Home History of Hymns: "This Is the Day"

History of Hymns: "This Is the Day"

"This Is the Day"
Les Garrett
The UM Hymnal, No. 657

Les Garrett

This is the day that the Lord hath made
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

—Psalm 118:24

This well-known chorus invites a discussion on how the Bible relates to congregational song.

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, metrical versions of the psalms were standard in many churches. The idea of a metrical version was that the text should follow Scripture as closely as possible—adding nothing and taking nothing away.

“The Lord’s My Shepherd” (UM Hymnal, No. 136) from the Scottish Psalter (1650) is a familiar example of this approach applied to Psalm 23. Nahum Tate’s “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” (No. 236), from the year 1700, is an example of a metrical approach to a New Testament text (Luke 2:8-14).

Metrical versions of Scripture took portions of the Bible and placed them in a metrical poetic form that made it possible for congregations to sing the text. In the case of both “The Lord’s My Shepherd” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” one can find exact though brief quotations from the King James Version. Paraphrases of Scripture were less-restricted ways of singing scriptural ideas.

Henry W. Baker’s “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (1868, No. 138) also follows Psalm 23. In this case the Anglican Baker followed Miles Coverdale’s 1548 translation of the psalms used by the Church of England in the Book of Common Prayer. In addition, images of the New Testament are incorporated into the text, including Eucharistic symbols such as the cross and chalice.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) started the process of looking at the psalms through the lens of the New Testament, composing freer paraphrases of psalms. For example, “Jesus Shall Reign” (No. 157) is Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 72.

Other hymns make allusions to a specific biblical passage without paraphrasing the entire text. A famous allusion is found at the beginning of the second stanza of Robert Robinson’s 18th-century hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: Here I raise mine Ebenezer. . . ., a fleeting reference to 1 Samuel 7:12.

Still other traditions have attempted to sing Scripture directly from the Bible. Chanting the Psalms is a primary example of this. One form of chanting the Psalms, borrowed from the Lutherans, is explained on page 737 of The UM Hymnal, and applied to the Psalter found at the end of the hymnal.

Scripture choruses, usually from the evangelical and charismatic traditions, also have attempted to set short biblical passages. “This Is the Day” is one of the most famous of these.

Leslie Norman Garrett was born in 1943 on the island of Matamata, New Zealand. He graduated from Faith Bible School. According to the Psalter Hymnal Handbook, he is currently a minister at the Christian Family Center in Maddington, Australia. He lectures at Hebron Bible College and has traveled around the world speaking at conventions and churches.

Mr. Garrett promotes the singing of Scripture choruses in books such as his collection Scripture in Song (1967), where “This Is the Day” first appeared. Since then stanzas have been added through oral tradition, including “This is the day when he rose again” and “This is the day that the Spirit comes.”

The direct quotation of Psalm 118:24 makes the hymn appropriate for any worship service. For congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, this verse is included in the texts for Easter Sunday in Years A, B and C.

The Psalter Hymnal Handbook notes, “‘This Is the Day’ celebrates God’s mighty acts of redemption (originally referring to the Passover before the Exodus), hailing ‘the day’ as a special day of the Lord.” In other words, the reference is not just to any day but, for the Christian, Sunday—the Lord’s Day. (See Revelation 1:10, Matthew 12:8 and Acts 2:42 and 20:7 for references to the Lord’s Day.)

The tune is Mr. Garrett’s arrangement of a folk tune from Fiji. Part of the charm of the song is the possibility of singing it antiphonally or with two groups singing in alternation.

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