Jesus shall reign

Sometimes its helpful to think a little deeper about the hymns and songs that we sing. So we asked Daniel Johnson to give us some historical and theological background to this Isaac Watts classic that has been recently adapted by the Gettys. We hope you find this interesting and helpful.

‘Jesus Shall Reign Where’re the Sun’

Keith and Kristen Getty, in partnership with OMF, have chosen the Isaac Watts hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign Where’re the Sun” for the 2018 Global Hymn Sing ( which is happening on 25th February. The hymn was originally published in 1719, in Watts’ The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and this brief article will explore some of the hymn’s context and its continuing relevance today.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a pastor, theologian and hymn writer in the first half of the eighteenth century.[i] Within his lifetime and beyond, he was a hugely significant figure. In 1707, while pastor of Mark Lane Church in London, Watts published his highly influential Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In 1719, he published his own version of the Psalms. Watts’ aim in this work was to show how the Psalms speak about Christ. [ii] Watts transformed congregational singing and was enormously successful; for example, in 1865, of the 750 hymnals in publication, two-fifths of the hymns were from Watts.[iii]

“Jesus Shall Reign” is based on Psalm 72. At first glance, it becomes difficult to see the relationship between the psalm and the hymn, given that the former is addressed to Solomon while Watts’ hymn is addressed to Christ. In order to see how Watts gets this hymn from the psalm, it is helpful to understand his intention in writing The Psalms of David. Before Watts, churches sang metrical psalms in an attempt to be faithful to Scripture; however, Watts wanted the church to sing about Christ.[iv] And, as Harry Escott writes, “in preaching and prayer Christ and His Cross were at the centre of the worshipper’s thought, but when he sang his praises, it was as if Christ had never been born, had never died and rose again from the dead.”[v] Watts sought to change this, and he did so in a way that fit with his understanding of Scripture, that the whole of the Bible reveals Christ; “Watts…argued that Old Testament Scripture viewed in New Covenant light both allowed and obligated him to Christianize the Psalms.”[vi]  

Returning to “Jesus Shall Reign” and Psalm 72, Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator and a contemporary of Watts, wrote of this psalm that it was written by David for Solomon, and within it lies a prophecy of Christ’s kingdom, “prophesied of under the type and figure of Solomon.”[vii] And following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which William of Orange became King and subsequent Act of Toleration in 1689, in which Nonconformists were granted religious freedoms that they had not enjoyed for a generation, the fortunes of those outside of the Church of England were tethered to the monarchy.[viii]

Watts’ hymn begins with Psalm 72:5, which sees the reign of king Jesus extend across the whole earth. It is noteworthy that in Psalm 72, the writer intends to see the king’s reign spread throughout all generations and to the ends of the earth, whereas Watts mainly stresses the horizontal expansion; the reign goes out, from Jerusalem, to the ends of the earth (instantly calling the Great Commission to mind).[ix]

Now with the addition of the Getty’s chorus, the praises of the King will be sung “through eternal days.” The reign of Christ will not only reach from one end of the horizon to the other, but reaches back to Adam and culminates in a future yet to be revealed. The eternal Christ shall live and reign forever, and so the prayer moves out from the epicentre of Christ’s throne to an empire under his rule.

Whether you choose to sing “Jesus Shall Reign” in its original form, or with the Getty’s added chorus, it is a great choice for the Global Hymn Sing on February 25th; throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “Jesus Shall Reign” was one of the most widely used missionary hymns.[x] For three centuries it has mobilised the people of God by revealing the panorama of Christ’s reign, across the earth and through the ages, calling them to take the news of this glorious kingdom to all peoples. The new chorus adds an anticipation of the day which the song points ahead to, when the whole Church from every tribe, language, nation and age gather around the throne of our King in eternal praise. The certain declarations of Christ’s kingdom and reign are the very things which compel us to action, just as Jesus rooted the Commission to His disciples in His risen authority, so He calls us to go, with the promise that He is with us until the end of the age, when the people of the King will gather in eternal hymns of praise.

[i] To read more about the life and work of Isaac Watts, start Beynon, Graham (2013) Isaac Watts: His Life and Thought, Christian Focus Publications, and for a more thorough read, see Davis, A.P. (1942) Isaac Watts, Independent Press.

[ii] To read more about Watts’ treatment of the Psalms, see Escott, Harry (1962) Hymnographer, Independent Press, and Johnson, Daniel (2016) The sweet singer of Israel: Isaac Watts and the Developing Hermeneutic of Nonconformist Psalmody. MRes thesis, University of Nottingham.

[iii] Davis, Isaac Watts, 207-215

[iv] Eric Routley writes, “But more and more as [Watts] grew older the theological question presented itself to him: why may we no longer sing to Christ as God? When Christ makes all things new, why must our praises remain Old Covenant?” (Routley, Erik (1952) Hymns and Human Life, Butler and Tanner, 63)

[v] Escott, Hymnographer, 254

[vi] Crookshank Rothenbusch (2004) “We’re Marching to Zion: Isaac Watts in Early America”,” in Mouw, Richard J. & Noll, Mark (2004) Wonderful Words of Life, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 19

[vii] Henry Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible, [available at]

[viii] Not only does Watts use Psalm 72 to refer to Christ, but at the death of George I, Watts quoted Psalm 72:8 in his eulogy.

[ix] Hull, John (2002) ‘From Experiential Educator to Nationalist Theologian: the Hymns of Isaac Watts,’ Panorama: International Journal of Comparative Religious Education and Values, 14.1

[x] Schneider, Robert (2004) “Jesus Shall Reign: Hymns and Foreign Missions” in Mouw, Richard J. & Noll, Mark (2004)Wonderful of Words of Life, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 85

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Adrian Tribe

    Thank you for mentioning this blog piece at this afternoon’s Music Ministry session at Cornhill. We’re going to be singing the “Getty chorus” version of this hymn on Sunday morning (I rather like this new chorus, although I know some think we should never alter classic hymns in this way!). Is it OK if I quote some of this blog piece when I introduce the hymn on Sunday? Thanks.

    1. Andy Fenton

      No problem about quoting the blog. Do let your church musicians (and anyone for whom it may be helpful and encouraging) know about our facebook page/ instagram/blog.

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