“He Done Good”
Isaac Watts, who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s, was a short man. My friend Rob Speer and I occasionally commiserate with each other about the fact that we are both, well, shall we say, somewhat vertically challenged. But Isaac was really small — less than five feet tall; actually, about four foot eight inches. He had contracted smallpox as a young child, and it stunted his growth. And he was considered quite ugly. His head was normal sized and it looked like a giant balloon attached to his little body. His face was pock marked, and he had a long, hooked nose.
Yet, in spite of all these handicaps, “he done good,” as the older folks used to say, becoming one of the best known and most popular preachers of his day. As a youth, he was an amazing student. And, boy, could Watts write! As an adult, he wrote books of science, books of mathematics, books of logic, books of philosophy, books of religion, and interestingly enough for one so analytically minded, books of poetry. On one occasion, a young lady fell in love with him through his writings and asked to meet him. When he saw her, he immediately fell in love with her and proposed marriage. However, having seen him, she declined as politely as she could, saying something about wishing that she could appreciate the casket as much as the jewel.
Although he never did marry, Watts loved children. Beset by a weak physical constitution, he rarely preached two Sundays in a row, but the congregation hired an assistant and kept Isaac on. Once, when he became ill, one of the members, Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London, invited Watts to take a vacation and recuperate at his estate in Stoke Newington. Isaac spent the rest of his life there and took a special interest in the education of the Abneys’ two daughters. He put together a book of poems especially for children entitled Divine and Moral Songs.
One of his favorite themes for these poems was the evidence for the existence of God as seen in the works of nature.
I sing the mighty power of God That made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad And built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at his command And all the stars obey.
- I sing the goodness of the Lord That filled the earth with food,
That formed the creatures with His word And then pronounced them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed Where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey the ground I tread Or gaze upon the sky.
- There’s not a plant or flower below But makes Thy glory known;
The clouds arise and tempests blow By order from Thy throne,
While all that borrows life from Thee Is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that man can be, Thou, God, art present there.
Isaac Watts came from a very religious home. His father, Enoch Watts, was a deacon in the local Independent or Non-Conformist church and was imprisoned several times by the local Anglican authorities when Isaac was young for being a heretic. Isaac seemed a born poet, rhyming nearly everything he said. Once when Isaac was a boy his father started to whip him for his rhyming speech and he replied, “Oh father, please, some pity take and I will no more rhyming make.” Some time later, when he was still a young man, Isaac complained at the Sunday afternoon dinner table about the lamentable state of the singing in the Non-Conformist churches, claiming that the pedantic renderings of the Psalms were less than inspiring. Enoch angrily challenged him, “Give us something better, young man.”
That is exactly what he did. Young Isaac spent the afternoon writing his first “hymn of human composure,” beginning, “Behold the glories of the Lamb.” It was introduced to the congregation during the evening service (some sources say the following Sunday morning), and everyone loved it. He went on to write hundreds of hymns, such as “When I Can Read My Title Clear” and “Am I A Soldier of the Cross?” among others, and a book of Psalm paraphrases entitled The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The latter includes such favorites as “Joy to the World” and “How Shall the Young Secure Their Hearts.”
One of Watts’s favorite themes in these hymns for adults was the enormity of mankind’s sin against God as contrasted to the great love and grace of the Lord demonstrated in providing redemption for sin through the death of Jesus Christ.
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss And pour contempt on all my pride.
- Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ, my Lord;
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.
- 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?
- Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.
However, Watts wrote not only about the “heavy” theme of sin and redemption but also about the joy of living for Christ here and hoping to live with Him in eternity. Some of his fellow Non-Conformists, accustomed as they had been to singing only the Psalms, many of which had become increasingly somber through the years, did not like Watts’s new hymns and would not use them. In one of his more famous hymns, he took a little dig at them. See if you can find it as you read about letting “our joy be known” and “marching through Immanuel’s ground To fairer world’s on high.”
Come we that love the Lord And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord And thus surround the throne.
- Let those refuse to sing Who never knew our God,
But children of the heavenly King May speak their joys abroad.
- The hill of Zion yields A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavenly fields Or walk the golden streets.
- Then let our songs abound And every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground To fairer worlds on high.
Time would fail me to tell of “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed” or “There Is a Land of Pure Delight” or “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” or “The Lord, My Shepherd Is” or “I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord.” But there is no doubt about the influence that Isaac Watts has had upon the hymns that we sing. Yep, “he done good!”