffered the same fate….When Isaac Watts was born, his father (a deacon in a non-conformist congregation)  was serving a second term in prison for failing to conform to the Anglican church.  His mother, Sarah, would sit on a stone mounting block in front of the prison and nurse the newborn Isaac while talking with her husband through the bars. Sarah, ‘a pious woman, and a woman of taste,’ was the daughter of Alderman Taunton, whose ancestors had escaped, along with many other French Protestants (Huguenots) to Southampton after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. . . The Watts family lived at 41 French Street, surrounded by Huguenot Christians who had suffered persecution for generations” (Bond  2-3)

In 1688, the tyrant King James II (second son of King Charles I) was forced from the throne by a Parliament who had begun to fear yet another civil war but refused to bow to either his abuses of power or his attempts to bring unbiblical practices into the church.  This “Glorious” or “Bloodless Revolution” was resolved as King James II abdicated in favor of his Protestant daughter, Mary.  Of course, he was “encouraged” by the large armies controlled by Mary’s husband, the Protestant “Warrior-Prince of the Netherlands,” William.  And so it was that, in Isaac Watts’ 15th year, William and Mary came to the throne of England, vowing to protect the rights of non-conforming Protestants to worship outside the Anglican church.

Now worshiping freely in the Nonconformist Chapel in Southampton, it’s easy to understand this young man’s unshakable commitment to the truths of God’s Word.  In addition, Watts showed early aptitude for poetry and would begin to use that gift for the benefit of the church.  At just 16 years old, he penned his first hymn, somewhat prophetically containing these words:

Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honors for His name
And songs before unknown.

In the years to come this is exactly what Watts would do  –  “prepare new honors” in song for the glory of God.

After rejecting a full scholarship to the traditional Anglican seminaries at Oxford and Cambridge, Watts worked his way through Newington Academy and began to pastor his first church in London at just 24.   As he worked through the biblical text of his sermon, his poetic mind couldn’t help but be filled with wonder. . . and words.  Many weeks, he composed a hymn to complement the message of God’s Word.  It is likely that How Sweet and Awesome is the Place was inspired by his preparation for a sermon on Luke 14:16 “A man once gave a great banquet an invited many.”

How sweet and awesome is the place
With Christ within the doors
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast
Each of us cry with thankful tongues
“Lord, why was I a guest?”

Douglas Bond writes: “Watts understood that to come and feast with Christ at the Lord’s Supper requires a profound awareness of just how unworthy we are.  He awakens our spiritual imagination in these lines, and we begin to see ourselves entering into the very presence of Christ Himself, a place that is both awe-inspiring and somehow sweet as well.  Laid out before us, ‘everlasting love’ has put on a spread of the richest foods imaginable.  In wonder and anticipation, we pull up our chairs at the table.

Watts’ poetry is seldom far away from singing, and in in the second stanza he has us admiring the feast with songs sung with ‘thankful tongues,’ but then asking ourselves with astonishment, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?’  We might be tempted to ask, ‘What did I do to deserve such rich food and lavish treatment?’  But Watts allows us no self-deluded confusion about how we were brought to this place:

Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room?
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?

By means of this rhetorical question, Watts leads us to the only explanation that can make any gospel sense and be in any degree consistent with the grand message of free grace.  It is a two-pronged question:  First, why was I made to hear and to enter?  Second, why do thousands ‘make a wretched choice/ And rather starve than come?’  That is, why do thousands not hear and enter, but I did?  He answers the question in the next stanza:

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast,
That sweetly drew us in,
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Watts tells us that we were made, that is, enabled to hear Christ’s voice and enabled to enter while there was room.  Christ was the ‘love that spread the feast,’ and it is, indeed a sweet place to be, because Christ “sweetly drew us in.’  Without this sovereign, electing, efficacious love, ‘we had still refused to taste/And perished in our sin.With these sublime lines, Watts adorns such rich, Christ-honoring theology…..and gently hushes those who make the argument that it had to be our free will that made the difference . . . Watts subtly helps us to realize that there is little to sing about if God is not absolutely sovereign over the eternal salvation of sinners.  How ridiculous to imagine writing and singing hymns of praise, not of Christ and the sovereign grace of the gospel, but of the free will of sinners for making not a wretched choice but a very clever one. 

Watts (now) shifts to the universal call of this glorious gospel of free grace, begging God to have pity on the nations and to constrain them to come.  Watts’ prayer appealing to God to do this is itself an acknowledgment that God must sovereignly accomplish the salvation of the nations, that He must do the work of bringing sinners home:

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious word abroad
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full
That all the chosen race
May with one voice and heart and soul
Sing thy redeeming grace.

Watts grounds the sung worship of all Christians, throughout time and eternity, not in their choice, but in God’s choice, for He has stooped down in pity and love to make undeserving sinners members of ‘the chosen race’ “ (Bond  78-82).

If you’d like to know more about this humble Englishman who contributed so much to the church of God, click the link to purchase Douglas Bond’s The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts.