Saturday, June 9, 2018

Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears -- Isaac Watts

This English Nonconformist preacher was looking forward to the end, even at a young age. Isaac Watts did not dread it, perhaps in the same way he did not shrink from the life he chose, when he said to himself “Lo, What a Glorious Sight Appears” in his leaning-forward message about Judgement Day. Had Isaac perhaps seen Stefan Lochner’s 15th Century painting of the Last Judgement (see it here)? ‘Judgement’…it sounds so imposing, doesn’t it? Isaac may not have even thought about it in terms of judgement, however, but rather the Divine grace he expected would come to fruition at that moment. Watts possessed courage, something he undoubtedly inherited from watching his father’s intrepid nature, when and where matters of faith were concerned. Keep one’s vision trained on the goal, both Isaac Sr. and Isaac Jr. would have said to those who would listen, and not just believe in church membership to secure one’s destiny.   

Perhaps the younger Isaac drew upon his own earthly father’s influence when he composed his earliest hymn poems, among them “Lo, What a Glorious…”. The hymn first appeared in a collection of songs in 1707 when Isaac Jr. was in his early 30s, and most likely was written some 10-15 years earlier during a time when he had temporarily suspended his education and returned to his family’s home at Southampton, on the southern coast of England. The younger Watts reportedly wrote a very large majority of his hymns during that period. There, his poetry could flow, surrounded by his family’s presence and the teachings he had inherited. Nonconformity meant that Isaac did not adhere to the formal oversight of the Church of England. He therefore was accustomed to some ostracism, if not outright incarceration as his father had endured twice during Isaac Jr.’s childhood. Instead of Oxford or Cambridge, premier higher education fit for a gifted poet-student like Isaac Jr., it was Stoke Newington in London where the young man attended and was further groomed for hymn-writing history. That experience likewise probably shaped Isaac’s impression of his faith, and how to express it poetically and musically. Though we do not know explicit details of the genesis of ‘Lo, What a Glorious…’, he evidently had the freedom of expression as a Nonconformist to speculate about what the Christian believer might see on Resurrection Day. Watts was not compelled to stay within the Anglican Book of Common Prayer when he sought out worship, so he liberally composed his own poems fit for music for congregational singing. Perhaps young Isaac had heard or observed on occasion the carefully-structured Anglican way, and wanted something more enthusiastic, including the multiple exclamation marks and the ‘shout for joy’ (v. 3) he imbeds in the verses. Don’t try to contain God, Isaac might have said.

How great will that day be? Perhaps that was a question that Isaac had asked himself as he pondered what was to come, which for himself was still several decades in the future (he died in 1748, probably some 50 years after penning his words). Isaac would go on to write some 750 hymns, but also become a notable preacher, theologian, and logician. Logic? Could this be the same Isaac who expressed amazement in a vision of an incredible sight to which he really only had indirect access? How could he obtain the ‘third heaven’ and ‘new Jerusalem’ (v.2) with certainty? Can you hear someone of his time, maybe an Anglican or even someone else, saying ‘Just a second, Isaac!’ Perhaps even as a young fellow, Isaac had concluded that logic cannot capture all God and Eternity are. Especially if life hasn’t been all I want, why not imagine something spectacular beyond here?    

See all six verses that the composer originally crafted here:

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