And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven (Colossians 1:18-20).
Well this hymn is it, my absolute most favorite hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Like many of the hymns in my heart I first it as a child at Highland Park Baptist Church but I did not come to love it so dearly until my twenties while attending Calvary Baptist Church, Kingston, Tennessee. There, the hymn was often used as a congressional hymn. I would close and eyes and take in every word building to the last verse which should put every Christian under conviction. It has been said that When I Survey the Wondrous Cross is the most popular hymn in the English language and has been published in Protestant, Catholic and Mormon hymnals. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross was the first English hymn to use first person (“I”) and one of the first to veer from repeating of the Psalms.
As I listen to the first verse I am humbled to remember that Christ suffered and died on the cross of Calvary for me. The verse reveals how anything we have should be considered nothing compared to Christ’s act of love on the cross. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ (Phil 3:7-8). The second follows that theme, reflecting Galatians 6:14, in that we should boast in nothing other than Christ’s sacrifice. But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
In the third verse we are shown intimately the suffering of Christ on the cross but also shown that in His suffering Christ’s love for sinners was manifested. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Pet 2:21-24).
The last verse, and most powerful hymn verse in the English language in my opinion, repeats the themes expressed in the first three versions but with an emphasis on you and me; that such a sacrifice by Christ deserves our all given to him in return. And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Mark 8:34).
Christ is worthy of my praise, of your praise. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing (Rev 5:11-11).
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross was written by Isaac Watts in 1707. The music used in most hymnals today is an arrangement of HAMBURG, a tune adapted from an old Gregorian Chant by the prominent 19th-century American music educator, Lowell Mason, in 1824. You can read about the hymn’s history here.
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 God!
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?
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.
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.
[The fourth verse has been omitted from most hymnals since around 1750.]
Bible source: King James Version of the Holy Bible