When I Survey
We recently posted a video of ‘When I survey’ on my YouTube channel – thank you so much if you have been watching it. I felt prompted to research this incredible hymn that continues to resonate so deeply with us more than 300 years after it was written.
Apparently, when it was first sung in 1707, it caused some controversy because it was the first hymn to address God in the first person. What seems to us now to be so natural and heartfelt – ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my Lord’ – was apparently shocking at the time. We could argue that in addressing God in this way, Isaac Watts impacted the writing of all sung worship ever since.
Though the song was met by many with eyebrows raised, Watts’ brother, Enoch, encouraged him by saying, “There is a great need of a piece as vigorous and lively as yours, to quicken and revive the dying devotion of the age to which nothing can afford such assistance as poetry… Yours is the old truth, stripped of its ragged ornaments, and appears younger by ages in a new and fashionable address.” It is interesting to know this should be included in any list of songs that have changed the direction of worship over the years.
The tune I am singing on this version is known as ‘Rockingham’, written by Edward Miller. Interestingly, Miller was destined to be a stone mason like his father, but ran away from home to pursue music (that age-old tale!), and became a flautist in Handel’s orchestra.
I discovered there is actually another verse to the song (which was originally sung as the fourth verse of five) which is often omitted, a practice begun by George Whitefield in 1757. The verse reads:
His dying crimson, like a robe, spreads o’er His body on the tree
Then I am dead to all the globe and all the globe is dead to me
As someone who aspires to write modern hymns, there are some lyrics that, for me, stand as the benchmark for inspired excellence. If I had to name my ‘top three’, I would include ‘Before the throne of God above’ (lyrics by Charitie Lees Bancroft), Stuart Townend’s lyrics for ‘In Christ alone’ and thirdly, ‘When I survey’, with the astounding poetic beauty of 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?
Easter is fast approaching and, like many of you, no doubt, as a worship leader I will soon be considering which songs we will sing on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. So many of our Easter songs gladly give us ‘the whole story’ – Christ rising on the third day in His incredible victory over death. These truths we will declare with great celebration on Easter Sunday morning.
But on Good Friday we may want to be more reflective as we consider the cost of the cross, the suffering Servant paying such a great price on our behalf. On such an occasion, songs like ‘How deep the Father’s love’ and ‘When I survey’ serve us so well. They lift our eyes to our Saviour and draw us to our only reasonable response – ‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’