Water for the Thirsty
Weekly Devotional

Water for the Thirsty

Isaac Watts

Weekly Devotional

‘As the deer pants for streams of water so my soul pants for you, O God’. (Psalm 42:1)
‘…Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink”…’ (John 7:37)

11th July 2010

Isaac Watts was born in 1674 which was a troubled time in England. Dissenters (those who refused to conform to the established church) were not only denied access to suitable employment and the universities; they were liable to prosecution and imprisonment for no greater "crime" than persisting in worshipping God according to their conscience.

Young Isaac had learned Latin by age four, Greek at nine, French at eleven, and Hebrew at thirteen. A physician recognized the boy's intellectual gifts and offered to finance his education at either Oxford or Cambridge. But regardless of his brilliance Watts would be admitted to either university only if he were willing to renounce Dissent and conform to Anglicanism. He wasn't willing. He would never surrender conviction to expediency. As a result he went to a Dissenting Academy, the post-secondary institution for those barred from the universities.

Upon leaving the Academy, he wrote his first hymn, “Behold the Glories of the Lamb”. The writing of his first hymn was significant in view of the fact that hymns weren't sung in English churches. While German Lutherans had been singing hymns for over 100 years, Calvinists in Switzerland and France had not. The Calvinists disdained hymns as unscriptural and popish. Calvin had wanted his people to sing only the psalms of Scripture.

English Protestants of Calvinist persuasion had adopted the practice of singing only metrical psalms in worship. The texts were often ludicrous, the mood was ponderous, the tone of the entire service dreary, and one day Watts discovered he couldn't endure any of it a minute longer. Returning from the service one Sunday morning he complained vehemently to his father about the psalm-singing that put people off worship.

“Why don't you write a hymn suitable for congregational singing?” his father responded.

Isaac duly obliged.

In his lifetime Watts wrote some 600 hymns including “Jesus Shall Reign”, “Our God our Help in Ages Past”, and “Joy to the World”.

Not everyone thanked Watts for his efforts. Some of his contemporaries complained that his hymns were “too worldly” for the church. One critic fumed, “Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and have taken in Watts’ flights of fancy!” His hymns outraged many people, split congregations, and got pastors fired. Worship wars have a long history!

Yet by the age of 50 he was a national figure, esteemed by Anglicans and Dissenters alike. John Wesley had long acknowledged the genius; discipline and piety of Watts, and when Wesley came to publish his first hymn book, one-third of its hymns were Isaac’s.

My personal favourite of Watts’ hymns is “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” and is considered one of the finest hymns ever written.

It's the first known hymn to be written in the first person, introducing a personal religious experience rather than limiting itself to doctrine.

Yet in Watts’ day it was one of those hymns termed a “hymn of human composure” which stirred up great controversy. But this hymn gave Christians of Watts’ day a way to express a deeply personal gratitude to their Saviour.

Despite the controversy of the day, this well-loved song continues to stir our hearts today.

Charles Wesley even went so far as saying “he would give up all his other hymns to have written this one.”

What are some of the lessons we can learn from the life of Issac Watts?

Here are a few:

  • By deciding not to go to Oxford or Cambridge he showed that he was a man of conviction who wouldn’t give up his beliefs for the sake of worldly glory;
  • By writing his first hymn in response to his father’s prompting he showed that when the church had a need he was willing to serve rather than expect someone else to do it; and
  • By continuing to write hymns throughout his life he showed that he wouldn’t be put off serving God by those who didn’t approve of his style of worship.

And as a result he has left a marvellous legacy to the Christian church.

Have a good week surveying what legacy you will leave the Church of God.

Pastor Barry

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