Monday, January 19, 2009

Alas! And did my Savior bleed?

Praise for the Lord #12

Words: Isaac Watts, 1707
Music: Ralph E. Hudson, 1885

Isaac Watts has deservingly been called the "father of English hymnody", and along with the younger Charles Wesley set the standard for its growth in the 18th century. His texts appear no fewer than two dozen times in Praise for the Lord, making him well worth a separate posting considering his contributions and influence.

It should be noted that the refrain of this hymn is not original to Watts, but was added by the tunewriter, Ralph Erskine Hudson (1843-1901). Hudson followed a similar practice with "Blessed be the name" (PFTL #52), to my mind with considerably more success. The text and musical style of the refrain:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

are not well-suited to the soul-searching gravity of Watt's text, which he titled "Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ".(Watts)

Stanza 1:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Watts engages his subject with the typical directness of a sincere, deep-thinking soul free from pretension as a poet. He is picturing the scene of the crucifixion as if he were an eyewitness observer, much as he did in his other great crucifixion hymn, "When I survey the wondrous cross" (PFTL #742). The essential theme of the hymn is this: the unfathomable fact that our Lord died for us, "the righteous for the unrighteous."(1 Peter 3:18)

Down through history it has been commonplace for the subjects to die for their sovereign. Millions have been sacrificed to the agendas of their leaders, and untold numbers have even bravely given their lives "for king and country". Looking to the realm of man-made religions, countless numbers have gone to their deaths (and still do) to satisfy the supposed demands of their gods. But Christ, the King of Kings, laid down His own life for His subjects. Our God does not demand that our children go and die for Him; instead He gave up His Son so that we and our children could live.

What can we say to this? Watts carries the thought further contrasting the holiness of "that sacred head" with the unrighteousness of those He came to save. Herein enters a line that has caused endless controversy: "for such a worm as I." Many hymnals have made the simple emendation to "for such a one as I", and others use "for sinners such as I." I have heard both good and bad reasons for rejecting Watts's orginal wording. The better reasoning is that "worm" portrays us as worthless and not worth saving, and that since God obviously saw us as worth saving, we ought not to describe ourselves so. This points to the balance of humility and yet self-realization found in Psalm 8: "What is man, that You are mindful of him? ... yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor." A less thoughtful rejection of Watts's text is the modern tendency to simply place self-esteem above all else, which rejects the term "worm" as laughably insulting and not worth consideration--if Watts uses such a term, then he is obviously out of touch and not worth listening to.

In Watts's defense, this term is Biblical. In Job, Bildad introduces it as part of a truism about the vast gulf between God and man: "How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!"(Job 25:4-6) Recognizing that we have to be careful in reading Job, to be sure that we are separating out the human philosophies sometimes presented in the course of the proceedings between Job and his friends, nonetheless, Bildad's words stand on their own logic. Abraham referred to himself before God as "but dust and ashes."(Genesis 18:27) Isaiah said, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away."(64:6) The Bible makes it clear that even at our best, we are so far below the righteousness and majesty of God that the distance between us and a worm is not so great as we might wish to think. And interestingly, it becomes clear that Jesus became just such a "worm" when He took our place on the cross: "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people."(Psalm 22:6)

The following stanza from Watts's original text is omitted in most hymnals:

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, thine,
And bathed in its own blood,
While all exposed to wrath divine
The glorious Suff'rer stood!

Though the most obvious reason for its omission is the graphic nature of the second line, it is also arguable that whereas the other stanzas keep the theme (contrast between Christ's holiness and our unrighteousness) moving forward, this one seems somewhat a departure from the overall direction of the hymn.

Stanza 2:
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

The facts are simple, their implications profound:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.(Isaiah 53:4-6)

Watts is careful to keep the matter personal; no hiding in the crowd of guilty humanity is allowed here. We are reminded of the apostles' question after Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him: "Lord, is it I?"(Matthew 26:22) Yes, it was I who betrayed Him to that cross.

Stanza 3:
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, the creature's sin.

Luke 23:44-45 tells us that when Jesus was crucified, there was darkness for three hours "while the sun's light failed". Watts imaginatively interprets this as the personified sun retreating in sorrow and refusing to shine on the tragic scene of its Creator's death. Jesus is the "firstborn of all creation, for by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through Him and for Him."(Colossians 1:15-16) Yet despite His lordship over all creation, He subjected himself to death at the hands of His own creation--to save the very ones who had rebelled against Him.

Stanza 4:
Thus might I hide my blushing face,
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

After showing us the awesome scene, Watts leads us to the natural, wholesome reaction of the believer: sorrow mixed with thankfulness. In the title of this hymn Watts spoke of "godly sorrow", which leads not to despair but to "repentance leading to salvation."(2 Corinthians 7:10) Tears are appropriate--both of sorrow, and of joy--when we think of the cross.

Stanza 5:
But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
'Tis all that I can do.

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross."(Colossians 2:13-14) Watts would now have us turn from our emotional reaction to the cross, to a sober and rational review of what it means. It is a debt we can never repay; yet we desire to do what we can, as both heart and head tell us we must. "For you were bought with a price; so glorify God in your body."(1 Corinthians 6:20) We cannot pay back what Christ did for us; but we can give what we have--ourselves. "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..."(Romans 12:1) It is not much, when we think of what He gave--but it is His will, and it is all that we can do.

About the music: The practice of singing the refrain only once, after the final verse, has caught on over the last several years, and has been formalized in some hymnals through a performance instruction to that effect, as in Praise for the Lord, and in the revised Great Songs of the Church (ACU Press, 1986). Hudson's music for the verse is square and straightforward, suiting well enough the direct, uncluttered nature of Watts's writing; the chorus, on the other hand, is of a rather light and rollicking nature for such a serious theme.

The practice of attaching a new refrain onto an existing hymn was frequent in the "campmeeting" songs of the early 1800s, which were part of the background of the later gospel style. It was still seen in later generations, as in Hudson's setting of this text and of "Blessed be the name" (PFTL #52), and in Robert Lowry's setting of Watts's "Come we that love the Lord" (PFTL #111).

It is good to remember that this hymn was sung long before 1885; for an older, alternate tune, see the Cyberhymnal page referenced below.


Cyberhymnal. Alas! And did my Savior bleed?

Watts, Isaac. Alas! And did my Savior bleed. Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.


  1. Stopped by to check out your blog, impressed by your in-depth posts on each hymn. :) I was surprised, though, that you had not written about "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"? I looked for it on your site specifically because I always forget what 'here I raise my Ebenezer" means.

    1. Eagle,

      Thank you for reading, and for your kind words. There's a story behind that--in the hymnal I'm working from (and many of the hymnals used by the Churches of Christ in this country) we have an altered version of the text, which starts with "O Thou Fount." I just haven't got to it yet, and at the rate I'm going it may be sometime around 2020, Lord willing. :)

      The "Ebenezer" reference is 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel sets up a memorial stone called "Eben-Ezer," the "stone of help," because Israel had begun to turn from their sins and God had delivered them from the Philistines (again). Samuel wanted to remind them that they had reached that point of success only by the help of God. (Reminds me of Psalm 124, "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...") It's a great story of stopping to remember God's grace in our lives!