I first read of Isaac Watts as a boy learning American history at school in that battle cry, “Give ’em Watts, boys!” at the battle of Springfield, New Jersey. Over time I spotted his name in hymnals as the author of the some of the most famous hymns in evangelical Christendom. It happened this week when I stumbled upon How Sweet and Aweful Is the Place, an Isaac Watts hymn from 1707. The aweful of the first line means “full of awe.” I could not recall either singing or hearing it sung or played. The tune is St. Columba, that gentle old Irish hymn melody.
There are times when a simple example of hymnody can just reach out and grab you, reminding you that worship is not primarily what we bring to God but is what God brings to us in his glorious, wonderful gifts of Word and sacrament.
This was one of those times for me, especially verses 2-4.
How sweet and aweful is the place
with Christ within the doors,
while everlasting love
displays the choicest of her stores.
While all our hearts and all our songs
join to admire the feast,
each of us cries, with thankful tongue,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”
“Why was I made to hear your voice,
and enter while there’s room,
when thousands make a wretched choice,
and rather starve than come?”
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
that sweetly drew us in;
else we had still refused to taste,
and perished in our sin.
Pity the nations, O our God,
constrain the earth to come;
send your victorious Word abroad,
and bring the strangers home.
We long to see your churches full,
that all the chosen race
may, with one voice and heart and soul,
sing your redeeming grace.
As the Westminster Directory for Public Worship affirms:
“…it is well that public worship be so conducted that it is apparent that God summons his church to assemble in his presence, that he assures his people of his receiving and cleansing them through Christ the Mediator, that he consecrates them to himself and his service by his Word, that he communes with them and gives them grace to help in time of need through his means of grace, and that he sends them out to serve with his blessing.”