Change, especially that within a church, isn't easy. It often stems from a change of heart in one person and then must be passed on to the hearts of others. And I think we all know how stubborn hearts can be -- especially our own.
But our Lord is in the business of changing hearts and in the early 1700s He used one heart to change hearts in churches across London. This, of course, changed the pattern of their congregational singing and played a major role in church music history, affecting us still today.
Isaac Watts stood out from the crowd early in life. Not only were he and his family Dissenters (non-Anglicans were viewed as treasonous), he was unusually gifted, especially in language. He had learned Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew by age 13. And to top it all off, he wasn't afraid to speak his mind -- or rather write it -- despite the disapproval of others.
One day after church, Watts complained to his father about their congregation's less than heart-felt singing. At the time, Calvinist churches sang only the Psalms (German Lutherans were singing hymns at this time) and while the words were beautiful and true, they were still from the Old Testament and did not reflect the joy of the gospel or the light from the New Testament. *
His father then challenged his son to write something himself they could sing. Well, Watts did -- nearly 600 hymns in fact -- and the rest they say, truly is history.
But it wasn't instant history. It took a little time. While Watts' hymns were quite popular and spread rapidly to the masses, not everyone was ready for the change inside the church. The issue of divinely inspired Psalms vs. humanly-written hymns in the church was messy and, sadly, churches split over the issue. But nothing really broke. In fact, it grew.
Because Isaac Watts was willing to use the gifts God gave Him and write hymns that reflected God's entire Word rather than just part of it, congregational singing evolved from often joyless worship to that which was more enlightened and encouraged more joyful expression from worshipers.
Three of Watt's hymns we often sing today are based on the Psalms, but are paraphrased to include the truth of the New Testament.
O God, Our Help in Ages Past is based on Psalm 90, Jesus Shall Reign from Psalm 72 and Joy to the World from Psalm 98.
Next time you sing or read the truth of these hymns and others from Isaac Watts, look for both Old and New Testament truth and let the joy of salvation move your heart to true praise.
*Watts described his approach this way, "Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament."