History of Hymns: “Jesus Shall Reign”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Jesus Shall Reign"
Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 157

Isaac Watts

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run;
his kingdom spread from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
 

“Jesus shall reign” reflects an 18th-century vision of the world church. Rooted in the language of Psalm 72, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) paraphrased this psalm in ways that reflected his time and the geo-political position of England and the rise of the British Empire. 

This hymn first appeared in Watts’s important collection Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) under the title “Christ’s Kingdom among the Gentiles.” The first line is unusual for hymn based on a psalm—“Jesus shall reign.” 

How could a paraphrase of an Old Testament psalm mention Jesus? Watts believed that the psalms should reflect Christian experience. Therefore it is common to find Christological references in Watts’s version of the psalms. 

Furthermore, unlike his predecessors who composed literal metrical versions of the psalms, Watts was not afraid to depart from the biblical text. An interesting example of this is found in two stanzas that are not commonly included in hymnals. 

Psalm 72: 9 reads as follows: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts” (KJV). Two stanzas, bracketed in the original indicating perhaps that they were either optional or parenthetical, refer to this verse:

Behold the Islands with their Kings,
And Europe her best Tribute brings;
From North to South the Princes meet
To pay their Homage at his Feet.
There Persia glorious to behold,
There India shines in Eastern Gold;
And barbarous Nations at this Word
Submit and bow and own their Lord.


Neither Persia nor India is mentioned in Scripture. Rather than making a political statement, Watts was fulfilling a goal of this collection as stated in the preface, to make David and Asaph “always speak the Common Sense and Language of a Christian.” Watts accomplished this in several ways, including using mostly one- and two-syllable words and writing in clear poetical thoughts without the twisted and awkward verbiage of earlier metrical psalms. Since the Christian was the focus of collection, even the psalms were subject to updating. 

In the case of the stanzas cited earlier, Watts felt free to substitute the locations mentioned in the Authorized Version: “Tarshish,” “Sheba” and “Seba.” The location of Tarshish (meaning sea coast) is disputed, but thought to be in either modern India or Spain. The location of Sheba, also disputed, may have been in either modern-day Ethiopia or Yemen. Seba may have been located in northeastern Africa. 

For these biblical names, Watts substitutes Persia and India. Persia and India may have been considered to be the locations of these cities during Watts’s time, but they were also places of economic importance in the British Empire in the 18th century. 

Within the context of the church, “Jesus shall reign” is often considered one of the earliest mission hymns, though as UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young points out, “the text did not come into general use until the greatly expanded missionary activity of the nineteenth century.” 

Regardless of the author’s intent, this hymn certainly coincided with the rise of the British Empire, and it would have been likely that a congregation in England who sang this psalm paraphrase in the 18th century would have made a link—consciously or subconsciously—between the Empire and phrases like “his kingdom spread from shore to shore” in stanza one. 

For the 21st-century singer, this remains a powerful hymn. The five stanzas chosen for The United Methodist Hymnal offer a vision of Christendom—a world church where, in stanza four, “all prisoners leap and loose their chains,” “the weary find eternal rest” and “all who suffer want are blest.”
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.