Happy third Sunday in Lent!
Isaac Watts wrote this hymn in preparation for a communion service in 1707 and it may well be the first hymn in English to be written in the first person.
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God:
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Watts starts, not with a casual look or a cursory glance, but with a survey of the cross. This steady gaze leads him to the realisation that those things that previously held his attention—his richest gain and the things that charmed him most—utterly pale in comparison.
The second stanza calls to mind Galatians 6:14, a connection made more strongly in a verse that fell out of use (see the link to Hymnary.org below).
In the third stanza, Watts sees in the flow of physical blood a flow of love (towards us sinners) and sorrow (at the abandonment by the Father). The stanza ends with an upending of the crown of thorns—rather than a sign of mockery, it becomes an object of wonder.
The last stanza is a study in paradox. The whole realm of nature is vast, but it’s too small of an offering to make to God. His point of course, isn’t a scientific one but a theological one: the only proper response to such an amazingly wondrous love is wholehearted surrender.