This fall the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal will publish an essay of mine in which I evaluate claims that Isaac Watts was a proto-dispensationalist. In the article I argue that Watts’s writings do not demonstrate enough characteristics of dispensationalism to characterize him as such, but it is clear that Isaac Watts was at least a premillenialist. This is illustrated in several of his hymns, with a good example being “Jesus Shall Reign,” an “imitation” of Psalm 72. In fact, Arno C. Gaebelein, an associate of C. I. Scofield, specifically notes this hymn as proof of Watts’s premillennialism.1
Called “A Song for Solomon,” Psalm 72 is a royal psalm praying for the successful rule of David’s descendants. The psalm prophesies the global extent of that rule one day in the future, when one of his descendants “shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8, KJV). This descendent will have ultimate victory over all of his enemies (v. 9), he “shall spare the poor and needy” (v. 13), and “daily shall he be praised” (v. 15).
Dispensationalists and nondispensationalists interpret this hymn differently. Although both groups admit that the psalm “is messianic in the sense that Jesus is the ‘Christ’ (‘anointed one’) who shares in all the promises made to David and to his descendants (cf. 2 Sam 7),”2 dispensationalists see the universal rule in this psalm as entirely future, while some nondispensationalists see it as beginning with Christ’s death and resurrection.
For example, Scofield says in his Reference Bible note, “The Psalm as a whole forms a complete vision of Messiah’s kingdom so far as the O.T. revelation extended. All David’s prayers will find their fruition in the kingdom,”3 and Ryrie says of the “rule from sea to sea” in verse 8, “This will not be fulfilled until the millennial reign of Christ.”4
In contrast, a note in the ESV Study Bible claims that Jesus “has begun to fulfill this task through the Christian mission (cf. Matt. 28:18–20; Rom. 1:1–6)” and even goes so far as to use this interpretation as a basis for “Kingdom” work in the church today.5 The note ironically cites “Jesus Shall Reign” as an example of its interpretation, an invalid example based on what follows.
Since the original psalm itself does not clearly indicate the exact timing of its prophecy, such interpretations are based on other hermeneutical presuppositions, and thus Watts’s “imitation” of the psalm may shed some light on his view of Christ’s Kingdom. While much of his setting utilizes almost the exact language and phraseology of the original psalm, and thus gives no clear indication as to when he believes these events to take place, two phrases in particular that are not in the original may offer some clues.
First, Watts says in his fourth stanza that “His name like sweet perfume shall rise / With ev’ry morning sacrifice.” This reference to a morning sacrifice occurs nowhere in the original psalm, so it is clearly an interpretive addition by the author. The fact that there are no sacrifices today during the Church Age seems to indicate that Watts did not see the events of Psalm 72 as taking place during this age. He may have considered the psalm to take place entirely in the time of its writing, but three factors indicate otherwise. The most obvious is that he makes Jesus the subject of his interpretation in the hymn.
Second, Watts specifically cited “royal psalms” in his Preface as those that had little profitability for Christians. If he saw this psalm as only a reference to a king of Israel, it seems unlikely he would have rendered it as literally as he did.
The third indication that Watts did not understand the psalm as relating only to a king in ancient Israel is the other phrase he uses that was not in the original psalm. In stanza seven he says, “Where he displays his healing power / Death and the curse are known no more.” Again, the original psalm itself says nothing of healing, death, or the curse, which leads to a belief that Watts had Jesus, the ultimate descendent of David, in mind here. Yet this language proclaiming the end of death and the curse is certainly not true of the Church Age, so Watts very likely interpreted its meaning to be a future time when Christ would literally reign over all the earth and be praised “with every morning sacrifice” (Ezek 46:13, KJV).
As a dispensationalist myself, I would suggest that the ESV Study Bible misinterprets Psalm 72, especially in its insistance of the necessity of “Kingdom” fork for today’s Church. Regardless, their use of Isaac Watts’s “Jesus Shall Reign” is an infortunate misinterpretation of at least his understanding of the Second Coming and Reign of Christ.
- Scofield and Gaebelein, Things New and Old, p. 159. Interestingly, others attempt to portray the same hymn as expressing postmillennialism. See Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos, 2002), p. 352. [↩]
- Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 469. [↩]
- C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), p. 633. [↩]
- Charles C. Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible: New Testament: New American Standard Version (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), p. 895. [↩]
- “This also explains why Christian witness, when it is true to the messianic picture of the Bible, goes beyond basic gospel proclamation and also fosters social justice and the moral transformation of whole societies” ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), p.1025. The ESV Study Bible notes are known for their Reformed leaning. Notes in the Psalms were written by C. John Collins of Covenant Theological Seminary. [↩]