The hymn begins with a description of Christians gathered at the amazing feast prepared by God. Our hearts and songs are admiring the feast, i.e. enjoying God's presence and his "everlasting love." But as the believers enjoy God at the banquet, a question develops in each one's mind: "Lord, why was I a guest? Why was I made to hear Thy voice, and enter while there's room, when thousands make a wretched choice, and rather starve than come?"
A good question. Why me, Lord? Why do many despise the invitation to the feast? Aren't all invited to come? Was I just smarter or better than others who received the same invitation?
Thy hymn answers the question, taking its theology to an even higher level: "'Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in; else we had still refused to taste, and perished in our sin." Wow! Amazing. God not only "spread the feast," but was intimately involved in drawing us in! The Father spread the feast, the Son made us able to come (by removing our sin with his sacrifice at the cross), and the Holy Spirit (the often forgotten member of the Trinity) did his work in our hearts, the wind blowing where it wills (John 3), until we willingly came into the pleasures of God. God not only sends out the invitation, he draws his people to himself! "No one can come to me unless the Father draws him" (John 6:44). "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37). If left to ourselves, slaves to sin that we are - ruined and depraved and given to unceasing wickedness and idolatry - blind and deaf to God and dead in our trespasses and sins - we would never heed his beautiful invitation. Thank God for his sweetly drawing us in!
So the hymn is thus far celebrating the theology of God's saints enjoying him forever, and the sovereign grace of God in calling his people into his feast. But now the missional heart of compassion for the lost comes into view: "Pity the nations, O our God; constrain the earth come; Send thy victorious word abroad, and bring the strangers home. We long to see thy churches full, that all the chosen race may with one voice and heart and soul, sing Thy redeeming grace!"
In the hymn's title and first line ('How sweet and awful'), 'awful' is used in the old sense of "awe inducing," as in our modern word, 'awesome.' How sweet and, yet, awesome is the place of our enjoying God: sweet and beautiful fellowship indeed! But 'awful' in the sense that we are humbled to think that, apart from God's sweet wooing of our hearts by his Spirit, we would have rejected God's feast like so many others. A truly humbling truth.
May we learn a lesson from this old hymn. May God put in us a joyful heart of celebration - we are welcomed to the table of the King! But may we also be humbled by the fact that we are only at the table by God's grace. Many will reject the invitation and perish in their sins. This would have been our terrible fate if the Spirit of God had not acted powerfully in our hearts. Glory to God!
Below are the full lyrics to the hymn. There is also a youtube link below from a Together For the Gospel conference where the hymn was sung.
How sweet and awful is the place With Christ within the doors,Listen to the hymn here.
While ever-lasting love displays The choicest of her stores.
While all our hearts and all our songs Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues, “Lord, why was I a guest?”
"Why was I made to hear Thy voice, And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice, And rather starve than come?”
'Twas the same love that spread the feast That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste, And perished in our sin.
Pity the nations, O our God, Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad, And bring the strangers home.
We long to see Thy churches full, That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul, Sing Thy redeeming grace.
Isaac Watts, 1707 (Public Domain)