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This is the Day the Lord Has Made

 

“This is the Day the Lord Has Made” Inspired by Psalm 118: 24, this hymn is only loosely based on the text, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” The text originated in the Englishman Isaac Watts’ (1674-1748) Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719), where it forms the fourth section of a metrification of Psalm 118 and is entitled, “Hosanna; the Lord’s Day; or Christ’s Resurrection and our Salvation.”[1] Being a bibliophile, I have a comprehensive collection of Watts’ writings which evidences the mind of a comprehensive man. Of course, his several hundred hymns are collected in the above volume as well as his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1709), Horae Lyricae (1706), Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children (1715) and Sermons with Hymns (1723/27). But his comprehensive ponderings were not limited to hymnody. One of my favourite books is The Improvement of the Mind (1741), whose spine enticingly reads “Watts on the Mind,” and is a textbook devoted to clear thinking and basic logical rudiments, but is not to be confused with his textbook on logic which, as John Julian claims, was used as a textbook in the UK well into the nineteenth century.[2] He also wrote a fascinating treatise on death and the end times which, since my copy was published in the mid-nineteenth century, I can only presume underwent many publication runs. Rev. James Caldwell, during the Battle of Springfield in 1781, upon discovering the militiamen were running out of wadding for their muskets, supposedly entered a nearby church which had Watts hymnals in the pews, grabbed a bunch, pulling out paper to use as wadding whilst exclaiming, “Give ‘em Watts, boys!”[3] This makes an entertaining story (particularly for people who have fired a musket, which is one of the few firearm-related activities in which I have engaged, and that but once) yet is only hymnologically significant because it speaks to the popularity and ubiquity of Watts’ hymnals spanning two continents.

            Let us return to the hymn in question. He paraphrases very loosely Psalm 118: 24 in the first stanza: “This is the day the Lord has made: He calls the hours His own. Let heav’n rejoice, let earth be glad and praise surround the throne.” Watts’ instructions for usage are followed by LSB, which has located this hymn in the “Beginning of Service” section, and is hence generally appropriate for most any Sunday. If the first stanza exemplifies the “Psalms of David” character of this hymnal, certain the second stanza exemplifies the “Imitated in the Language of the New Testament” character: “Today He rose and left the dead, and Satan’s empire fell; Today the saints His triumphs spread and all His wonders tell.” This, indeed, is quite a paraphrase! The Christological addition to this “paraphrase” seems routine, mundane, and properly expected now, but this was not typical of English-speaking hymn-singing of the time. The Dissenters/Calvinists primarily utilized metrical psalms for their singing—a practice going back to the great Genevan Psalter of 1539 (and subsequent editions.) The first book published in North America was the Puritans’ Bay Psalm Book (1640), which was only one of many psalters used by the non-Anglicans. Anglican liturgy was not much more progressive when it came to hymn singing. From 1549, hymn singing had been limited to the psalm paraphrases found in the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter, whose often-comedic paraphrases were replaced in 1696 by the more elegant Tate and Brady psalter, which was often published together with the Book of Common Prayer. The Tate and Brady did contain some New Testament canticles and the Te Deum, but accounts of the dour worship practices of this time no doubt bear much basis in reality. For Watts to add a New Testament theme to his hymns, which he would call “Hymns of Human Composure,” ironically and arguably made for a Christocentricity which simply wasn’t possible with psalm paraphrases.

            Whereas the second stanza proclaims the momentous events of that first Easter Sunday, Watts now takes us back a week to Palm Sunday which he uses as a framework for the remaining stanzas: “Hosanna to the anointed King, to David’s holy Son! Help us, O Lord; descend and bring Salvation from Your throne.” Watts, like many divines of earlier centuries, was always concerned to connect Old Testament prophecies with their fulfilment in the New Testament, and here Watts encourages a personal reaction to this prophetic fact. We pray, “Help us, O Lord,” recalling the words of the Litany. Watts continues, “Blessed is He who comes to us with messages of grace; He, in the Lord’s name, comes to us to save our fallen race.” In the original text, Watts writes, “Blessed is the Lord who comes. . .” Perhaps the change was made better to reflect most modern (non-inclusive language) versions of the Sanctus/Benedictus. When singing the hymn from the page, it is clear that “He” refers to Lord due to its capitalization. But in an age in which many hymns were memorized and sung “by heart,” simply singing “he” would introduce an element of confusion which is simply addressed by the appellation “Lord.” Watts introduces echoes of Pentecost in the final stanza, “Hosanna in the highest strains the Church on earth can raise. The highest heav’ns, in which He reigns, shall give Him nobler praise.” It is not unusual now for a hymn to end with a doxology or simply with a stanza of praise, as this is. But considering the psalm-singing tradition in which the hymn ended wherever the psalm happened to end, this final stanza must have seemed exuberant!

