One of the greatest hymns of all time for meditating on the sacrifice of the Savior on the cross is “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed.” The text was written by Isaac Watts, regarded in many circles to be one of the greatest hymn lyricists—if not the greatest—of all time. According to the website hymnary.org, this is Watts’ most frequently published text, and the seventh such among all writers. The tune commonly associated with this text in more recent years (HUDSON), was composed by Ralph E. Hudson, who also (infamously, among many) wrote a chorus from which this text derives its other name, “At the Cross.”
The original (as it appears in Watts’ “The Psalms of David”) contains six verses. Four (1, 3, 4, and 6) commonly appear in hymnals, and the 2012 Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (PHASS) includes verse 5. The second verse was indicated to be an optional verse that could be omitted without “disturbing the sense” of the text. For our purposes, we will be considering all but verse 2, numbering as PHASS does.
Watts gives the subtitle of this text as “Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ.” Indeed, that is the progression of thought through the text. Verses 1 and 2 ponder the question of why God would die for us. Verses 3 and 4 describe visible and emotional reactions to the reality of the Savior’s death, and verse 5 considers our own resolve to respond inwardly by fully devoting ourselves to the Lord.
Alas! And did my Savior bleed!
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
The first verse acknowledges the fact of Jesus’ death. “Alas” is an exclamation of grief, distress or concern. Here, it underscores the nature of Jesus’ death. Looking at the simple fact of the death, this is not something we should be happy or giddy about. Yes, ultimately, knowing that He would rise from the dead allows for that emotion, but that’s not the tone of this text—not just yet. The second couplet points to the vast gulf between His status and ours. Would God—the Almighty, the Most Holy—give His own life for the lowest of the low.
Some have objected to the “worm” language of this verse. This gets such attention that Wikipedia even has an article on “worm theology” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worm_theology), citing this text. The two common alterations of this line are “For such a one as I” and “For sinners such as I.” The first one is fairly transparent; the second one sounds incredibly clunky. While this may or may not have been Watts’ thought process in using the word, it is interesting that Psalm 22.6 uses this word: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised by the people.” It creates a justaposition. We often note that this psalm is Messianic, quoted by Jesus on the cross and paralleling His suffering. Jesus was the one counted as a worm, but really, we are the worms. Another relevant passage is Isaiah 41.14, “‘Don’t be afraid, you worm Jacob, and you men of Israel. I will help you,’ says Yahweh, ‘and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.'” Also consider Job 25.6.
The sense of verse 1 is, “Did this really happen?” We know that “the word of the cross is foolishness” to many (1 Cor 1.18), largely because it seems to violate all common sense. But it did happen. Our Sovereign—the ruler of all creation—really did die for us.
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Where the first verse grapples with the fact of Jesus’ sacrifice, the second takes on the reason for the sacrifice. Did He really die for our sins? Or really, did He die for my sins? We have a tendency to speak of Christ dying for our sins collectively—and that is true—but the reality is that He died for the sins of each individual, since each individual will stand in judgment. 1 Peter 2.24 says, “Who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed.” Paul made the idea personal by saying that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim 1.15).
What do we make of this act? Watts ascribes to it three complementary qualities:
- Amazing pity. This has to do with God sympathizing with our spiritual condition. While sin produces separation from God, the Righteous One still cares about us. Peter writes of God not wanting any to perish (2 Pet 3.9). This pity is amazing because God is the supreme sovereign (see v.1), but we do not expect this of even earthly sovereigns and rulers. They may be concerned about the collective well-being of their subjects, but not necessarily that of each subject individually,
- Grace unknown. Jesus dying for us was an act of grace; God providing salvation when we cannot. It is grace “unknown,” not because don’t know it, but because it is an act of grace unmatched and otherwise unseen throughout the course of history. Paul notes the peculiarity of this act in Romans 5.7–8.
Love beyond degree. In Romans 5, Paul wrote of God “commend[ing] his own love toward us.” Jesus said in John 15.13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The love shown through the cross is a love that surpasses any earthly act of love, and is a love that we cannot hope to equal (though we seek to imitate it).
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When God, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.
In verse 3, Watts brings in the imagery of the darkness over the land while Jesus was on the cross. He depicts the sun darkening as creation mourning the death of its Creator. While an interesting thought of itself, it has always seemed incomplete. While man’s sin is mentioned, it lacks the first-person connection back to me. In verse 1, my Sovereign died for such a worm as I. In verse 2, it was for my sins that He groaned on a tree. The answer comes in the next verse, which is not printed in many hymnals (alas!).
The original in Watts’ text is “God,” whereas the versions with which I am familiar uses “Christ.” I can only speculate on the reason for the change. It is interesting to see the variations on this line.
- The 1875 Calvary Songs uses, “When Christ the great Creator died.”
- The 1883 The Christian Sunday School Hymnal has, “When God’s own Son was crucified.”
- The 1885 Precious Hymns for Times of Refreshing and Revival is the first book hymnary.org has that contains “Christ, the mighty Maker.” After this point, nearly all books that modify the line use this phrasing.
- The 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, additionally going the gender-neutral route, renders the couplet, “When Christ, the great Redeemer, died / For human creatures’ sin.” Other books of recent vintage have also tried to make “man the creature’s” more inclusive.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
This is the payoff we were looking for in verse 3. Verse 4 begins, “thus,” meaning it is a conclusion from or a follow-up on the previous verse. The sun hid in response to Jesus on the cross, and so should we. The idea of a “blushing face” refers to the sense of shame we feel (from which comes “shamefacedness”) at our sins, and the inclination to hide from God’s presence (as in the garden in Genesis 3). But there’s more to the emotional response to Jesus’ sacrifice than just shame and guilt. There is an overwhelming thankfulness for that sacrifice. Indeed, the emotional outpouring within can have a visible, outward effect.
No one can come to the cross—that is, be told of the events and their significance—and leave it unchanged. This is one of the points Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 1. To many, the cross is foolishness, but to those who believe, it is God’s power to salvation. For these, it will have an impact.
But drops of grief can never repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do.
Many want to stop the journey at the fourth verse. They have the emotional response to God’s grace and how it was manifested, and declare themselves “saved.” But that’s not the end of it. As Watts points out, emotional response is not enough. Feeling shame is not a proportional response to Jesus giving His life for us. Verbal expressions of thankfulness do not cut it, either, nor (as Watts pens) do tears of sorrow and grief. The only thing that I can give—indeed, the very thing that God desires—is myself. While my life is not equal to that of the Son of God, it is “all that I can do.” It is the uttermost of the commitment that we can make to the Lord.
Paul tells us to present our bodies as “living sacrifices” (Rom 12.1–2). He calls this our “spiritual service.” Why do we do this? Because we recognize what God did, why He did it, and what we need to do about it. To look at the cross and do differently is to dishonor the Sovereign who died for our sins.