Jesus Shall Reign

Christ’s kingdom among the Gentiles
Isaac Watts, 1719
Based on Psalm 72
Addressed to one another and then all creation
Jesus shall reign where’er the sunPs. 72:5; Is. 59:19
does his successive journeys run;Ps. 72:8; 2:8; Dan. 7:14
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,Ex. 23:31; Zech. 9:10
till moons shall wax and wane no more.Ps. 72:7; Jer. 33:19–26; Rev. 21:23
To him shall endless prayer be made,Ps. 72:15; 1 Thess. 5:17
and praises throng to crown his head;
his name, like sweet perfume, shall rise2 Chr. 2:4; Song 1:3; Mal. 1:11; John 14:13
with every morning sacrifice.Ps. 5:3
People and realms of every tonguePs. 72:17; 113:3; Phil. 2:11
dwell on his love with sweetest song;2 Chron. 5:13
and infant voices shall proclaimPs. 8:2; Matt. 21:15–16
their early blessings on his name.
Blessings abound where’er he reigns;Ps. 72:16
the pris’ner leaps to lose his chains,Ps. 107:14; 116:16; Is. 52:2
the weary find eternal rest,Matt. 11:28; Rev. 14:13
and all the sons of want are blest.Ps. 72:12–14
Let every creature rise and bringPs. 72:19; 150:6; Rev. 5:13
peculiar honors to our King;
angels descend with songs again,John 1:51
and earth repeat the loud amen!Ps. 41:13

In Old English, the word sceal means “must.” From it we receive one sense of our word “shall.” When thus used, “shall” was once rendered “shalt” (as in “thou shalt not”). In this use, the modal verb expresses not future tense but obligation. A related meaning of “shall,” appearing in legal documents, is as a promise imputed to the subject of the sentence (as in contracts which read “the seller shall assume all costs”). In this usage, the modal verb “shall” is in the future tense, though of a very peculiar sort. From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, many grammarians taught a complicated rule, now universally abandoned: that to express future tense one says “shall” with the pronouns I and we and says “will” with everything else, whereas to express necessity or determination one exchanges these words, saying “will” with I and we and saying “shall” with everything else.[1] By simply pointing out the intensifying function of the word “shall” in the poem above, any pastor can bring this great missionary hymn to life for his congregation.

The first stanza begins by telling us what must happen. For if we think of the “shall” there as mere future tense, we think unbiblically. Christ’s kingdom already stretches from shore to shore and his reign literally must continue. Without it the world is naught. But the stanza ends by treating the word “shall” as a promise. Christ promises to reign over this world until it no longer exists (implied by st. 1, ln. 4). The second stanza returns to the “must” sense of the word because even now endless prayer is made to Christ by saints and angels on earth and heaven. Praises are here personified and, as if to outstrip their own human or angelic agents, run disembodied to crown Christ as king.

The third and fourth stanzas for the most part leave off the modal verb and talk, not about what must happen or what is promised to happen, but about what does happen (the one exception is st. 3, lns. 3–4). The gospel has spread to people of every tongue and they raise songs as a way of thinking about the nature of God’s love. It is this love that transitions the hymn into the fourth stanza, for there the effects of Christ’s loving reign are expressed in terms of liberty, rest, and contentment. Where Christ is King, the subjects are no longer imprisoned, weary, or wanting.

The last stanza, however, speaks not about what must happen, nor what is promised to happen, nor even what does happen. It commands something to happen—namely praise. This is necessary because of the difference between the reign of Christ now and the reign of Christ at the time when the angels will “descend with songs again.” In that day, “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Then He will no longer reign over a mix of partly constrained rebels and dutiful subjects, but over universally submissive creatures—some completely restrained in the “chains” of unwilling worship, others glorified so that they can worship as they’ve wished. In that day, the loud amen will signal the hour when what is promised to happen becomes what does happen and what does happen will be what must happen.

The often-used tune DUKE STREET finds its proper partner in this hymn text where felicitous coincidences of melodic and verbal ideas occur in every stanza. The first phrase quickly ascends an octave as we sing about Christ’s reign, about uplifted prayers, abounding blessings, and rising creatures. The ascending line makes sense in all instances, but as it turns back down, from D to A and then retraces its steps further back, almost to where it began, one can hardly fail to see text painting in the first stanza. The “successive journeys” of the sun take exactly the same shape as this tune does. The most acrobatic phrase of the tune occurs as we sing phrases like “stretch from shore to shore” (just as the melody stretches in its range very quickly) and “voices shall proclaim” (with voices doing the most work they’ve done thus far). The melody’s climax, a high D held for three beats, sets words like “wax” (as applied to the moon) and “morning.”


[1] Consider the subtle difference in meaning between “shall” in English translations of Psalm 23:1 (The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want) and “will” three verses later (Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil). Though there may be no basis in the Hebrew for the distinction, countless English speakers have felt the intensity of the first-person “will.” The sheep decides not to fear. For an example in the third person, consider the famous words of Isaiah 7:14. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The first sentence refers to a future event. The second is a prophecy.