Isaac Watts & “Jesus Shall Reign”

Sonata in F#m (K25) D. Scarlatti

“Jesus Shall Reign”

Praeludium & Fuga in C#m from “Ariadne Musica” J.C.F. Fischer (1656-1746)

Isaac Watts (1674–1748) was a prolific hymn writer, one of whose undertakings was to adapt the entire book of Psalms (or at least virtually all of it) into verse form while injecting a New Testament perspective. The result was The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, published in 1719.

He explained his approach: “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 have added the merits of a Savior. Where he talks of sacrificing goats or bullocks, 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.”

These versions of the Psalms in modern poetic rhyme and meter naturally lend themselves to hymns, and his setting of Psalm 72 has remained steadfastly popular — now better known as “Jesus Shall Reign”. Comparing the original Psalm text side by side with his rendition reveals how extraordinary (some said ‘fanciful’) his settings are. Ferinstance:

Ps.72:17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.

Jesus shall reign where'er the sun
Does his successive journies run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
(This is the original 1719 wording and spelling — the text in our hymnal has been lightly edited.)