“What tho’ the Gates of Hell withstood,
yet must this building rise:
‘tis thy own Work, Almighty God,
And wondrous in our Eyes”[i]
Isaac Watts must have dearly loved the Psalter and the praises he found there. To spend the time and energy that he did digging out new ways to sing them
shows his devotion to these ancient words. In the same way, his love for our Lord shines through. His rendering of the Psalms in the beauty of Christ shows his devotion to praise and thanksgiving to the Lord of heaven and earth.
This hymn quotation finds its basis in the 22nd and 23rd verses of Psalm 118. Combining these verses from the Old Testament with the words of our Lord in Matthew 16:18, shows Watts’ creativity in lyrical combinations to complete the story of Christ from the Old Covenant to the New.
The hymn declares Watts’ understanding of Church in a bold way. Watts teaches theology in song, and here he presents a Church built on the one foundation of Jesus Christ. Here we see one of the five classic Protestant solæ: Solus Christus.
On what are we building our churches? Are we constantly asking about the next program? Perhaps if we just get the newest equipment for worship our church will really take off? Maybe we need a savvy new approach for youth ministry? How about a good sermon series to really challenge the congregation?
Watts’ hymn will have none of that. The picture of the church he presents challenges us to focus our church building efforts on Christ alone. Drawing on Old Testament imagery of building the Temple, Watts reminds us to keep our eyes fixed on Christ, His Kingdom, and hold Him as primary. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1a).
Look too at the imagery of the ‘Gates of Hell’. Gates are not an offensive weapon, but a defensive structure. This means that our churches should be on the offensive for Christ and batter the Gates of Hell with relentless fury, for we are promised that the Gates of Hell cannot withstand a Church focused on faith in Christ.
Ask yourself on what are you building your congregation? Is it on your own effort, or are you building on the solid rock of Christ? We are called to “preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:23-24). A church built on Christ will stand and prevail.
[i] Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (London: Bible and Crown at the Poultry, 1719), 308.