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History of Hymns: "O Day of God, Draw Nigh"

“O Day of God, Draw Nigh”
R.B.Y. Scott
UM Hymnal, No. 730

C. Michael Hawn

O day of God, draw nigh
In beauty and in power;
Come with thy timeless judgment now
To match our present hour.

Robert Balgarnie Young Scott (1899-1987) was a native of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was a minister of the United Church of Canada, serving congregations in Ontario. During World War II, he served as a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Scott’s major contribution was in the field of Old Testament scholarship. He held positions in Canadian institutions including Union College in Vancouver and United Theological College at McGill University, Montreal. In 1955 he was appointed Danforth Professor of Religion at Princeton University; he later served two years as chairman of Princeton’s department of religion, before retiring in 1968.

A leader in social reform, Scott served as president of the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order. He wrote hymns for this group while he held this post, and in 1927 edited Toward the Christian Revolution with Gregory Vlastos. The Relevance of the Prophets (1945) is his best-known work.

“O Day of God, Draw Nigh” was written in 1937 for the Fellowship and published in Hymns for Worship (1939). The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes, “In each stanza the poet succinctly expresses one aspect of the Day of the Lord: judgment, obedience, justice, peace and light.”

The Old Testament background of the poet is evident in this hymn. The theme of “The Day of the Lord” may be found throughout the Scriptures. For example, Isaiah 13:6: “Wail, for the day of the LORD is at hand! It will come as destruction from the Almighty.” Joel 2:1: “Blow the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble; for the day of the LORD is coming, for it is at hand. . . .”

Amos 8:9 begins a longer passage describing in depth the nature of the day of judgment: “‘And it shall come to pass in that day,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘that I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight. . . .’”

Zephaniah 1:14-18 captures the tone of judgment and provides the scriptural grounding of this hymn: “The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; there the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers.”

In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, the poet offers a call to justice. Stanza one invokes God to “come with thy timeless judgment. . . .” The imperative language continues in the next three stanzas: “Bring to our troubled minds . . . calm of a call obeyed” (stanza two); “Bring justice to our land” (stanza three); and “Bring to our world of strife [a] word of peace. . . .” (stanza four). The final stanza begins as the first, but concludes with the petition to “set judgments on the earth.”

A hymn such as this requires a clear liturgical context. One doesn’t glibly turn to this hymn without a sermonic framework that clarifies the background of the text and the urgency to respond. This is not a soothing hymn, but a song that calls us to radical justice, the basis of true hope and freedom.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.