“The next day, when the large crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet Him. They kept shouting: “Hosanna! He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One—the King of Israel!”” (John 12:12–13 HCSB)

What did the crowds mean when they cried out the word, Hosanna, the day that Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey?  Why did they cry this?  Why did they wave palm branches?  It’s all so confusing and unusual.

The words are taken from Ps 118: “LORD, save us! LORD, please grant us success! He who comes in the name of the LORD is blessed. From the house of the LORD we bless you.” (Psalms 118:25–26 HCSB).  “Save us,” in the Hebrew is the word, hoshiannah, so the gospel writers transliterated this word that the crowds were crying to hosanna.

The usage of hosanna seems to have developed in this way.  Ps. 118 was one of the Hallel Psalms which pilgrims to Jerusalem would sing as they made there way up towards Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals of Passover and Tabernacles.  Over the years it appears that the cry “Lord save us,” [hosanna] became a cry of praise rather than a petition, which is how the crowds with Jesus appear to have been using it.

As Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem he is fulfilling the Messianic prophecy of Zech 9.9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem!
Look, your King is coming to you;
He is righteous and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (HCSB)

[Side note on prophecy:  This is what makes interpreting prophecy difficult.  Here Jesus literally fulfilled prophecy, in other places prophecy is fulfilled metaphorically [c.f. Acts 2.16ff].  How can we tell the difference?]

According to the Archaeological Study Bible (ASB),  palm branches were used culturally in these ways:

  • Palms were a longstanding sign of victory in the Greek [and at least in Roman writers] world.
  • “Palm branches were associated with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles ( Lev 23: 40). Together with the myrtle, willow and citron, they formed the lulab, an object the rabbis tell us was shaken at the recitation of Psalm 118: 25: “O L ord, save us! ” ( Hebrew, Hosanna!)” – ASB
  • The Maccabees used palm branches when they rededicated the temple.

The ASB concludes:  “Palm branches thus vividly depicted God’s victory and the deliverance of his people. Revelation 7: 9 portrays Christians who have overcome the persecutions of this world as waving palm branches and wearing white robes. The symbolism of the palm branches would have been meaningful to any ancient reader, but especially to one familiar with the place of palm branches in Jewish tradition and worship.”

What is unfamiliar and confusing to us, was completely normal and understandable to the crowds that praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on what we have come to know as “The Triumphal Entry.”  Whether the crowds fully understood what they were doing or not [they most likely did not], the symbolism afterwards was quite clear. John comments: “His disciples did not understand these things at first. However, when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.” (John 12:16 HCSB)

Jesus was coming in humility, riding on a colt, fulfilling both Zech 9.9 and Ps. 118.25-26.  He was the Messiah.  He would save the people from their sins if they would only listen to his words and watch what he did, and as John reminds us again and again in his gospel, believe in him.

Do you believe in him, dear reader?

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