Saturday, February 11, 2012

Come Let Us Join Our Cheerful Songs

Praise for the Lord #105

Words: Isaac Watts, 1707
Music: Thomas Haweis, RICHMOND, 1792

This hymn was #62 in the first book of Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), where it has the inscription, "Christ Jesus the Lamb of God, Worshipped by All the Creation, Rev. v.11-13."(Julian, 248) It is hard to realize today the context in which this volume appeared, when many English Protestants held scruples against singing any text in worship that did not come directly from Scripture. Others had broken this barrier before Watts, but Watts was the indispensable figure in the development of the English hymn-singing culture that emerged during the 17th century. Kenneth Cousland summarized his career well: "One simple fact is eloquent--when Isaac Watts was born, scarcely a hymn was sung in church; when he died seventy-four years later, the floodgates of church praise had been flung wide open."(298)

But when the first volume of Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared in 1707, it was by no means certain that it would be accepted. Watts was carefully apologetic in the preface to this collection, recognizing the prejudices arrayed against any such attempt:
I have borrowed the Sense and much of the Form of the SONG from some particular Portions of Scripture . . . In these I expect to be often censured for a too religious Observance of the Words of Scripture, whereby the Verse is weakened and debased, according to the Judgment of the Critics; But as my whole Design was to aid the Devotion of Christians, so more especially in this Part: And I am satisfied I shall hereby attain two Ends, namely, assist the Worship of all serious Minds, to whom the Expressions of Scripture are ever dear and delightful, and gratify the Taste and Inclination of those who think nothing must be sung unto GOD but the Translations of his own Word.(ix-x)
Note that his apology is addressed to critics of poetry, not of doctrine; by invoking their imagined objections to his literalness in paraphrase, he subtly courted the acceptance of the Scripture-only faction.

As a Calvinist, Watts was naturally drawn to the principle of God's absolute majesty and sovereignty, and spoke in tones that recall something of the spirit, if not the poetic style and skill, of Milton's Paradise Lost. Frederic Palmer notes that "when [Watts] approaches God there is ever with him the sense of awe; he bows low in the Divine presence. . . . He is almost unique in his ability to convey the impression of sublimity."(393) This hymn is an example of one of Watts's favorite variations on that theme: Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God, now enthroned in glory. In his first book of hymns, Watts paraphrased from the Revelation no fewer than 15 times out of 150 hymns. The image of Jesus as the Lamb appears 20 times, and almost all of these reference the same passages from the Revelation. For a good readable (and searchable) online copy of Watts's three books of original hymns, see the 1803 edition by Manning & Loring of Boston.

Stanza 1:
Come let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne;
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.

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 . . . (Revelation 5:11)
Who are all these citizens of heaven? Descriptions in Scripture tell us that an angel looks like us, only more glorious; but these are occasions when God sent those beings to communicate with humans. How do we know that is their true appearance? And when it comes to the four beasts or "living creatures," the best imaginations of science fiction writers could not come up with more terrifyingly alien beings. How long have these heavenly beings existed? What was the circumstance of their creation? We cannot say, but we know what they do--they serve and worship the Lord. "Day and night they never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'"(Revelation 4:8) They have done so since the creation of this universe, "when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy."(Job 38:7) They do so still, and the Revelation makes clear that they will do so when this universe is no more.

Into this scene of ageless, eternal, august celebration, God invites you and me, who "are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow."(Job 8:9) But through Christ's grace, He has assured us that we can "with confidence draw near to the throne of grace."(Hebrews 4:16) When we raise our voices in sincere praises of the Almighty, we are joining in the songs of the angels! My singing would never win "American Idol," but if I am "singing and making melody to the Lord in [my] heart," I am pleasing an infinitely more significant Judge.(Ephesians 5:19) I might never win a place in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera (which I would covet far more than "American Idol"), but when I lift up my songs with my brothers and sisters in the church, I am joining in the great and everlasting chorus of "angels round the throne."

Twice during the vision of the Revelation, John fell down and worshiped the angels who were speaking to him; but each time the heavenly being said, "See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!"(Revelation 19:10, 22:8-9) Though the glory of these beings is so far above ours, they call us their fellow servants under the Lord of All. No doubt their singing, whatever that may be, is far above ours as well, but they call us to be fellow worshipers with them.

