Great Hymns and their Writers

"There is a land of pure delight"
  by Isaac Watts

When a man is the author of over six-hundred hymns, and when these hymns include such as "O God our help in ages past," "When I survey the Wond'rous Cross," "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun," "Come we that love the Lord," "Join all the glorious names," and "I'm not ashamed to own my Lord," then a person might be excused for finding difficulty in deciding which of those hymns he should chose to entitle "great." Such is the case when our minds turn to "The father of English hymn-writing," Isaac Watts, and we have chosen our hymn for this edition, not because it is necessarily the greatest of Watts' hymns, but simply because it represents the depth of our author's faith and hope, and also, because it is a theme that should be much on the believer's heart and mind.

"There is a land of pure delight,
    Where saints immortal reign," the hymn begins.

And it is, perhaps, not surprising that we often find "The Serephic Doctor," as old Isaac Watts was called, dwelling on that place where "everlasting spring abides," for it is there that the saints of God gather around the Throne of the Lamb and sing eternal praises to His Name.

You see, it was this business of the Church's "song" that first set the young Isaac Watts on the career that was soon to make his name a household word. In the days when young Isaac was taken along to the house of God the people of God were accustomed to sing only "The Psalms of David in Metre." This greatly disturbed the young believer, for, he wanted to know, "seeing the Scriptures themselves command us to sing and give thanks in the Name of Christ, why in such singing (as psalm singing) should we be forbidden even to mention that Name?" "Why?" he further asked, "when it is permissible to pray and preach in Christ's Name should we be required to exclude it from our praise?"

The gauntlet that young Isaac had thrown down was taken up by his father, a non-conformist who had suffered imprisonment for conscience sake and he challenged his young son to provide the church with an example of "Christian" song. At their very next meeting the non-conformist congregation at Southampton were introduced to what is now known as the 65th Paraphrase - "Behold the Glories of the Lamb" – and the singing of hymns, once again, had become part of Christian praise.

Watts wrote on almost every subject that touches the believer's hope and trust in Christ, and he dwelt on "The Glories of the Lamb," not only "amidst His Father's Throne," but on that "wondrous Cross" where he invites us to –

"See from His head, His hands, His feet,
 Sorrow and love flow mingling down."

He also disclaims any selfish motive in writing these hymns: "I made no pretences," he said, "to the name of a poet or a polite writer … it was not my design to exalt myself to the rank and glory of poets, but I was ambitious to be a servant to the churches and a helper to the joy of the meanest Christian." He well remembered, as he says, "the dull indifference that sat upon the faces of the whole congregation while the psalm was on their lips," and it was for that reason that he "became ambitious to be … a helper to the joy of the meanest Christian."

Needles to say, he went right to the source and spring of that joy, for where does the believer find his chiefest joy but in the Person and Work of his glorious Redeemer Jesus Christ in all that He has purchased for the saint in that "land of pure delight." No wonder Watts was called "The Poet of the Atonement" as well as "The Serephic Doctor," for the theme of Redemption as well as the theme of Glory sounds to the very depths of almost everything he wrote. And why not? If there is a place of "everlasting spring," and "never-withering flowers," then it is entered by the child of God through the blood of Christ that has reconciled him to his Father in heaven. But, in this particular hymn it is that entering into the inheritance that Watts is concerned to speak about, for although heaven is "the purchased possession" for the believer in Christ, still withall –

"Death like a narrow sea divides,  That heavenly land from ours."

The simile that Watts uses is a familiar one and is lifted straight out of the history of the earthly people of God in the Old Testament.

"Sweet fields beyond the swelling floods,
 Stand dressed in living green;
 So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
 While Jordan rolled between."

The Israelites of old had been promised the earthly Canaan, but between them and it there rolled the swelling floods of the river of the Jordan valley. But how much greater a flood do "the floods of death" sometimes present to the trembling saint who, although a saint of God is still a "timorous mortal" for all that …

"But timorous mortals start and shrink
 To cross this narrow sea;
 And linger shivering on the brink,
  And fear to launch away."

How human our author was - and realistic, too. He had been no stranger, either to suffering or sorrow, and as a small crippled boy he had often stood and gazed upon the prison walls that held his Godly father in the utmost misery.

As a young man, rather than forsake the "faith of his father" he refused an offer to study for the Church of England, choosing rather to cast in his lot with the persecuted non-conformists. After a Pastorate of only ten years (in the chapel of the great John Owen) his health completely broke and for the rest of his life he lived, not only a cripple, but an invalid, as well. Indeed, there was little to tie this dear Isaac Watts to the world, but with what honesty does he relate that "earth-clinging" facet of our old nature that would bind us still and make us "fear to launch away." All he can do is lift his eyes to that very heaven that he longs to enter but fears to approach and pray for such a glimpse of eternity that the gloom of the passage across the river will be dispelled.

"O! could we make our doubts remove,
 Those gloomy doubts that rise,
  And see the Canaan that we love,
  With unbeclouded eyes."

How dependent we are upon the Lord of grace! Not only must he give us salvation, and the inheritance of salvation in heaven, but He must also set us upon that summit of hope where we can see that inheritance and gain strength to lay hold upon it.

"Could we but climb where Moses stood,
 And view the landscape o'er,
  Not Jordan's stream, nor death's cold flood,
 Should fright us from the shore."

Indeed, indeed, it is "all of grace." Not only must we be "brought out of Egypt by a mighty hand," but we must be led into Canaan by the one and the same omnipotence. "And whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate … … … Moreover whom he did predestinate them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified" From Egypt to Canaan it is "the Lord's doings, and wondrous in our eyes." Through grace, the condemned sinner is set for that "land of pure delight where saints immortal reign." This is salvation and this is the gospel.

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