Learn From This Maundy Thursday-Good Friday Hymn by Isaac Watts

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

"Last Supper" mural in the refectory of the former friary at Ognissanti.

"Last Supper" in the refectory of the former friary at Ognissanti.

When Kristen and I were writing My Song In The Night, which you can download for free in the player on your right, one of our goals was to compose a modern hymn for Good Friday and for Maundy Thursday (which commemorates the Last Supper and Jesus’ ordeal at Gethsemane). We found surprisingly few contemporary worship songs that mention Gethsemane, and only a few more that highlight the Last Supper.

Hymnody does contain some good Gethsemane songs though, and even more Last Supper songs. Chief among the hymn texts that depict the Last Supper is Isaac Watts’s “Twas On That Dark, That Doleful Night (from the first line of the hymn. Watts actually titled it “The Lord’s Supper Instituted“). Let’s study this exemplary hymn for communion, Maundy Thursday and the season of Lent, to see what we can learn as songwriters, worship leaders and followers of Christ:

The Basics: Hymn Meter & Subject Matter

Watts wrote this hymn, known in some hymnals as “It Happened On That Fateful Night,” in Long Meter (88.88). As I noted in my free Glossary Of Hymn Meter & Form Terms, the long, even lines of LM are good for telling epic stories and exploring grand themes.

And this is an epic story. Watts dramatizes the Lord’s Supper, explains its significance, shows us the horrible scene that the bread and the wine symbolizes, and then sums up by having us worshipers pledge to carry out the Lord’s command to “Do this … till time shall end/ in memory of your dying Friend.”

Is seven verses too long? No. These verses are only four lines long, for a total of 28 lines. If your church sings Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone,” you’re singing four verses of eight lines each, for a total of 32 lines.

Verse By Verse: 

Watts’s first three verses dramatize the Lord’s Supper. The first verse sets the scene. His adjectives  for “night,” in the first line – “dark” and “doleful” – give us some alliteration and, more importantly, are much more atmospheric than the later hymnal committee substitute adjective “fateful.”

’Twas on that dark, that doleful night  (rather than “It happened on that fateful night”)
When powers of earth and hell arose
Against the Son of God’s delight,
And friends betrayed Him to His foes:

This verse sets the pattern of end-line rhymes as “ABAB,” meaning that alternate lines rhyme. This kind of rhyme scheme is usually better for story songs than the “AABB” scheme (in which each couplet – a unit of two successive lines — rhymes). This is because rhyming couplets tend to set themselves off as distinct units of thought, whereas the ABAB pattern helps us read the entire verse as one full thought or episode.

The verbs “arose” and “betrayed” are colorful and active. Linked as they are to such dastardly subjects — the powers of hell, and the “friends” of God’s Son — they let us know that this is a high-stakes affair. If you’d never heard this story before, you would lean forward on the edge of your seat and wait for what comes next.

Verse Two:

Before the mournful scene began,
He took the bread, and blessed, and brake:
What love through all His actions ran!
What wondrous words of grace He spake!

Notice the “B” alliteration in the first two lines: Before, began, bread, blessed, brake. Then we have “W’s” in the last two: What (twice), wondrous, words.

He is still setting us up for what is to come. He has Christ take the bread, bless and break it. Then before progressing with the story, Watts offers commentary in the form of a brief outburst of praise (lines 3-4 above).

Now onto Verse Three:

“This is My body, broke for sin;
Receive and eat the living food:”
Then took the cup, and blessed the wine;
“’Tis the new cov’nant in My blood.”

Here, Watts paraphrases Jesus explanation of the sacred symbol of communion, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. It’s a succinct, metrical account with poetic devices such as alliteration (body/broke) and internal rhyme (receive/eat), and active verbs that propel us further into the story: “broke, receive, eat, took, blessed.”

Now let’s look at verses four and five together. We do so because your hymnal, if it includes this song at all, has probably deleted these two verses. Presumably hymnal committees thought these verses were an unnecessary digression:

For us His flesh with nails was torn,
He bore the scourge, He felt the thorn;
And justice poured upon His head
Its heavy vengeance in our stead.

For us His vital blood was spilt,
To buy the pardon of our guilt,
When, for black crimes of biggest size,
He gave His soul a sacrifice.

These verses do digress, but are hardly unnecessary. Remember that part of God’s design for worship songs is to teach each other (Colossians 3:16). God knows that we remember poetry, and even more so when set to music. These two verses explain what the “body” and “blood” of the previous verse means.

Notice also that Watts changes the rhyme scheme here, from the previous “ABAB” to “AABB.” This hardly ever happens in hymns. And if you’re a songwriter, I’d caution you use this technique sparingly, if at all. Watts is a master, and even he didn’t pull this off, in the sense that hymnal committees leave these verses out, and few churches sing this song anyway.

But it works here, in my opinion. These two verses are a parenthetical — a step outside of the timeline of this hymn (Maundy Thursday) and into the near future (Good Friday) before returning to the Upper Room in verse six. Changing the rhyme scheme helps identify the parenthetical and sharpen our focus. It only works because the end rhymes are perfect, though (torn/thorn, head/stead, spilt/guilt, size,sacrifice). That last pair isn’t quite perfect because the consonant sounds aren’t identical (“z” and “s”). But they are close enough to seem perfect when sung, following on the heels of the other perfect rhymes.

If these were slant rhymes, it would be harder for us to catch on to the fact that he changed the rhyme scheme. We’d merely know that something wasn’t quite right (if you don’t know the difference between perfect and slant rhymes, see our Songwriter’s Glossary Of Poetic & Rhetorical Devices).

The nouns are strong (like “flesh, nails, Scourge, Thorn, Justice, Head, Blood”) and verbs are, too (such as “torn, bore, pour’d, spilt, buy”).  Can you help but see the scene of Christ’s crucifixion in your mind, as you read and sing these lines?

Verse six returns us to the original scene in the Upper Room, but continues the new AABB rhyme scheme. It is a segue into the final verse:

“Do this,” He cried, “till time shall end,
In memory of your dying Friend;
Meet at My table, and record
The love of your departed Lord.”

Now Christ institutes Communion “till time shall end,” to remember and record the wonder of his love. If the subject matter of this hymn were put into a modern pop song structure, verses four-five would likely be the chorus, and this verse would be a bridge (of course the “chorus” would likely be shortened and some of the remaining verses would be condensed).

Verse Seven:

Jesus, Thy feast we celebrate,
We show Thy death, we sing Thy Name,
Till Thou return, and we shall eat
The marriage supper of the Lamb.

This verse follows Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:26. Here, Watts addresses Jesus directly for the first time. It is a return to ABAB but with slant rhyme, so the change isn’t abrupt. Here, we have the singer’s response to Jesus’ instruction in the following verse. As Madeleine Forell Marshall noted in Common Hymnsense, in this verse we see that:

The hymn has led us from adventure story to this direct prayer; it has taught us to pray.

A good hymn is an aid to spiritual formation. It teaches us to pray and to praise, and it instructs us as to why we should — again, as Colossians 3:16 requires. When we sing this verse we affirm our belief, affection and devotion to everything that has gone before — just as we do when we fulfill this verse’s vow and partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Last Supper photo, top, by Christopher John, used via Creative Commons license

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