Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!

John Newton, 1774
Addressed to one another and to sinners
Day of judgment! Day of wonders!Matt. 12:36; 1 Cor. 15:51–52
   Hark! the trumpet’s awful sound,Zeph. 1:14; Matt. 24:31; 1 Thess. 4:16
louder than a thousand thunders,Ps. 93:4; Rev. 8:5
   shakes the vast creation round.Hag. 2:6
      How the summons
   will the sinner’s heart confound!Matt. 7:22–23; 2 Pet. 3:7
See the Judge, our nature wearing,Ps. 50:6; 82:8; John 5:22; Rom. 2:16
   clothed in majesty divine;Ps. 45:4; Matt. 25:31; Rev. 19:11
you who long for his appearingJames 5:7; 2 Pet. 3:12
   then shall say, “This God is mine!”Rev. 19:1
      Gracious Savior,
   own me in that day as thine.Luke 12:8
At his call the dead awaken,1 Thess. 4:16
   rise to life from earth and sea;Rev. 20:13
all the pow’rs of nature, shakenMark 13:25–6; Luke 21:26–27
   by his looks, prepare to flee.Rev. 20:11
      Careless sinner,Matt. 12:36; 24:38–39
   what will then become of thee?
But to those who have confessed,
   loved and served the Lord below,Matt. 7:21b
he will say, “Come near, ye blessed,Matt. 25:34–40
   see the kingdom I bestow;Rev. 1:6
      you forever
   shall my love and glory know.”

Few readers of this website will know the sensation of hearing a foreman present to the court the findings of a jury. Whether guilty or innocent, the defendant’s terror is great. If the jury finds in his favor, after the moment of fear he will rejoice as greatly as he would have mourned had they found him guilty. But the judgment of God in the last day comes with far greater power to sentence than any worldly court. The fear, and then the rejoicing or weeping, will be accordingly greater. And here, unlike the secular court, all are guilty. Those who avoid just judgment will do so because, in that day, the gracious Savior will own them as His.

Newton’s hymn above begins with a sort of neutral awe. We get an example of the “wonders” of the first line as we move to the second. A trumpet’s sound, louder than thunder, shakes all creation. But we move from neutral awe to real fear in the last two lines when we learn that the trumpet’s blast is a summons and that it confounds the sinner.

Fear begins to oscillate with reassurance in the second stanza. Christ is named first as judge, but a judge who bears our likeness. We expect sympathy from a judge who has shared, in some way, the plight of the defendant. Yet, for all this judge wears our nature, He is still “clothed in majesty divine.” We expect anger and not sympathy from a judge who, having shared the plight of the defendant, nevertheless did not fail as the defendant did. But those who have been longing for a judgment—those more associated with the prosecution than the defense—will be glad for the judge’s arrival. Such are the saints who, in line 4, claim Christ as their own. No sooner do they do so, however, than Newton turns us back to concern: “Gracious Savior, own me in that day as thine.” Though we have been promised that He will, we can follow the Psalmist’s example and still pray thereunto.

The third stanza begins with the resurrection of the dead—surely an image of hope. As earth and sky prepare to flee from before the presence of the Lord, one wonders what will become of the sinner. Can he flee? In stanzas omitted from the version above, Newton answers his own rhetorical question—“what will then become of thee?”—through a paraphrase of Matthew 25:41–45, where Christ himself describes the fate of the damned in that day. In our version, we are left to infer what becomes of the sinner by contrast with what happens to nature and to the saints.

The last stanza is also a paraphrase of Matthew 25. Here we have the first part of Christ’s description of the final judgment, describing the fate of the believer in that day. Since the song’s intended use is in a congregation of professing believers, the omission of the remaining stanzas avoids our sounding smug while we sing Christ’s condemnation of sinners.

ST. AUSTIN is a bar-form tune, which means lines 3–4 of the stanza are set to the same melody as lines 1–2. Strikingly, however, these occurences of the melody are harmonized in radically different ways. Lines 1–2 begin solidly in major mode but give way to minor as the melody cadences in measure 4 at “awful sound.” Lines 3–4, however, are set squarely in minor, as is the rest of the stanza (the B section of the bar form). This odd variance of mode between the two statements of the opening melody, where we would expect them to be identical, complements the text’s fluctuation between joyful and sorrowful reactions to the judgment. The minor, coming after the major, is all the more sobering by contrast. Also striking is the tune’s rhythmic pattern. The A section of the bar form begins with a dotted rhythm (LONG–short–long–long) that turns quickly to regular quarter notes. This happens four times in measures 1–8. The B section of the bar form likewise begins with the dotted rhythm, but when we expect it to turn to quarter notes as in the A section, it does not. Instead, we hear the dotted rhythm again, and instead of quarter notes, we have an ominously slow cadence to finish the tune. If we think of the dotted rhythm as funeral-like or perhaps like the fanfare of the heavenly trumpet (both fanfares and funeral marches make use of dotted rhythms), then its persistence at the end of the tune, where we expect it to give way, is striking.