Today’s hymn is an example of one that’s based very closely on the scriptures, but it’s unusual to many of our tried-and-true beloved hymns because it’s based on Old Testament scriptures. “O Day of God, Draw Nigh” was written in 1937 by Robert Scott, an Old Testament scholar and minister of the United Church of Canada. Many of the hymns that come from the Great Awakening and the American Revival movement focus on the Good News of the New Testament, to the exclusion of what can be learned from the Old. This hymn, having been written in the early 20th century, is a Christian hymn with a significant influence of the Old Testament, possibly as it was written during a rediscovery of the Jewish roots of the Christian church, and a resurgence of biblically-centered worship.
As fitting a hymn written by an Old Testament scholar, the text comes from the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, Joel, Amos, and Zephaniah. Though it talks about the second coming of Christ, in the spirit of those prophets the hymn also petitions God for “justice in our land” and “to our world of strife [a] word of peace.” This is a song that calls us to radical justice, which is the basis of true hope and freedom. In this manner, the hymn is eminently suitable for today’s church.
The hymn was written for the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, and was first included in Hymns for Worship, 1939. It first entered Methodist hymnals in 1966.
O day of God, draw nigh in beauty and in power;
come with thy timeless judgement now to match our present hour.
Bring to our troubled minds, uncertain and afraid,
the quiet of a steadfast faith, calm of a call obeyed.
Bring justice to our land, that all may dwell secure,
and finely build for days to come foundations that endure.
Bring to our world of strife thy sovereign word of peace,
that war may haunt the earth no more, and desolation cease.
O day of God, draw nigh as at creation’s birth;
let there be light again, and set thy judgments on the earth.
Let’s take a look at some of the Old Testament scriptural references found in this hymn.
Wail, for the day of the Lord is near;
it will come like destruction from the Almighty.
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy hill.
Let all who live in the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was in ancient times
nor ever will be in ages to come.
“In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
Along with all of Zephaniah, Psalm 82, 85, and 122, among yet others. …there are a lot of verses about the end times in the Bible.
This tune, ST MICHAEL (OLD 134TH), was written by Louis Bourgeois and was originally in the French Genevan Psalter of 1551. It then appeared in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter 1560-61, originally set to Psalm 134. The tune was fairly ignored during the seventeenth century, and in 1836 was reintroduced in an abbreviated form by Willliam Crotch for his Psalm Tunes. He reharmonized it and gave it a new ending, and renamed it. It entered the Methodist tradition in 1935, with the rhythm from its instance in Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861, and the harmonization from its instance in The English Hymnal, 1906.
I like this hymn, partly because I enjoy the tune, I think it’s singable and sounds lovely sung by a congregation, and partly because I like hymns that tie us to our roots in the Old Testament. The more I study the Old Testament, the more perspective I gain on the New Testament. In his Jewish faith, Jesus studied the Old Testament scriptures, and it can be illuminating to read the Old Testament as he would have done. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s books are excellent resources, as she’s a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, and an Orthodox Jew. She writes about the New Testament from the perspective of the Old, such as in her recently published book on the parables of Jesus, interpreting them through the Jewish perspective of the day, the perspective that Jesus’ audiences would have had, so that we can understand the parables (at least ostensibly) in the way they were intended to be understood.
Hymns about the Good News, about Jesus and his love, and the wonder of his sacrifice, are essential to the Christian church of every age, and they make up some of the most beloved hymns in our canon. A considered inclusion of hymns based on the Old Testament scriptures can give depth and perspective to the New Testament Good News, and help us better understand the sovereignty of the almighty God, and his faithfulness, love, and steadfastness to his people, to a deeper level that isn’t usually found in hymns about Jesus’s love. And it’s important to a church that believes in the Trinity– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– to sing about all three 🙂
If you’re curious about scriptural references within a hymn, one great resource is hymnary.org, the website for the Hymn Society of North America and Canada. You can find just about any information you want about a hymn through that site, it’s a wonderland.