Isaac Watts wrote lots of hymns. By one count, he penned more than 750. His most famous ones include, “Joy to the World,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” and “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed.” He is sometimes called “The Father of English Hymnody.” But he also wrote some lesser-known church songs that we rarely sing. I recently came across one such example.
Admittedly, the opening line of this hymn tickled my inner-seventh-grade boy. I expected old words and King James phrasing, but I didn’t expect what I read. The Watts’ hymn begins, “Blest is the man whose bowels move.” (What?!?!.) I had to read it again. And then I had to read it to my wife. We both chuckled at its dated language.
Of course, in the 1700s, one’s bowels moving meant to have compassion for others. This odd expression is a biblical one. In Philippians 1:8, Paul writes that “I long for you all with the affections of Christ.” The Greek word for “affection” can also mean the body’s inward parts. Kids call it guts. Doctors call it your small intestines. And English people in the 1700s, like Watts, called it your bowels. In some later editions, this line was changed to, “Blest is the man whose mercies move,” or “Blest is the man whose heart doth move.” (Today, we speak of the “heart” in the same way they often spoke of the “bowels” – the place from which we feel and care.) But this song is more than just a Beatitude About Bowels.
If you can remember its true meaning, then, the hymn is quite profound. Read the four verses slowly and consider the message of this forgotten song.
Blest is the man whose bowels move,
And melt with pity to the poor,
Whose soul by sympathizing love,
Feels what his fellow saints endure.
His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do;
He in the time of general grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels, too.
His soul shall live secure on earth
With sacred blessings on his head,
When drought, and pestilence, and dearth,
Around him multiply their dead.
Or if he languish on his couch,
God will pronounce his sins forgiv’n,
Will save him with a healing touch,
Or take his willing soul to heav’n.
The more I read the hymn, the less I wanted to laugh and the more I wanted to cry. What a rich expression of Christian empathy, kindness, and God’s love!
Like all of Watts’s songs, this one is rooted in the words of Scripture. While that opening phrase is partially based on the ideas from Philippians 1:8, the overall hymn comes from the words of Psalm 41:1-3.
1How blessed is he who considers the poor;
The Lord will deliver him in a day of trouble.
2The Lord will protect him and keep him alive,
And he shall be called blessed upon the earth;
And do not give him over to the desire of his enemies.
3 The Lord will sustain him upon his sickbed;
In his illness, You restore him to health.
The original title of the hymn was, “Charity to the Poor,” which comes from the opening verse of Psalm 41. Most of these verses talk about what God will do to those that do for others. It reminds us of our responsibility to those in need. As I read this hymn and psalm, two questions popped into my mind. Answer them for yourself.
Do I see the poor and hurting?
This psalm and hymn assume that we recognize those in need. To some people, poor people are non-people. They step over them on the sidewalk, trying to escape their look and smell. They drive pass them on the street corners avoiding eye contact at all costs.
It reminds of what Jacob Marley said to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!” If you remember, Scrooge assured him that he had been a good man of business, to which Jacob Marley’s ghost replied, “Business?! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.” Are they not also our business too? When we ignore the poor and hurting, we are only hurting ourselves.
Do I help the poor and hurting?
In Matthew 6:1-4, Jesus spoke about His followers helping the poor. He warned us about “practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” (In other words, if you’re posting well-lit, perfectly filtered Instagram pictures of you serving at a soup kitchen, you’re doing it wrong.) But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give to the poor. In fact, twice, Jesus said, “when you give to the poor;” He didn’t say, “if.” Jesus assumed that his people would have open hands and generous hearts to those in need. Anonymous giving is, in one sense, the truest form of giving. When was the last time you gave to help someone in need? Did you do it for the sake of recognition? Or sheer kindness?
After Paul’s conversion, he went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles. In Galatians 2, he said that he met James (Jesus’ brother) and Peter. These men recognized his faith and welcomed him into ministry. When the apostles sent him and Barnabas out, Paul said, “They only asked us to remember the poor – the very thing I also was eager to do.” (Gal 2:10) Can we say the same thing – that we are eager to “remember” the poor? I need to do better at this myself. God help me. God help us.
Let’s not forget what Scripture says, “though (Jesus) was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) May the Lord “move our bowels” this week to the poor and needy as Christ did for us in the gospel.