The Scale of Blessedness is the title of an Isaac Watts sermon which starts from Psalm 65:4, “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts,” and launches out into an exploration of the idea of blessedness itself. Rung by rung, Watts climbs the ladder of beatitude: from the blessed man, to the blessed savior, to the blessed Trinity, “this ocean of being and blessedness, that has no limit, on either side, no surface, no bottom, no shore.”
Watts was never at a loss for words, and once he got the biblical theme of blessedness in his mind he began generating wonderful turns of expression, taking his listeners up the “rising ranks of bliss.” The sermon is an ascent of “the sacred scale of blessedness, or the several degrees of felicity, that creatures are possessed of, according to their advancing approaches toward God; and we shall find blessedness, in its highest perfection, to belong only to God himself.”
There are five main levels on the scale of blessedness according to Watts, though many of those contain meaningful sub-levels.
First degree of blessedness: To be within earshot of the gospel, “within the sound and call of his grace.” So the Jews from old times, and “happy Britons in our age” are blessed with the first degree of blessedness. And if you’ve got a Christian upbringing, and can attend a good congregation with “a powerful and persuasive ministry,” all the more blessing.
Second degree of blessedness: Being saved. Yes, Watts counted nearness to the gospel ministry as a blessing even for the unsaved: hence, England herself was blessed as a nation, even though to be English was not the same as to be saved. But to be saved, to experience reconciliation with God and the overcoming of the estrangement of sin, is far superior:
What a sacred and superior pleasure it is, above all the joys of sense, to love the great and blessed God, and to know that he loves me! To walk all the day in the light of his countenance!
And some Christians experience more of this peace and power than others, but all belong on the second major degree of blessedness.
Third degree of blessedness: The angels occupy this level, along with the departed saints who are absent from the body and present with the Lord. While on earth, we commune with God through various means of grace, but “in the upper world” they “approach him in their sublime methods of worship without the medium of types and ordinances.” Again, there may be degrees within this level, unless you can imagine “no distinction between Moses and Samson” in their communion with God.
Fourth degree of blessedness: The nearness of the man Jesus Christ to God. Watts is very careful here to emphasize the Christ simply is God, considered in his divine nature or in his eternal sonhood. But as the incarnate mediator, he is a man, and that man occupies the highest rank of blessedness possible for a human. “Blessed is this man,” that “he may dwell, not only in thy courts, but in thy bosom, in thyself for ever and ever.” This man knows God better, worships God more intimately, and obeys God more perfectly, than all others. For the man Jesus Christ “is the medium through which we approach and we enjoy, as well as a person who himself, and for himself, approaches and enjoys.”
Fifth, or supreme degree of blessedness. The very definition of blessedness is from the blessed Trinity, ” the very centre and spring of all felicity.” Watts says, “Our admiration may be raised yet higher, if we make one excursion beyond all created nature, and lift our thoughts upward to the blessedness of the three glorious persons in the Trinity.” Here at the peak Watts truly warms to his subject, and unfolds a vision of the life of the triune God as a richness and fullness above all imagining: It is the supreme state of knowledge and love.
Nor is their blessedness, or their nearness, a dull inactive state : Knowledge and mutual love make up their heaven, so far as mortals dare conceive of it, and so far as we have leave to speak of God after the manner of men.
And besides the general glories of the divine nature, we may suppose, that a full and comprehensive knowledge of the sameness, the difference, the special properties, and the mutual relations of the three divine persons, which are utterly incomprehensible to mortals, and perhaps far above the reach of all created minds, is the incommunicable entertainment of the holy Trinity, and makes a part of their blessedness.
May I call it a perpetual delightful tendency, and active propensity toward each other? An eternal approach to each other with infinite complacency? An eternal embrace of each other with arms of inimitable love and with sensations of unmeasurable joy?
As the blessed Three have an unknown communion in the Godhead, or divine nature, so they must have an unspeakable nearness to one another’s persons, an inconceivable in-being and in-dwelling in each other. … O glorious and divine communion! The Father for ever near to his own image the Son, and herein blessed! The Son never divided from the embraces of the Father, and therefore happy! The Spirit everlastingly near them both, and therefore he is the cver-blessed Spirit! And all these united in one Godhead, and therefore infinitely and for ever blessed!
The unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit can be partly imagined, to borrow geometric terms, as an asymptotic nearness: “Mathematicians talk indeed of the perpetual tendencies, and infinite approximations of two or more lines in the same surface, which yet never can entirely concur in one line.” Analogously, the persons of the Trinity, through their love and in-dwelling, “approach each other infinitely.” But it is only an analogy: The Father’s love for the Son is not the approach of a curve to a limit, it is love: “May we not suppose something of society necessary to the perfection of happiness in all intellectual nature ? To know, and be known, to love and to be beloved, are perhaps, such essential ingredients of complete felicity, that it cannot subsist without them.”
Watts is overcome with the contemplation:
We are lost in this ocean of being and blessedness, that has no limit, on either side, no surface, no bottom, no shore. The nearness of the divine persons to each other, and the unspeakable relish of their unbounded pleasures, are too vast ideas for a bounded mind to entertain. It is one infinite transport that runs through Father, Son, and Spirit, without beginning, and without end, with boundless variety, yet ever perfect, and ever present, without change, and without degree…
Though Watts chose to start at the bottom and climb to the top of the scale of blessedness, he could have started at the top and shown how the highest form of beatitude is the source of all the others. And in fact, having reached the top of the scale, he brings his sermon to an end with an acknowledgment that is is “God from whom all blessings flow.” “Thus we have traced the streams of happiness that flow amongst the creatures in endless variety, to their original and eternal fountain, God himself : He is the all-sufficient spring of blessedness as well as of being, to all the intellectual worlds ; and he is everlastingly self-sufficient for his own being and blessedness.”
Finally, Watts offered a hymn that summarized his sermon in a few short lines:
The Scale of Blessedness;
or Blessed Saints, Blessed Saviour, and Blessed Trinity
ASCEND, my soul, by just degrees,
Let contemplation rove
O’er all the rising ranks of bliss,
Here, and in worlds above.
Blest is the nation near to God,
Where he makes known his ways:
Bevst are the men whose feet have trod
His lower courts of grace.
Blest were the levite and the priest,
Who near his altar stood;
Blest are the saints from sin releas’d,
Add rcconcil’d with blood.
Blest are the souls dismiss’d from clay,
Before his face they stand:
Blest angels in their bright array,
Attend his great command.
Jesus is more divinely blest,
Where man to godhead join’d,
Hath joys transcending all the rest,
More noble and refin’d.
But, O what words or thoughts can trace
The blessed Three in one!
Here rest my spirit, and confess
The infinite unknown.
Footnote: By his own admission, Watts did not always retain a robust confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity. He wished it were more clearly revealed in the explicit words of Scripture (fair enough), and some of the unfortunate controversies of his century threw too much dust in his eyes for him to be able to see the truth of classical trinitarian theology as clearly as he should have (too bad). But this early sermon, which he consented to republish even after his grasp of trinitarianism was weakened, shows a wholehearted embrace of the doctrine, and even showcases his resourceful biblical development of it.