The church has forgotten the old hymn “Come, We That Love the Lord.” I’ve never heard this song in any worship service and I’ll bet you haven’t either. Try to hum the opening line.
Of course a lot of hymns are forgotten, but this was Isaac Watts’s biggest hit—more widely published than anything else he wrote. Today, Watts’s most popular hymns are “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” Many churches also occasionally sing a short catalog of his other work: “Alas and Did my Savior Bleed,” “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun,” “O God our Help in Ages Past,” and “There is a Land of Pure Delight.”
Some of Watts’s hymns are rightly forgotten. He wrote many, and some have not stood the test of time. I know that as part of the worship team at Redeemer Church in Nottingham, England, I wouldn’t ask my church to sing “Blest Is the Man Whose Bowels Move.” It doesn’t hold up today.
But “Come, We That Love the Lord” should still be sung. It’s an amazing hymn, and it exemplifies the best of what Watts did and why he was regarded for so long as the father of English hymnody. The hymn was published in more than 1,600 hymnals from the time he wrote it in the 1700s until we stopped singing it—for some reason—in the 20th century.
This hymn puts Christ at the center of our worship. It understands the importance of human affections in worship and weaves Scripture together with a pastoral concern for songs of hope. Finally, it points Christians to the day they will be united with Christ. This is what we want in our worship.
It starts out simple, even prosaic:
Come, we that love the Lord
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the Throne.
Note the hymn beings with our love for the Lord. Watts argued that when humans are singing to God, that’s when they are “nearest akin to Heaven.” That’s why, he said, “’tis a pity that this [activity] of all others should be performed the worst upon Earth.” Watts goes on to argue that tuneless brothers and sisters are not the main flaw in our worship. Rather, the most significant problem is that the person and work of the eternal, incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, and returning Christ are neglected.
All Christian worship, Watts believed, is a foretaste of the moment when we sing around the throne of the Lion of Judah and the Lamb that was slain. The purpose of Christian song is to look ahead to that moment, as we see in this hymn.
Watts writes, “To the Lamb that was slain and now lives, I have addressed many a song; for thus doth the Holy Scripture instruct and teach us to Worship in the various short Patterns of Christian Psalmody described in the Revelations.”
“Come, We That Love the Lord” continues:
The Sorrows of the Mind
Be banished from the place!
Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less.
In addition to centering the hymn around Christ, Watts thought it was important for people to sing with passion. Prior to Watts, the dominant form of Christian song was metrical psalm-singing, and one of Watts’s objections to this was they didn’t evoke substantive emotion. He was convinced on a pragmatic level: “To see the dull indifference on the faces of a whole assembly, while the Psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of inward religion; and ’tis much to be feared that the minds of most worshippers are absent or unconcerned.”
Watts believed that God wanted the praise of joy-filled hearts. This comes up frequently in his hymns: “Now to the Lord a noble song! / Awake my soul, awake my tongue,” begins one, and another beckons, “Come, happy souls, approach your God / With new melodious songs.” Singing was not incidental to Christian piety for Watts. He believed that singing was given by God so that, “our own warmest affections of soul might break out into natural or divine melody, and that the tongue of the worshipper might express his own heart.”
The third verse emphasizes this point with a stark contrast:
Let those refuse to sing,
That never knew our God.
But Favourites of the heavenly King
May speak their Joys abroad.
Not singing, for Watts, only makes sense if you don’t know God. The unique joys of being the favorites of God—later edited to speak of being the children of God—are meant to be sung. Singing both excites and expresses the emotion, passion, and affection. Singing stirs the heart as it gives voice to praises.
The following two verses appear to take the hymn in a different direction, but a book published by Watts in 1729, Discourses of the Love of God, helps us to see how they fit. The hymn speaks of:
The God that rules on high,
And thunders when he please,
That rides upon the stormy sky
And manages the seas.
This awful God is ours,
Our Father and our Love,
He shall send down his heav’nly powers
To carry us above.
For Watts, one of the main ways of raising our godly passions and affections is to “contemplate the nature and perfections of God” and consider the “amazing instances of his providence and grace which he has manifested in his Word.” The highest object of love is God, and this love is fueled by wonder.
As our devotion and attention is fixed upon God, the passion of love grows, “when so glorious and transcendent a Being as the great and blessed God becomes the object of our notice and our Love, with what pleasure do we survey his Glories.”
The next verses experientially unite the Bible and the singer. This is one of the things Watts was so good at. The power of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” comes from its ability to pull us back in time to witness the Crucifixion at Calvary. Watts enables us to see the face of the dying Prince of Glory and behold his love so amazing, so divine. Part of Watts’s genius as a hymn writer is that he allows the singers to step into the biblical narrative and find themselves within the pages of Scripture. In “Come, We That Love,” we are transported to the scene Revelation 5, where we can find ourselves joining our voices with countless multitude around the throne.
This is a literary device that allow us to focus on Christ in a new, impassioned way:
There we shall see his face
And never, never sin;
There from the rivers of his grace
Drink endless pleasures in.
As I study the context and theology of Watts’s hymns, I have found many versions of this sentiment. Again and again, Watts directs us to see Christ with the eyes of our hearts. “There I beheld with sweet Delight / The blessed Three in One,” he writes in one hymn. And in another, “Then shall I see thy lovely Face / With strong immortal eyes.” In a third: “Mortals with Joy beheld his Face / Th’ Eternal Father’s only son.”
Isn’t this what we want worship to be? Watts thought so. Singing about Christ in this way has a deeply pastoral role. Watts endured ill health throughout his life, and he was keenly aware of the suffering of life. His hymns are as full of the sorrows of earth as they are of the joys of Christ and the believer’s resurrection hope
In “Come, We That Love,” Watts wants the singer to know the joys of their future here and now, in Christ:
Yes, and before we rise
To that immortal state,
The thoughts of such amazing bliss
Should constant joys create.
The final verse of the hymn brings these themes together. Watts unites the songs of earth and heaven. He shows that Christ is both our now and our forever. He harmonizes the pilgrimage of the journey with the joy of reaching our home. He comforts the weeping with the knowledge that one day there will be no more tears, as the Word of God is sung in the praises of God.
Then let our songs abound
And every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground
To fairer worlds on high.
Why did we forget this hymn? I think we should bring it back.
Daniel Johnson is writing a doctoral dissertation on Isaac Watts at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. He teaches worship studies at the Nexus Institute of Creative Arts and serves on the worship team at Redeemer Church, Nottingham.