And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Born and raised in the home of a school teacher, Isaac Watts had a knack for language at a very young age. He began studying Latin at age four, with Greek and Hebrew following soon after. He put these gifts to good use, becoming one of the most prolific writers of hymns in the history of the Church.
In addition to composing more than 750 hymn texts—dozens of which are still frequently sung today—Watts published several books on a variety of theological and academic topics, including a popular book on logic that remained in use for well over a hundred years as a standard textbook at Oxford and Cambridge; ironic, as these are schools where Watts, a Nonconformist, would not have been allowed to attend.
While most of his scholarly writing took place after earning his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1728, he did the bulk of his hymn writing as a young man. During the two years following his graduation from college at age 20, Watts lived with his parents, churning out hymns for their small church, the Above Bar Congregational Church. These hymns were published in 1707 as part of his collection Hymns and Spiritual Songs, available online here.
One of the hymns written during this time began, “Come, we that love the Lord,” though it originally bore the title “Heavenly Joy on Earth.” This familiar text has seen many alterations and titles, but today is most known as “We’re Marching to Zion,” thanks to 19th-century composer Robert Lowry, whose creative joining of Watts’ text with a popular Negro spiritual made it a favorite of generations of Christians.
Here’s a rendition of this hymn, with Lowry’s gospel melody, performed by the Georgia Boy Choir:
Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly King
May speak their joys abroad.
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets
Before we reach the heav’nly fields
Or walk the golden streets.
Then let our songs abound,
And ev’ry tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground
To fairer worlds on high.
We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.
One of the reasons I admire Isaac Watts so much is that he was such a heavenly-minded man, yet that never dimmed his focus on earthly ministry. It was because he was so consumed with the hope of Heaven that he proclaimed joy to the world. When we reflect on the many promises of blessings that God gives to believers in his Word, we cannot help but “let our joys be known.” Our earthly worship joins with the worship which surrounds the throne room of God (Revelation 4:6-8).
The opening of the second stanza is one of the most sobering lines ever sung in church. In recent years, a number of articles have been written (e.g., see here, here, and here) detailing the decline in participation in corporate singing, especially by men. While there are a number of understandable factors which play a role in this trend (unfamiliarity with new music, no hymnals to follow along, perceived inability, etc.), the fact remains that there are many in our pews who simply refuse to sing. What are the implications? Watts would question whether they have ever known our God; singing in worship is that important!
Yet it is difficult to sing about promises of eternal blessings that can seem so far off when life is hard. Thankfully, there are blessings aplenty for the believer, even in this life. As we march throughout life toward Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 14:1), we are the recipients of “a thousand sacred sweets”; these blessings may not always be readily apparent, but as we train ourselves to look for them, we become more aware of God’s hand at work. Each blessing is a foretaste of what awaits us when we will “walk the golden streets.”
So let your songs abound! Be joyful! Wipe the tears from your eyes and know that whatever path you are walking, you are walking on Immanuel’s ground. God is sovereign over all, and He is with us. Fairer worlds await us on high, but until we reach that beautiful city let us be busy with the Lord’s work, bringing the Gospel to every nation and exalting the name of our God.