All around this globe Christians can join together in praise of God, in many languages and accents, but with one accord. Basil of Caesarea (330-379) said, "Who can regard a man as his enemy, when they have lifted up one voice to God together?"(Letters, 60) Unfortunately, there are many things that divide those who seek to follow Christ, but Basil's words are true: if all those who seek to be pleasing to God will unite in harmony with God's will, we will be in harmony with each other.

Stanza 2:
Worthy the Lamb that died they cry,
"To be exalted thus:"
"Worthy the Lamb," our lips reply,
For He was slain for us.

Here Watts renders the next verse of his source text: "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.'"(Revelation 5:12) This statement follows, in context, the question posed at the beginning of this episode of the Revelation:
Then I saw in the right hand of Him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.(Revelation 5:1-4)
If none among that company of sinless heavenly beings was worthy, it is no surprise that no one "on earth or under the earth" was worthy to look into the scroll! The very best among us would still have to say with Isaiah, "We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away."(Isaiah 64:6)

But the Everlasting Son of the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Heaven, came down to this earth and "in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."(Hebrews 4:15) Our sins were washed away "with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a Lamb without blemish or spot."(1 Peter 1:19) He is worthy of the honor of opening that scroll, and of any other honor there may be on earth or in heaven. And if the angels of heaven praise His worthiness, how much more should we? It is through His sacrifice that we can aspire to join our praises with them. They love Him for who He is; we love Him for who He is, and for what He has done for us.

In Watts's original there is another stanza following, based on the same verse of Scripture:

Jesus is worthy to receive
Honor and power divine;
And blessings more than we can give,
Be, Lord, for ever Thine.

In his younger, more faithful days, King Solomon prayed as he dedicated the temple, "But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from You, and of Your own have we given You."(1 Chronicles 29:14) He had just sacrificed an array of livestock that would boggle the mind of even a West Texas rancher! But Solomon knew it was really nothing compared to the honors God deserves. Micah echoed this attitude: "Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"(Micah 6:7) There is nothing we could have done to repay the debt of sin; likewise there is nothing we could do to fully offer the honor and gratitude Jesus deserves. But it is our duty and privilege to do our best!

Stanza 3:
Let all that dwell above the sky,
And air, and earth, and seas,
Conspire to lift Thy glories high,
And speak Thine endless praise.

Another stanza originally followed, closing out the hymn:

The whole creation join in one,
To bless the sacred name
Of Him that sits upon the throne,
And to adore the Lamb.

The two preceding stanzas paraphrase Revelation 5:13,
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, "Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever."
There is one little issue of language to address before looking at the content: why did Watts use the word "conspire?" I have never heard that word used, in modern speech, without the implication of a sinister intent. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that this is the oldest and primary meaning of the word, as far back as Chaucer. But there was a secondary meaning, now fallen out of use, that implied only concerted action and unity of purpose. The word itself is a Latin borrowing, meaning "to breathe together," speaking as with one voice. Watts's poetry and choice of words are not without flaw, to be sure, but the intent here was perfectly sensible to his contemporaries.

The thought presented in this Scripture verse, and in Watts's closing stanzas, is a common one in Old Testament poetry: the chorus of creation. The last verses of Psalm 150, the very final words of that wonderful book, command: "Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!" Psalm 148 is a more detailed catalog, calling on all created things to praise their Maker, from the greatest to the least.

  • The heavenly beings: "Praise Him, all His angels; praise Him, all His hosts!"(v.2)
  • The celestial bodies of the universe: "Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all you shining stars!"(v.3)
  • The atmosphere of our earth: "Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!"(v.4)
  • The seas and all creatures in them: "Praise the LORD
    from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps!"(v.7)
  • The phenomena of weather: "Fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling His word!"(v.8)
  • The dry land and its features: "Mountains and all hills . . ."(v. 9a)
  • The plant kingdom: "fruit trees and cedars!"(v. 9b)
  • The animal kingdom large and small, wild and tame, even down to the tiniest "creeping things": "Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!"(v. 10)

