by Isaac Watts, (1674-1748)
Usually sung to the tune “Martydom” by Hugh Wilson (1764-1824)
YouTube recording: http://youtu.be/pOwkhlqehgw
- Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
for sinners such as I?
- Was it for crimes that I have done,
he groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
- Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut its glories in,
when God, the mighty maker, died
for his own creature’s sin.
- Thus might I hide my blushing face
while his dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes to tears.
- But drops of tears can ne’er repay
the debt of love I owe.
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
’tis all that I can do.
Isaac Watts was one of the most prolific English hymn writers with over 750 hymns to his credit and many are still used today. Watts was raised in what was known at the time as a “non-conformist” home. The life threatening aspects of the reformation had largely passed by Watts’ lifetime, however, there was still a considerable amount of social ostracization towards those who did not conform to the official religious prescripts as ordained by the Anglican Church. His father, also named Isaac Watts was incarcerated twice, including the time of Isaac’s birth. Watts attended the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington beginning in 1690 for his university training instead of Oxford or Cambridge. The later would have put him under the authority of the Church of England.
Watts was a brilliant linguist learning Latin at 4, Greek at 9, French at 11, and Hebrew at 13. In his mid-twenties he became the pastor at Mark Lane Independent Church in London. He began to suffer from several periods of illness, which over time led him to relinquish his duties. However, he continued to write hymns, several books about history and faith, and even an introductory book on logic which went to 20 editions. He was a small man with an over sized head and has been described by his contemporaries as “ugly”. His one known marriage proposal was rejected.
One of the more controversial aspects of Watts hymns was his rewriting of the psalms to reflect how he imagined David would have written them if he had lived in 17th century London. Watts wanted to imbue his texts with an immediacy and expressiveness not available in the stilted, unrhymed, unmetered Psalms.
Within the very first stanza of Alas! and Did my Savior Bleed we see the clarity of Watts’ anguish. His Savior had bled and died for such a horrible sinner as himself. Was it his very own sins which put him on the cross? The amazing grace and love, beyond degree which led to such a sacrifice that even the sun hid its face when the Maker died for the Made’s sin. How shameful, I too must hide my face when I see the cross as my heart breaks in thankfulness and I cry tears of grief. But even these tears cannot begin to repay my debt of love so all I can do is: give myself away.
The penitent heart can do nothing else.