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Isaac Watts, a Master Poet

Occasionally I hear someone say, “I don’t appreciate poetry.” When I ask them if they have any favorite songs, most often the answer is, “Yes.” Then I remind them that every song is a poem set to music.

Isaac Watts, a Master Poet

            As a lad Isaac demonstrated a gift for writing poetry.  In fact he often spoke in rhymed verse.  One day his father had heard enough and commanded him to stop.  The boy’s response, “O father, do some pity take, and I will no more verses make.”  Isaac did not conform to the writing style of his day. The church at that time often sang the words of the Psalms in rhymed verse, as in this rendition of Psalm 23:  “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want; He makes me down to lie in pastures green; He leadeth me the quiet waters by.”  Isaac found this boring and complained to his father, who then challenged Isaac to write his own paraphrase of scripture.  Isaac’s verses rhymed, but they were not stilted, stiff and unnatural. You are likely familiar with some of his time-tested songs like “Joy to the World”, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” which is a paraphrase of Psalm 90.       

With a few strokes of the pen, Watts could cover a lot of ground.  “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.” In these brief lines of verse Watts moves from past, to present to final rest.  In God’s eyes, “A thousand years are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night, before the rising sun.” With words the poet pictures the brevity of our lives, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all of us away, we fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.”  Any tension or longing this creates is resolved in his closing lines, and I sometimes take the liberty to change the first words.  Instead of  “Be thou our guide”, I prefer “You are our guide while life shall last, and our eternal home!”  Personally, I find fulfillment as I live in the light and love of God’s continuing presence and, at the same time, keep eternity’s values in view.   

            “Joy to the World” is a song I’ve enjoyed since my childhood days.  Recently I was informed that Watts based his lyrics on Psalm 98. “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music” (vs. 4, NLT).  The admonition, “Let heaven and nature sing” is based on these lines from verses 7-8:  “Let the sea resound, and everything in it.  Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy.”  The final stanza, “He rules the world with truth and grace” reflects these closing lines of the psalm:  “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.”

“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is not a paraphrase of scripture, but it’s an amazing poem that captures the immensity of God’s love in Christ with lines such as “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?”  The author concludes the poem with a climax expressing a response of total commitment:  “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”  One of my students said, “I don’t like poetry.”  I asked him if he has any favorite songs, and he named several.  He was surprised to learn that a song is a poem set to music.  I often quote the following lines from an anonymous poet:  “For the common things we think and say, God gave us speech in the common way; for the higher thoughts we think and feel, he gave the poets thoughts to reveal; and, for the hidden depths words cannot reach, God gave us music, the soul’s own speech.”  I’m thankful that Isaac’s father decided to encourage his son’s writing.  Perhaps there are people you and I know who would benefit from our words of encouragement to share their God-given creative gifts. 

NLT = New Living Translation

Ron Sprunger, Professor emeritus, Ashland Theological Seminary, September 17, 2022


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