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.
Several weeks ago, I asked those of you who read this blog to tell me your favourite hymns, so I could pick one to write on next, since we’ve finished with “Come, We That Love the Lord.” Unfortunately, there were as many responses as there are flakes of snow on the ground in summer; that is to say, zero. Therefore, I made the choice myself: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” No doubt this is the favourite hymn, or at least one of the favourite hymns, for many of you.
Here is the first stanza of this famous hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Isaac Watts penned this hymn as if he were standing in front of the cross 2,000 years ago as Jesus Christ suffered and died for his sins.
But even though he is writing many centuries after the event, because he gazes at the cross with the eyes of faith and not of physical sight, he sees far more than those who were actually there. He sees not a bloody, obscene piece of wood but a “wondrous” cross; he sees not a suffering martyr or a tiresome nuisance but “the Prince of glory.”
Paul wrote in I Corinthians 2:4-5 that “the princes of this world” had no idea of who Jesus really was; and “had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Think of it: the Lord of glory, shining with blazing heavenly glory, receiving the awestruck worship of angels, and equal with God the Father in deity and power and majesty, dies as a condemned slave. Surgeon wrote, “The death of the cross was one reserved for slaves and the basest of felons; no Roman citizen could be put to death in such a way as that, hung up between earth and heaven, as if neither would have Him, rejected of men and despised of God.”1
When we, too, survey this cross and the One hanging upon it, how can we embrace worldly gain and pursue earthly riches and pleasures and turn away from Him? We are held spellbound, transfixed. Like Paul, we reject whatever was “gain” to us and count it “loss for Christ” (Phil. 3:7). We perceive that to know Him and love Him is a priceless treasure before which all other treasures are as a rusty scrap heap.
And we also are filled with shame for our pride. We used to think that we were admirable, that we were worthy of praise and honour, that we were the centre of the universe. But when we see “the Prince of glory” humbling Himself in obedience “unto death,” we realize our own worthlessness and sin-filthiness and bow down in the dust before Him.
May God help us to stand still and gaze on the cross and marvel at the death of Christ, that we might rejoice in Him as our supreme treasure and rightly see ourselves as unworthy objects of His great love.
1 (Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Philippians, ed. Elliot Ritzema, Spurgeon Commentary Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 58.)