When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Crucifixion to the world, by the cross of Christ, Gal. 6:14
Isaac Watts, 1707
Addressed to one another, to God, and to ourselves
When I survey the wondrous crossNum. 21:8–9; John 19:18; Heb. 12:2
   on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,Phil. 3:7–8; Heb. 11:26
   and pour contempt on all my pride.Rom. 3:27; 1 Cor. 1:29
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,Gal. 6:14
   save in the death of Christ my God:1 Cor. 1:18
all the vain things that charm me most,
   I sacrifice them to his blood.Rom. 13:14; 1 Pet. 1:14–19
See, from his head, his hands, his feet,Ps. 22:16; John 20:25
   sorrow and love flow mingled down:Is. 53:3–4; Matt. 26:28; John 19:34
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,Ps. 85:10; Lam. 1:12; Rom. 5:8
   or thorns compose so rich a crown?Matt. 27:29
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
   that were a present far too small;Ps. 50:9
love so amazing, so divine,
   demands my soul, my life, my all.Rom. 12:1–2; 1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Pet. 2:24

Clearly, to call a cross “wondrous” is to use a figure of speech since there’s nothing especially wondrous about beams of wood. But the sorrow and love revealed in the gospel are so vast that, to communicate, we sometimes need a figure. We reduce stupendous facts of justice, wisdom, guilt, and grace to a manageable symbol, like the cross. This Paul does often (e.g., Eph. 2:16; Col. 2:14). Literary theorists call it metonymy when we substitute one word for another closely associated with it, as when we contrast clergy with the people “in the pews,” or when Thomas Carlyle (writing about Schiller) claimed that youth is to all the “glad season” of life. It is nobody’s intent to suggest that Christians dwell in pews or that periods of time can have emotions. It’s just that, on one hand, the estate of the laity and, on the other, the hopes of the young are hard to summarize literally.

The hymn before us has long been prized as one of the very best, chiefly for the way it helps us to do something we all long to do but feel inept at: express proper awe at the dark elements of Christ’s redeeming work. The apostle himself calls the gift “inexpressible” (2 Cor. 9:15). The metonymy of the cross is effective because, while beams of wood are not in themselves wondrous, instruments of torture and execution are. Both justice and its opposite, injustice, provoke fear. But when it’s the Prince of glory who’s tortured and executed the wonder multiplies. We don’t merely “see” it or “consider” it. Watt’s genius is evident in his choice of the verb “survey”—something we do before the likes of the Grand Canyon or the slums of Mexico City or the wreckage of a tornado.

The poetry of the first stanza is perfect. Its train of thought traces an impressive arc: after line 2 clarifies what makes the cross wondrous, the ironic ascent from “cross” (line 1) to “Prince of glory” (line 2) gets mirrored conceptually in the bitter descent from “richest gain” (line 3) to “contempt” (line 4). The four rhyming words are those most fraught with meaning (cross, died, loss, pride). The p sounds of line 4 sound unmistakably contemptuous.

Watts imitates Paul (Phil. 3) in measuring the enormity of the cross by comparing it to “my richest gain.” Of course, the comparison is unnerving. That upon which God “poured contempt” at Calvary was infinitely precious—his only begotten Son, who, though he knew no sin, was made sin for our sake—whereas the “things that charm me most” are “vain.” If he so hates sin, we can, too.

Ultimately, no comparison is tenable (stanza 3); never did “such love and sorrow meet”; never did “thorns compose so rich a crown.” The shape of stanza 3 inverts the shape of the arc described in stanza 1, for now we begin with a downward flow, from head to hands to feet, and end with an upward glance at the crown. In their meeting and mingling, sorrow and love “cross” at the midpoint of the stanza: sorrow–love–love–sorrow (stanza 3, lines 2–3). The figures of speech accumulate and build to a climax, reached in stanza 4. Given that the value of God’s sacrifice, to him and to us, surpasses the value of the world itself, how could we respond in any way other than total devotion to his glory and service?

The stark simplicity of the American tune HAMBURG well communicates mortification of pride.[1] Moving always by step, never by leap, it humbly traverses just five notes of the scale, never rising above “fa.” Both its repetitive rhythm and its repetitive form (ABAB') change only in measure 14 to signal the end of each thought: “contempt” in stanza 1, “sacrifice” in stanza 2, “thorns compose” in stanza 3, and “demands my soul” in stanza 4. Earlier, in measures 5–6, we sang a rising step (from “the” to “Prince”) for positive words like “Prince,” “love,” and “present”; now we sing a descending step (from “con-“ to “-tempt”) for these concluding words of surrender.


[1] For this text, the British have an outstanding tune in ROCKINGHAM OLD. It’s a good match. We’re happy for them—and for us, for we get to sing both tunes. The Trinity Hymnal uses ROCKINGHAM OLD for “To God My Earnest Voice I Raise,” where the match between melody and words is arguably even closer.