Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed?

Isaac Watts’ poem is a beautiful expression of awed awareness of the awefulness of Jesus’ death for us. It used to be most commonly sung to a swingy tune with the chorus  “At the Cross” tacked on to it; the tune by Hugh Wilson (1764-1824) is much better. 

This hymn has probably suffered more from the “good self-image” revisers than any other. The phrase “such a worm as I”, seems to be the most unacceptable to them. It is commonly mutated in hymnbooks into such phrases as “sinners such as I”, or “such a one as I”, or even “someone such as I”. “Crimes” in the second stanza is likely to be changed to “sins”.  “Groaned” is softened (because rendered trite) into “bled”; and “the mighty Maker” is hackneyed into “the great Redeemer”.

Besides their being lousy poetry, the theology these changes express robs you of the true sense of awe that Watts was expressing. It’s not that Jesus died for wonderful me that’s so overwhelming, but that he died for despicable me, a worm, guilty of crimes, not just minor offenses, against him. That’s what can make you realize what amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree,  confronts us. What well may overwhelm the sun is the horror of its Creator’s death, and death for such an insignificant little creature as man.

Christ’s death for us should be powerful, not trite, in our minds and our imaginations. 

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed?
    And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
    For such a worm as I?

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

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

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.

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