Come, We That Love the Lord

Heavenly Joy on Earth
Isaac Watts, 1707
Addressed to one another
Come, we that love the Lord,Ps. 40:16
   and let our joys be known;Neh. 12:43; Ps. 4:7; Rom. 14:17
join in a song with sweet accord,Is. 52:9; Ps. 133:1–2
   and thus surround the throne.Rev. 14:3
Let those refuse to singIs. 38:18
   that never knew our God;Ex. 5:2
but children of the heav’nly KingRom. 8:15; Mark 10:14
   may speak their joys abroad.Matt. 28:19
The men of grace have found
   glory begun below;Ps. 19:1; 2 Cor. 3:18
celestial fruits on earthly groundGal. 5:22–23; Eccl. 3:10–13
   from faith and hope may grow.Rom. 5:1–2
The hill of Zion yieldsPs. 48:2; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:29–30
   a thousand sacred sweets,Ps. 16:11
before we reach the heav’nly fields
   or walk the golden streets.Rev. 21:21
Then let our songs abound,Ps. 98:4; Eph. 5:19
   and ev’ry tear be dry;Ps. 116:8; Is. 35:10
we’re marching through Immanuel’s groundCol. 2:15
   to fairer worlds on high.1 Cor. 13:12

Two lines from Watts’ original second stanza (omitted on poetic grounds from most modern hymnals) sum up the thesis of this hymn nicely: “Religion never was designed / to make our pleasures less.” This thesis is opposed by the escapist theology which has at times dominated evangelicalism and which created the popular revivalist chorus often forced to append this hymn. But though the last stanza may allude to “fairer worlds on high,” the hymn is clearly dedicated to “glory begun below” (stanza 3, line 2). If joyless orthodoxy or loathing of this life are diseases found sometimes among evangelicals, this hymn points to their cure.

The first two stanzas make distinction between God’s people and those “that never knew our God.” The first group, and your congregation among them, are to sing for joy. The first stanza has the congregant ascend to the heavenly hosts by means of his song—notice the “thus” of the stanza’s last line—and this is not the only taste of heaven we get in the hymn. But the next stanza has the second group (the children of the world) refuse to sing. Whether or not they have something to sing about is not our business here. Their defiance is to be expected; Christians who similarly refuse have to ask themselves why.

The first two stanzas are a preface, but the third and fourth get to the heart of Watts’s argument. Other stanzas, now omitted, define concretely some of the “celestial fruits” about which Watts writes, but even without them we have a good sense of his meaning because they grow “from faith and hope.” By faith, we know that whatever we endure in this life is for our good. We may hope that God is remaking us in his image, even though that transformation is less clear now than it will be. And in the meanwhile, we have the consolation of His word and His glory in general revelation. These goods are not worldly goods. They are celestial. We enjoy them here because God grows them up even in our worldly habitation as earnest for his people. The fourth stanza casts the image of the holy city set upon a hill, around which nevertheless we find some of the same “sweets” that grow up at the hilltop. But perhaps most important of all is the last stanza. Key to understanding the hymn is the “through” of its third line. We are not marching through enemy territory with hope that we will someday find our captain. We are already on Immanuel’s ground, with fairer land therein yet to come. It is true that “we’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion” but on our way we are treated to “celestial fruit” and “sacred sweets.” What else would we expect to find growing in “Immanuel’s ground”?

Short meter (two lines of six, one of eight, and one of six) is born out of poulter’s meter—a meter C. S. Lewis called “terrible.” But the child here is better than the parent and Watts uses it well. A quick scan of the stanzas above will find relentless iambs, almost metronomic in their precision, with two meaningful exceptions. The third line of the first stanza begins with a trochee (the first foot of the line inverts the prevailing unstressed–stressed pattern). The musical reader will apprehend why. The rhythm turns, for a moment, into a dance in three as we “join in a song.” We march along with iambs for two lines and on the third release to a waltz. The only other interruption to the iambs, found in stanza 3, line 2, makes the word “glory” pop out of the line like a starburst.

ST. THOMAS is a useful short-meter tune, and especially when wed to this text. The challenge to any tune in so common a meter is to be distinctive. This one is so through its cadence structure which is very unusual (indeed, among short-meter tunes in the Trinity Hymnal it is unique). All cadences but the last one are half cadences (that is, ones that pause on the dominant rather than on the tonic). This means that the tune’s tension is established, unlike most short-meter tunes, in the very first clause and sustained through the second and third only to be released at the very end of the tune. To get a sense for how this works, the reader can sing through the hymn one line of text at a time with long pauses between each line. It will be obvious how each of the first three melodic units leaves us hanging. Functionally, this means that the last line of each stanza is heavily emphasized by the tune. And it is this last line in each stanza which needs emphasis in this poem for, unlike many short-meter poems, Watts saves his climactic language for the last short line instead of the eight-syllable penultimate one. The tune makes the last lines, and by them the rest of each stanza, memorable to the congregation so that they can take it with them to sing on their way “to fairer worlds on high.”