From his earliest days Isaac Watts was accustomed to hear the Word of God read by his father and to hear him pray also. His father was a godly Dissenting minister who twice suffered imprisonment because of his convictions. Such a father was a great help to young Isaac Watts. Isaac was the eldest of nine children, and when he was eleven years old, his father wrote a letter to all his children in which he exhorted them "frequently to read the Scriptures — get your hearts to delight in them — above all books and writings account the Bible the best and read it most — lay up the truth of it in your hearts". The wise father also exhorted them to pay attention to prayer and godly living. When Isaac was fifteen years old he trusted the Lord Jesus as His own personal Saviour. His father's godly example and wise counsel had borne fruit. A few years after this, Isaac spent two and a half years at home studying the Scriptures and praying. The Lord was preparing His servant for his important contribution to Christian worship and praise.
Watts' high intellectual promise induced a physician in Southampton and other friends to offer him an education at one of the Universities for eventual ordination to the Church of England. This he refused and entered a Nonconformist academy. He preached his first sermon at the age of 24, and afterwards preached frequently. He was made pastor of the well-known Independent congregation in Mark Lane, London, in 1702. He was a very efficient preacher and was dignified in the manner in which he presented the truths of Holy Scripture. He deprecated the use of theatrical gestures in order to embellish his preaching. In order that his hearers might understand what he said, he concentrated on simplicity and clarity. His prayers were not pompous or verbose. It was God to whom he prayed, not man. A desire for public acclaim and reputation was far from his mind.
Watts never stooped to decry other servants of the Lord. Intellectually he was well endowed for the Lord's service and for the work for which he is best known — a hymn writer. When he was sixteen years old he had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French, and later excelled in natural philosophy and higher mathematics. Although he was never strong and often ill, Watts applied himself diligently to acquire learning which would help him in his service for the Lord. In his beautiful little poem, "How doth the little busy bee", there are two lines which have become household words: "for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do".
It was his father who embarked Watts on his career as a hymnwriter. In those days a paraphrase of the Psalms was widely used in the Dissenting churches. According to Watts' judgment of them, they were crude renderings and did not express the joy and dignity of Christian worship. When Watts complained to his father about composition and the singing, his father exhorted him to attempt something better. Watts immediately wrote:
"Behold the glories of the Lamb Amidst the Father's throne,
Prepare new honours for His Name And songs before unknown".
Watts' desire to write new expressions of praise and worship was because he saw a great need. He had no desire for personal glory and honour. His brother, Enoch, also encouraged Watts to apply himself to this noble endeavour. A few extracts from a letter he wrote to Isaac, are worth noting. Referring to Isaac's poems and the ones he sought to replace, Enoch wrote, "Yours is the old truth stripped of its ragged ornaments and appears, if we may say so as younger by ages, in a new and fashionable dress". Referring to the crude and dreary renderings, Enoch wrote: "There is in them a mighty deficiency of that life and soul which is necessary to raise our fancies and kindle and fire our passions. I have been persuaded from a great while since, that were David to speak English, he would choose to make use of your style".
Watts knew that he would suffer criticism when he sought to change the existing songs into purer Christian worship. In his judgement the Psalms were pre-Christian worship and many expressions in them, such as imprecatory prayers, were not suitable for Christians to sing. Carefully he wove New Testament teaching into the Old Testament Psalms and other Old Testament teachings such as the offerings and the priesthood. The Christian world is indebted to him for his excellent labours. He set a standard and gave an example that was followed by many capable hymn writers after him. The Christian Church will continue to sing Watts' hymns as long as it is left in testimony in this world. Many of his beautiful hymns are not connected with Old Testament back grounds but are his own inspired compositions replete with scriptural expressions.
The hymns that Watts wrote are over 500 in number and many of them are "the fruit that remains". Wherever believers on the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, meet together for worship, ministry or prayer, his hymns are used. They are suitable vehicles for praise to God the Father and to His Son, Jesus Christ. Help and comfort are also supplied for believers who are needy and burdened.
Since the day it was first used that sublime composition "When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died" has moved, humbled and challenged untold numbers of Christians. The third verse, See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down" has been described as the finest stanza in Christian hymnology. That may be disputed but it is sufficient that it has been suggested. "Not all the blood of beasts, On Jewish altars slain" has obvious connections with Jewish worship, but points the Christian to the one great sacrifice of Christ. It is a beautiful hymn to be used at the remembrance of the Lord Jesus in His Supper, as is another beautiful hymn of Isaac Watts "Alas and did my Saviour bleed". These hymns are marked by reverence and deep appreciation of the Lord's sufferings and death. Thanks and praise to God are expressed in his "Our thanks to God most High, The Father of our Lord" and sincere appreciation of God's great mercies as seen in the hymn "My soul repeat His praise". The Creator and Redeemer God is praised in a beautiful composition "O God how wide Thy glory shines". "Jesus shall reign where e'er the sun" anticipates the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and "Break forth and sing the song Of glory to the Lamb" reminds its singers of the sacrificial glory of Christ. "Come let us join our cheerful songs, And thus approach the Throne" is an invitation to all those who love Christ to celebrate His supremacy in glory at God's right hand. "Join all the glorious names Of wisdom, love and power" is an exhilarating hymn in asserting the unique and numerous glories of Christ. The Great High Priesthood of Christ is graphically portrayed in "With joy we meditate the grace Of God's High Priest above" and in "O Lord in Thee our eyes behold a thousand glories more". These compositions and many more, provide a legacy of song and praise that Watts has left for the people of God in Christ until they sing the new song in glory.
C.H. Spurgeon told an amusing story which involved Watts' hymns. His grandmother promised him a penny for every hymn of Watts that he memorised. Spurgeon was so efficient in his memory work that his grandmother reduced the reward to a half penny, and eventually a farthing. Spurgeon loved the hymns of Isaac Watts.
The busy life of Isaac Watts ended in his seventy fourth year. He overcame the continual bodily weakness that afflicted him for twenty six years, and pursued an active life of service for God and His beloved people. He was greatly loved by those who knew him intimately. He died confident in his Saviour's love, remarking that he rested in the many wonderful promises that he found in Holy Scripture. A friend who visited him before he died wrote about him "I never could discover, though I was frequently with him, the least shadow of doubt as to his future everlasting happiness, or anything that looked like an unwillingness to die". A friend asked how he was and he replied, "Waiting God's leave to die".
There is a bust of Isaac Watts in Westminster Abbey. He has been honoured by those who have appreciated the contribution he has made to the English speaking peoples. The best honour Watts has is when his hymns are sung, not to his praise, but to the praise of God the Father and to His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.