Series introduction: The title of this series comes from I Corinthians 14:15, where Paul said, ” I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” I want to help you sing hymns with understanding; that is, to understand what you are singing with your mind, so that you can rejoice in what you are singing with your spirit. If you don’t understand something mentally, you cannot sing it spiritually. Understanding is the kindling that fuels worship, and I want to help pile up kindling in your heart.
The fourth stanza of this wonderful hymn is possibly my favourite one. It is the source of the title of my blog, “A Thousand Sacred Sweets.” There is some beautiful, soul-refreshing imagery here!
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets
Before we reach the heav’nly fields,
Or walk the golden streets.
First, what does Watts mean by “the hill of Zion”? This becomes clear in the last half of the stanza, where he points ahead to “the heav’nly fields” and “the golden streets.” The “sacred sweets” we may enjoy are ours “before” we get to Heaven. Therefore, “the hill of Zion” refers to the path of our pilgrimage on the way to Heaven. “Zion” was used in the OT to refer to Mt. Zion on which the temple was built, as well as more generally to refer to Jerusalem as a whole, and even to the Jewish people as a whole.
Watts clearly considered believers to be the New Israel. In his well-known hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” written about Zion, he wrote, “Savior, since of Zion’s city / I through grace a member am, / let the world deride or pity, / I will glory in your name.” He calls believers “Zion’s children” later in the same stanza. Whether you agree with the terminology of the church being the New Israel or not, it is clear from the NT that God’s people in this age are the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
According to Watts, we are right now on “the hill of Zion.” This should encourage our hearts! Our path from earth to Heaven is over territory owned by God. We are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world (I Pet. 2:11), yet this is God’s world, under His sovereign control.
Second, what does Watts mean by “a thousand sacred sweets”? This is a beautiful picture of the pleasures of the Christian life. The way to Heaven is strewn with beautiful flowers, bright trees heavy-laden with delicious fruit, and delightful vistas of green, rolling hills and the splashing, far-off ocean glinting in the sun. We have God’s Word, dripping with honey; we have fellowship with other Christians; we have God’s constant, comforting presence with us. We can enjoy all these gifts of God through faith and hope. Watts points this out in an lesser-known stanza of this hymn: “Celestial fruits on earthly ground / From faith and hope may grow.”
And – wonderful thought! – all this is true even before we arrive at the perfection of Heaven, where we will stroll in “heav’nly fields” and walk on “golden streets.”
Perhaps you are struggling in your Christian life right now. Maybe you are depressed, or you have recently experienced loss or betrayal. The Christian life right now for you is a dark place, with a chill wind blowing as you shiver in fear and pain. The language of this hymn might seem impossibly cheerful and unrealistically optimistic. Take heart from God’s Word. There will be times in all of our lives when we walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” and the “green pastures” and “still waters” are far away. But the Lord is still your Shepherd, and He will lead you through darkness to light. And remember that some of the most satisfying sweets can only be tasted at night.
If you follow this Shepherd, you will enjoy your Christian life again. For “surely goodness and mercy shall follow [you] all the days of [your] life,” and then you will dwell in His house “for ever” (Psalm 23:6).