            There is much more to say about Isaac Watts and, most importantly, his hymnic legacy to the modern Church. What Christmastide would be complete without “Joy to the World,” a hymn recognized by Christian and secular alike? I have seen versions on Youtube of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” performed by cathedral choir and megachurch praise band alike. Recently, I was in St Paul, MN, touring the James Hill house across the street from the basilica. This great nineteenth-century mansion had an original George Hutchins two-manual organ in the music room. I was surprised when the tour guide asked if anyone in the group played the organ, to which I (uncharacteristically enthusiastically) responded “Yes.” She asked me to play, and I immediately launched into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 90. Although the organ probably had not been tuned since 1870, the action was unreliable and uneven, and one could sense the dust that was precluding the pipes from speaking properly, it was a joy to hear people in the group singing or humming along quietly as I played. In a day of increased and unrelenting secularization, Watts has provided us something that endures in our culture.

 

 

[1] Isaac Watts, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. (London: The Apollo Press, 1802), 145.

[2] “Isaac Watts” in John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology. (New York: Scribner, 1892), 1236.

[3] Norman F Brydon, Reverend James Caldwell, Patriot, 1734-1781. (West Caldwell, NJ: Caldwell Historical Association, 1976),  54

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How Firm a Foundation

 

“How Firm a Foundation”  The origin of this hymn text is obscure, first being included in John Rippon’s (1751-1836) A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to Be an Appendix to Dr Watts’ Psalms and Hymns (first published in 1787, but which was reprinted in dozens of editions throughout the nineteenth century.) Rippon was an English Baptist minister, having studied in Bristol, after which he was assigned to the Baptist church in Carter Lane, London. Most biographical sources assert his unwavering support for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, and indeed the Baptist College of Providence, RI, bestowed upon him the Doctor of Divinity degree in 1792.[1] This hymnal became so popular in English Baptist circles that Rippon earned a healthy income from royalties. “How Firm a Foundation” is ascribed only to a mysterious “K” in this hymnal, and who that might have been is beyond our scope to study here.

Rippon’s belief in the importance of congregational song underlay his editing of so many versions of this hymnal. In the preface to the 1790 edition, Rippon encourages singing when he writes, “It is generally allowed, that of all the Services in which good men on earth can be engaged, none is more sublime and elevating than singing the praises of God.” He continues lamenting that “. . . propriety, seriousness, and devotion, in singing, have been almost entirely out of the question."[2] The tunes included in this collection are generally robust, musically interesting, folk-like, and inspire a congregation’s hearty participation.

This hymn text encourages us to place our trust in the “firm foundation” through replete and thorough use of scripture:

How firm a foundation, O saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word! What more can He say than to you He has said who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

 In a day in which manifold voices claim to speak for, to, or about God, it is incumbent upon one to determine on what one will stake their faith. Here the answer is given: His Word, reflecting II Timothy 2: 19, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and ‘Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.’” What a proclamation of the proper relationship between faith and works! Confession, profession of Who God is, as manifest in the Trinity, the Incarnation—essentially, all that we profess in the creeds—is crucial for right faith—orthodoxy. But, in so believing, we have a basis for orthopraxis, right living that eschews sin.

 “Fear not! I am with you, O be not dismayed, for I am your God and will still give you aid; I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand, upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

 The experience of the English Dissenters must have been foremost in the author’s mind. Despised by Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike, it is hardly any wonder the Baptists were on the vanguard of support for the freedom of religion to which the colonies aspired. All those experiencing persecution for their faith can take comfort in Isaiah 41: 10, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Sometimes a hymn writer’s genius is best displayed in knowing when not to alter scripture, as this stanza is nearly verbatim scripture. This is of no surprise, as the English Dissenters (as exemplified in the psalm metrifications of Isaac Watts) were slow to adapt to “hymns of human composure.”

 “The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose I will not, I will not, desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never, forsake.

 We recall here II Cor. 12: 9 in which Paul writes, “But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This is certainly a counter-cultural thought, as it seems these days each special-interest group lobbies for cultural power against the corruption of those already in power, in turn becoming as corrupt as those they seek to replace. This is not a scriptural prescription.

 “When through fiery trials your pathway will lie, My grace, all sufficient, will be your supply. The flames will not hurt you; I only design your dross to consume and your gold to refine.

 By the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, and many in the industrializing sections of London would have understood this metaphor much more fully than we do. In molten metal, the solid impurities that form on the surface are called “dross,” which can then be skimmed away, leaving the pure liquid metal below. Although not all suffering is God-pleasing—and much suffering can be brought about through our own foolishness—trials that result from our Christian faith can be used to strengthen and “refine” us. Paul speaks of this in Romans 5 when he states, “. . . we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

 “Throughout all their life time my people will prove my sov’reign, eternal, unchangeable love; And then, when gray hairs will their temples adorn, like lambs they will still in my bosom be borne.

 Humanity is capricious, indecisive, inconsistent. Our whole earthly experience is fraught with failures caused by our humanity. But this is not God’s nature, as James states, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (2: 17) This hymn addresses God the Father, but we know, too, that Jesus Christ is “. . . the same yesterday, today, forever.” (Hebrews 13: 8)

 It is important to realize that most of the hymns in Lutheran Service Book—indeed, most of the best hymns in all denominational hymnals—are of high quality not because of their musical character, or that they are popular or beloved, but because they derive from scripture.

 [1] For a thorough biography see “Rippon, John” in the Dictionary of National Biography. (www.oxforddnb.com)

[2] John Rippon, ed,  A Selection of Hymns Psalm and Hymn Tunes from the Best Authors. . . (London: Carter Lane Church, 1790), preface.

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