To the ancient Hebrews it was a matter of great import to remember that God is the Creator of all things. They were surrounded by peoples that worshiped many limited gods of limited things, a god for this and a god for that. The children of Israel had a profoundly different perspective: they served the One God who created all, and who therefore holds all creation under His control. It was a way of life, as Artur Weiser described in his commentary on Psalms:
Because all things are God’s handiwork, He has the power to help whatever may happen; for even now all things are still in His hand. The distinctive character of the Old Testament concept of creation . . . represents not a piece of knowledge but a decision to submit oneself to God’s creative will and power.(Weiser, 747)
So as the writer of Psalm 148 concludes, he turns to that one part of God's creation that does not already unabashedly and ungrudgingly give Him glory: human beings.(v. 11-12) Here is the invitation of the heavenly worship, and here is Watts's plea in making this hymn: submit to the will of God, and join with the rest of His creation in an endless stream of joyful praise!

About the music:

Thomas Haweis (1734-1820; last name rhymes with "paws") was a prominent leader in the Evangelical movement within the Church of England, and was associated with many of its most important figures. In 1762 he was appointed to serve at the Lock Hospital Chapel in London, under chaplain Martin Madan. Through Madan he became acquainted with Lady Huntingdon, whom he served as chaplain for many years following.(Wikipedia) Madan was publisher of the significant hymnal known as the Lock Hospital Collection (1769); Lady Huntingdon was also heavily involved in hymnody as a facilitator and encourager of aspiring hymnists.

Haweis consistently tried to keep the Evangelical movement within the bounds of the Church of England, which led to something of a separation from Lady Huntingdon, though her respect for him was such that her will made him a trustee of the Huntingdon Connexion after her death. He was a scholar and practical theologian of considerable note; his Evangelical Principles and Practice was a standard work for the rising generation of leaders in the new movement, and he also wrote a commentary on the Bible, a translation of the New Testament, and a history of Christianity.(Wikipedia)

Most of Haweis's hymns and tunes are known from his Carmina Christi; or Hymns to the Saviour, with editions in 1792 and 1808.(Wikipedia) Though he is not as well known today as some of his contemporaries, he was a central figure in the new hymnody of the late 18th century. In one striking coincidence, he was actually offered the curatorship of Olney, which he declined, suggesting John Newton instead. The substitution was made, and it was at Olney that Newton worked and lived alongside William Cowper, producing the landmark Olney Hymns.(Huntingdon, 2:36 fn.)

Though Haweis's tune RICHMOND is his most lasting musical composition, it was not his first: contemporary testimony identifies him as the "T. H." who wrote some of the tunes for Madan's Lock Hospital Collection (1769). This publication is notable for its departure from the somber hymn tunes of the preceding generations, turning instead to the popular song styles of the music halls.(Temperly, 67ff.) It was this work that introduced one of the best-known examples of the new style, Giardini's glorious ITALIAN HYMN. Haweis's RICHMOND has something of the same light minuet-like feel.

RICHMOND is a much-used tune, found associated with no fewer than 23 different texts at Like Giardini's ITALIAN HYMN, the version we have today is modified from Haweis's more elaborate original; we sing an arrangement of the tune by Samuel Webbe, Jr., published in his Collection of Psalm Tunes (1808).( The tune is not particularly difficult, but neither is it easy; another Common Meter tune such as AZMON ("O for a faith that will not shrink") would do as a substitute if necessary.


Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. (London: J. Murray, 1891).

Cousland, Kenneth. "The Significance of Isaac Watts in the Development of Hymnody." Church History: Studies in Christianity & Culture 17/4 (December 1948), pages 287-298.

Watts, Isaac. Hymns and Spiritual Songs in Three Books. London: Strahan & Rivington, 1773.

Basil of Caesarea. Letters and Selected Works, edited by Blomfield Jackson. London, 1894.

Artur Weiser. The Psalms: a Commentary, 5th rev. ed., translated Herbert Hartwell. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.

"Thomas Haweis." N.B. This article is well written and sourced, obviously by someone familiar with the subject, and is the best resource available without access to the biography by Wood.

The Life and Times of Selina Countess of Huntingdon, 2 volumes. London: William Edward Painter, 1844. Volume 2:

Temperley, Nicholas. "The Lock Hospital Chapel and its Music." Journal of the Royal Music Association volume 118/1 (1993), pages 44-72.


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