History of Hymns: 'This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made'
By Victoria Schwarz
“This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made”
by Isaac Watts
The United Methodist Hymnal, 658
This is the day the Lord hath made;
he calls the hours his own.
Let heaven rejoice, let earth be glad,
and praise surround the throne.
The year 1719 is interesting in music history: Domenico Scarlatti took up a new post in Lisbon as music director to João V of Portugal; Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera Marco Attilio Regolò was premiered in Rome; Johann Sebastian Bach was working as the music director for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen; the Royal Academy of Music in London opened with George Frideric Handel as its music director; and Isaac Watts (1674–1748) published his hymn collection titled The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship, which included “This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made”.
It’s not often we see hymn writers located beside other notable composers and authors of their time. I know that I am guilty of siloing important figures in hymn history from their peers. For example, when I think of Charles Wesley, I don’t think of C.P.E. Bach, Gluck, and Haydn; or, when I think of Fanny Crosby, I don’t think of Chopin, Wagner, Liszt, or even Fanny Mendelssohn. Just as Handel and J.S. Bach were prominent in the formation and performance of music during the Baroque period, Watts helped change how people sang (and sing) in the church by facilitating the change from metrical versification to rhymed paraphrase.
Although the Lutheran church in Germany had been singing hymns for about one hundred years by Watts's time, the English churches followed the model of the Calvinists. Because of this, Watts, raised in the Independent Church, was accustomed to singing metrical psalms. Many accounts of his life detail that Watts showed an early dissatisfaction with this practice. Watts’s dissatisfaction is discussed in a Center for Church Music article, which reads:
Frustrated with the heartless psalm singing of his time, young Watts sometimes criticized the singing at his church. Listening to his concerns one day, Watts's father challenged him, “Well then, young man, why don’t you give us something better to sing?” He rose to the challenge by writing his first hymn [“Behold the Glories of the Lamb”]. It was well received by the congregation of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel, where he attended, and for the next two years, Watts wrote a new hymn for every Sunday. (Center for Church Music)
Watts’s success opened a path to several publications, but he considered his Psalms of David his most significant work. In authoring this work, he declared as part of his purpose the desire to “improve psalmody and religious singing.” Alan Gaunt highlights that Watts took care to praise the book of Psalms as “the most noble, most devotional and divine collection of poesy.” Watts had a strong assessment in the use of psalms for Christian worship when he wrote, “it must be acknowledged still, that there are a thousand lines in it which were not made for a church in our days to assume as its own” (Watts in The Methodist Review, 167.).
“This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made,” written in Watts’s paraphrase style and based on Psalm 118—the concluding psalm of the Hallel Psalms (113–118) in scripture—is one example of his form of Christianized psalms. As is the case with all psalms, which have strong ties to Jewish practice, these were recited or sung during the Passover meal and other festivals. Interestingly, a bridge to Christ in the New Testament may be authentic. Some research suggests that Psalm 118 may have been the "hymn" that Jesus and the disciples sang after the Last Supper.
Many people recognize portions of Psalm 118 because this psalm contains some of the most familiar language of the church, such as “His steadfast love endures forever!” (v. 1b), “the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (v. 14), and “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v. 22). It seems this psalm may have been a favorite of Watts as well, for he composed three versions of Psalm 118 in The Psalms of David, using common meter (in four parts), short meter, and long meter The stanza comes from the fourth common meter paraphrase in five stanzas devoted to Psalm 18:24, 25, and 26.
In addressing this, Watts’s style included the crafting of paraphrases that enabled him to add New Testament language, thought, and theology to bear upon the psalms. In a previous “History of Hymns” article on Watts, Michael Hawn wrote:
From an early age, he [Watts] showed his dissatisfaction for the established common practice of metrical psalms, the strict poetic versification of the psalms for congregational singing in worship. He pioneered a newer approach by composing hymns that “Christianized” the texts of the Psalter. (Hawn, “History of Hymns: Come, We that Love the Lord”)
Watts’s Christianizing of the psalm is apparent in the ascription to the paraphrase: “Hosanna; the Lord’s-Day; or Christ’s Resurrection and our Salvation.” The facsimile that follows is from a 1719 edition. Note the various New Testament references in stanzas 2, 3, 4, and 5.
The hymn text in The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) consists of a single stanza from Watts's common meter setting, which originally includes nineteen stanzas divided into four parts. The text of this single stanza was derived from a variety of sources, beginning with verse 24 of Psalm 118. David Music reminds us that the words, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” were sung as the introit for Easter Sunday in the medieval church (Music, 2020, pp. 199–200). This use is closely aligned to Watts’s purpose in crafting this hymn. Watts clarified the "day" to which he was referring as the day of Resurrection by writing, “This is the Day wherein Christ fulfill’d his Sufferings, and rose from the Dead, and has honoured it with his own Name (Rev 1:10). The Lord’s Day” in his notes on the text.
