Isaac Watts published in 1719 a volume titled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. As the work’s title suggests, the contents were not merely Old Testament psalms set to verse, but psalms that were transposed into a Christian key.1“Rather than asking Christians to speak the language of David, he made David speak the language of Christians.” David W. Music, “Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated at 300,” Artistic … Continue reading “Jesus Shall Reign” is Watts’s “imitation” of the latter part of Psalm 72, a hymn which is grounded in the psalm and written in light of the coming of Christ.
As the original 1719 printing shows, the song we know as “Jesus Shall Reign” was given the descriptive title “Christ’s Kingdom among the Gentiles” by Watts. Of the eight original stanzas, 1, 4, 5, and 8 (and less often, 6) are typically included in hymnals today.2Interestingly, Watts himself bracketed certain stanzas (2, 3, 7, 8) to be omitted if necessary without harming the sense of the text.
The psalm itself is sometimes categorized as a “royal psalm” because of its focus on Israel’s king, one of a handful of such psalms scattered throughout the book. The king’s reign is described as “righteous, universal, beneficent, and perpetual.”3J. A. Alexander, Psalms of Life (Edinburgh: Hislop, 1869),71. The exalted language has led Christians to view the psalm as messianic in nature, one pointing to the ideal Davidic King, one “greater than Solomon” (Luke 11:31).
The psalm portrays the nations paying homage to the Lord’s anointed, especially in vv. 9-11. This sort of thing characterized Solomon’s reign more any other in the Old Testament (1 Kgs 4:21; 10:24–25), and in the messianic Psalm 2, the “kings of the earth” who stand “against the Lord and against his Anointed” (v. 2) are warned to give due homage to the Son (v. 12). In the New Testament, the gifts of the magi at Jesus’s birth should also be seen as the homage of the nations to the Lord’s anointed (Matt 2:1-12), and John, describing in his vision the future New Jerusalem, where the Lamb resides, says that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.…They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24, 26).
Watts taps into this theme of homage to the Lord’s anointed. Ultimately, “Jesus shall reign” over all the earth, and Watts makes this notion more accessible by replacing (in the original stanzas 2–3) the nations named in Psalm 72 with modern-day entities who will bring tribute, “pay their Homage,” and “submit and bow and own their Lord.” And Watts does not present this homage as the grudging result of forced subjugation. As Psalm 72 emphasizes the benevolent nature of the sovereign as one who saves, redeems, and delivers the poor, weak, and needy (vv. 12–14), the hymn (in the original stanzas 5–6) portrays the nations as “dwell[ing] on his Love with sweetest Song”4Hymnologist Erik Routley argues that Watts meant to end the original fourth stanza with a semicolon, not a period, so that the future tense is maintained as the fifth stanza opens: “People and … Continue reading and blessing the name of the one from whom blessings abound.
Those blessings are emphasized in the original hymn: the prisoner loses his chains, the weary find eternal rest, the needy are blessed. The remarkable seventh original stanza—unfortunately, almost never sung today— accentuates the exceptional nature of the blessings provided by the reigning Messiah: The sixth stanza provided foreshadowing by speaking of eternal rest, and now, where Jesus “displays his healing Power,” death and the very curse itself “are known no more.”5One cannot help but think of Watts’s forward-looking “Joy to the World,” which takes its departure from Psalm 98 and proclaims of the future reign of Christ, “No more let sins and sorrows … Continue reading All the “tribes of Adam” will someday under their Sovereign’s beneficent rule “boast more Blessings than their Father [Adam] lost.”
The final stanza reminds us that every creature is to honor their Creator and Sovereign. The book of Psalms closes, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Ps 150:6), and John’s vision portrays “every creature” lauding the Lamb (Rev 5:13). In the hymn, “ev’ry Creature [is to] rise” to honor Christ, and “angels [are to] descend” with song again, perhaps reflecting their role in the first advent (Luke 2:13–14). Amen and Amen!
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
To Him shall endless pray’r be made,
and endless praises crown His head;
His name like sweet perfume shall rise
with ev’ry morning sacrifice.
People and realms of ev’ry tongue
dwell on His love with sweetest song,
and infant voices shall proclaim
their early blessings on His name.
Blessings abound where’er He reigns;
the pris’ners leap to lose their chains,
the weary find eternal rest,
and all who suffer want are blessed.
Let ev’ry creature rise and bring
their grateful honors to our King.
Angels descend with songs again,
and earth repeat the loud “Amen!”
|1||“Rather than asking Christians to speak the language of David, he made David speak the language of Christians.” David W. Music, “Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David Imitated at 300,” Artistic Theologian 7 (2019): 47.|
|2||Interestingly, Watts himself bracketed certain stanzas (2, 3, 7, 8) to be omitted if necessary without harming the sense of the text.|
|3||J. A. Alexander, Psalms of Life (Edinburgh: Hislop, 1869),71.|
|4||Hymnologist Erik Routley argues that Watts meant to end the original fourth stanza with a semicolon, not a period, so that the future tense is maintained as the fifth stanza opens: “People and Realms of ev’ry Tongue [shall] dwell on his Love with sweetest Song.” “‘Jesus Shall Reign’: A Matter of Punctuation,” Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland 95 (1962).|
|5||One cannot help but think of Watts’s forward-looking “Joy to the World,” which takes its departure from Psalm 98 and proclaims of the future reign of Christ, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. // He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”|
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