Music Notes

Filter By:

← Return to Blog Home

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

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with