Beyond identifying this particular day, Watts successfully conflates dual meanings of “the day the Lord has made” by intertwining Psalm 118:24a and Revelation 1:10 for the opening line of this stanza. By doing this, he brings the psalmist's words about the work of the coming Messiah into conversation with the author of Revelation, who declares the work accomplished by Christ. Watts crafts the last line of this stanza similarly, saying, “we will rejoice” (v. 24b) brought forward to the Revelation 7:9–12 scene by Watts’s words “praise surround the throne.”
The second and third lines of the stanza have remarkable intertextual possibilities as well. “He calls the hours His own” finds echoes in Genesis 1:5 (“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”) and Job 38:12 (“Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place”), but also in Matthew 24:36, KJV (“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no.”) and John 11:9 (“Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day?”). These are intriguing connections that offer a deeper relationship between scripture and text and bring a heightened sense of being in awe of God’s holy ability to craft the hours of our days. However, most scholars consider Watts's words a call or reminder to Christians to assemble on the “day the Lord hath made,” the first day of the week, and offer their praise on that day.
One of the most notable features of the text, beyond the textual strength of connection to many points in scripture, is its ability to draw these various scriptures together through primarily monosyllabic words for singability. Written in iambic poetic meter and consisting of twenty-six words (for this stanza), only four are more than one syllable, and these are all two-syllable words. Alan Gaunt writes about Watts’s distinctive style of hymn language:
Watts’s unerring sense of the right way of saying things, with economy and strength, was the foundation of his skill as a hymn writer. Watson has noted that “his hymnody is not difficult or spectacularly metaphorical so much as attentive to the need to find the correct word ‘in the discourse in which it stands without destroying the rhyme or the rhythm” (1997, p. 139). He continues: “Watts’s hymns depend for their effect not just on their crisp vocabulary and their clarity, but on their “numbers”: on the way in which the words, punctuation, stress and rhythm become elements in the line, with the lines constituting the verse' (p. 141). Watts’s decision to exclude from his hymns the more spectacular flights of poetic language found in “The Adventurous Muse” is part of a Puritan restraint that gives his work a seriousness that tempers and mixes with the evident joy (Gaunt, . Canterbury Dictionary).
The United Methodist Hymnal pairs this text with the tune TWENTY-FOURTH, attributed to Lucius Chapin (ca. 1813). The first line of the melody springs from the dominant up to the tonic for the opening words “this is,” lending a sense of immediate arrival. The melody then rises to “day,” elevating the voice and the importance of the word as the primary focus in the text. The following phrase employs a hint of text painting by ascending vocally to acknowledge God who designs and owns the hours of both “this day” and the hours of the day of Christ’s work of Resurrection. The third phrase adds two quick rhythmic flourishes, highlighting the joy and praise of heaven and earth. We should also note that heaven’s praise lies a little higher melodically than earth’s. The final phrase ends with a sturdy surrounding of the tonic as voices sing “praise surround the throne.”
Hymnary.org shows an additional twenty-seven hymn tunes that have been paired with this text. The most frequent pairing is with CROSS AND CROWN (329 hymnals), distinguished by a triple-meter, regal, and uplifting tune. Other frequent tunes are BROWN (115), IRISH (112), and DOWNS (175). Although TWENTY-FOURTH is lovely and well-suited to the text, a song leader looking for a fresh musical expression might look to IRISH, which is beautifully melodic, easily sung, and allows the text to rise from the trappings of duple meter.
At the opening of this article, I veered away from the usual beginning of a “History of Hymns” column by locating Watts among prominent musical figures of his time. Acknowledging the larger context of the culture in which hymns arise is helpful. Even after a brief discussion of this one stanza from The United Methodist Hymnal, it is remarkable to think about the musical advancements and flourishes of the Baroque era next to Watts's work. He lifts hymnody from the traditional restraints of his church experience. I marvel at the encompassing and expansive beauty of God who inspired the great Passions of Bach and other significant works when placed next to words crafted by Watts.
Alan Gaunt, “Isaac Watts,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/i/isaac-watts (accessed June 20, 2021).
Alan Gaunt, “This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/this-is-the-day-the-lord-hath-made (accessed June 20, 2021).
C. Michael Hawn, “Come, We That Love the Lord,” History of Hymns. Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-we-that-love-the-lord, (accessed June 18, 2021).
The Methodist Quarterly Review, volume 26, edited by George Peck (New York: G. Lane and C. P. Tippett, 1844)
David W. Music, Repeat the Sounding Joy: Reflections of Hymns by Isaac Watts. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2020), p. 199.
“Songs and Hymns - Isaac Watts,” Center for Church Music, https://songsandhymns.org/people/detail/isaac-watts (accessed June 18, 2021).
“This Is the Day the Lord Hath Made, ” Hymnary.org tune index, https://hymnary.org/search?qu=textAuthNumber%3A%22%5Ethis_is_the_day_the_lord_hath_made_he_ca%24%22%20in%3Atunes&sort=matchingInstances&order=asc (accessed July 1, 2021).
Victoria Schwarz is a provisional deacon in the Rio Texas Conference. She serves as the associate pastor and minister of music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. She is active in the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.