Blest is the one whose bowels move

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My friend Andrew Price drew our attention to an old Isaac Watts’ hymn recently. You will be relieved (pun not intended) to hear that it has nothing to do with bodily functions or IBS. Traditionally, when people referred to the emotions they talked not of the heart which was seen rather as the seat of will and understanding. Instead they referred to the bowels. If in fact you do suffer with conditions such as IBS then you will understand this. Indeed, sometimes we’ll talk about gut reactions.

The hymn is about our one another ministry and talks about how a believer should be moved by compassion to care for his brothers and sisters when they face suffering. It reminds us to be alert to poverty and it speaks about the challenges that times of crisis such as pandemics bring.

So, the hymn in many respects seems pertinent to our present times and especially relevant to my recent blogs and podcasts about things including the pandemic, tension between Russia and Ukraine, and the cost of living crisis.

Watts understood that we are saved by grace for good works, that there would be evidence in a believer’s life that God had been at work to change their heart.

Here are the original words.

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.

2. His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do;
He, in the time of gen’ral grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels too.

3. His soul shall live secure on earth,
With secret blessings on his head,
When drought, and pestilence, and dearth
Around him multiply their dead.

4. 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.

Isaac Watts 1674 -1748

Do you fancy singing this at church on Sunday? Well, maybe the mention of bowels and the risk of resulting sniggers puts you off. So, I thought I’d have a go at a quick update. As well as modifying references to the source of emotions, I’ve also made a couple of other tweaks including moving from “he” to “they” to reflect more gender neutral language (though perhaps us men would do well to prioritise these things over power and position).

Andrew also spotted that it can be sung to the same tune as “In Christ Alone” if you want to give it a go!


P.S. If you are interested in finding out a bit more about Watts and how reformed hymn writers engaged with the passions have a look at this paper by another of my friends, Daniel Johnson who is pursuing a PhD looking at Watts.

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