Sing Hosanna: Lessons for Today’s Worshipers

Sing Hosanna: Lessons for Today’s Worshipers

Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem just before Passover is a well-known and sometimes even a celebrated event. Each of the four gospel writers describes this Hosanna moment from their own vantage point. This article is written in a form of a drash – a teaching designed to be applicational in nature. But as a drash it focuses not merely on spiritual lessons, it also seeks to uncover the natural context in the process.

Consider Matthew’s version of what took place in Jerusalem in the days of Yeshua and look deeper, examine the historical, cultural and linguistic context in order to properly reflect on his words.

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:1-10)

When this passage of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is read people often find it quite inspiring. Why? I will venture to say that we, the readers simply cannot resist and are swept into the excitement of this moment we imagine. We visualize the crowds cheering for Jesus. They carry branches, they throw garments on the road. We wish we were there at that very instance. It is exhilarating and so jubilant.

Yet as we reflect further we must ask ourselves… Can we truly participate in the kind of worship and celebration we read about in the Bible? Can we worship the way people worshiped in 1st century Jerusalem? Do we even know how to do that today? Can we sing Hosanna and really mean it just as they did?

The text speaks on many levels. In the light of reflecting on joining the crowd in this celebration, there are some valuable lessons and about faith and worship that can be found in this passage. Should we try to learn from the jubilant crowd that cheered Jesus on? Perhaps there several things that we can do today to be more like them when it comes to worship.

  1. Show How You Feel

In Matthew’s passage, the crowds did not just sing songs or cheered for Yeshua. The Messiah enters Jerusalem from the northeastern side, from the Mt. of Olives riding on a colt. They began to throw branches on the ground right before him. They threw their garments in his path. As strange as it may seem to modern people – that was truly worshipful. Perhaps we should think of this something resembling the red-carpet treatment people receive today. The Messiah is being ushered into the city and the road ahead of him is prepared and made smooth.

But why are the crowds doing this? What is going through their minds? Who do they think Jesus is that he deserves such honor? And why are they trying to make his path, his road, the trail that he takes smooth and even in such an unusual way? This is a guess, but we can try to determine what was on their minds. The hints are right in front of us. Its Passover, the season of deliverance when God performed mighty deeds and led Israel out of slavery. God emancipated the entire nation. He took Israel by the hand and led the people out of Egypt, through the desert and into the Promised land. And now the people are subjugated once more.

The prophets have spoken and warned Israel about foreign oppression. And they told the good news of the deliverance to come as well. Could it be that these were the words that came to people’s minds as they streamed to Jerusalem to celebrate their experience of coming out of Egypt?

1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (Is 40:1-9)

Consider verse 3… “A voice of one calling in the wilderness…” Sounds familiar? God is going to send a voice, a prophet to announce his redemption – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a way for God.” It appears that this is what people are actually doing in Matthew. People are physically preparing the way and they are making it smooth in a most literal way. Of course, they understand that the words of the prophet are symbolic. But the way Israelites show that they understand God is by demonstrating their feelings visually through actions which are also just as symbolic as the words. Yeshua has just traveled via the Jericho road, through the wilderness of Zin. “The rough ground is made level, the rugged places become smooth” that is what Isaiah said and that is what the people are now doing in Matthew.

Here is the first point of this drash. If you want to sing Hosanna and mean it like they did – learn from the crowd and consider how can you can we tangibly demonstrate to God the way we feel today. In the book of Mattai people threw garments on the road. Is there an analogy for this in our lives? Show how you feel!

The second lesson from this passage is

  1. Mean what you say

What was the last time you praised God with expectation in your mind, anticipating that the praise will actually accomplish something? You did not ask, you just praised, because God knows what you need anyway. A lot of times we say things and we pray special words, but we do not really mean them. As worshipers, at times we all fail to believe the very words we sing to God. It’s ironic, but we are human. How can God work in our lives if we do not have an expectation of him actually doing so?

Have you ever heard songs with words “Sing Hosanna to the Lord” or even heard references to “singing Hosannas”? People use this type of language, especially in the Christian tradition.

But what is “Hosanna” anyway? If you ask an average informed Christian one would typically hear that Hosanna means “Praise God!” sort of like Halleluiah means “Praise God!” Hosanna is some sort of an exclamation of worship and praise to the Lord. To sing Hosannas means to sing glory and praises to the Lord. Languages are fascinating and it is always useful to consider what the words borrowed from any foreign language actually mean in that language.

These typical answers are not entirely incorrect. They are not far from the truth at all. But there is so much more to this Hebrew word than a simple worshipful exclamation. The word has a peculiar meaning and the context in which it is used in New Testament is very unique. It is that very context that helps us to understand what it truly means. No, it does not really mean “Praise the Lord”. There is a minor misunderstanding that has been circulated in church tradition for a long time. And this misunderstanding has caused some understandable confusion.

Augustine in his commentary on the triumphal entry writes, “The branches of palm trees are laudatory emblems, significant of victory because the Lord was about to overcome death by dying, and by the trophy of His cross to triumph over the devil, the prince of death”

All these are very nice and very Christian notions. But Jews of that era did not think that way at all. These explanations of context are all based on theology developed centuries after the events of the gospels actually occurred.

Augustine continues “The exclamation used by the worshiping people is Hosanna, indicating, as some who know the Hebrew language affirm, rather a state of mind than having any positive significance; just as in our own tongue we have what are called interjections, as when in our grief we say, Alas! or in our joy, Ha! or in our admiration, O how fine! where O! expresses only the feeling of the admirer” (Aug., Tract. in ev. Joan. 51.2).[1]

Augustine suggests that the word “Hosanna” is a worshipful exclamation, based on his consultation with the experts of Hebrew. It is hard to know whom he consulted with and how competent they were.  But that is not what this phrase in Hebrew actually means if you see how the Bible itself uses it. Hosanna is an exclamation, but of very precise and different meaning. The word Hosanna in New Testament comes from Psalm 118. To be exact the world in question is a Hebrew phrase made up of two separate words “Hoshia” and “Na”

אָנָּא יהוה הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא אָנָּא יהוה הַצְלִיחָה נָּא׃ בָּרוּךְ הַבָּא בְּשֵׁם יהוה בֵּרַכְנוּכֶם מִבֵּית יהוה׃

Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (Ps 118: 25-26)

Christians versed in the Bible would easily recognize at least one phrase from this Psalm that was rendered in Matthew 21. But what most people are not recognizing is the word Hosanna in verse 25 – Its “hoshia na”. And the reason most people do not see it in the majority of English Bibles is because in the Psalm it was actually translated into plain English.

The Hebrew phrase הוֹשִׁיעָה נָּא (hoshia na) which was represented in Matthews’ Greek as one word ὡσαννά (hosanna) in Hebrew means “save us” It’s an imperative verb, and indeed an exclamation.

If “na” was not present it in this phrase it would sound like a command or an order. But the exclamation is directed to God and no one commands God to do anything. In ancient Hebrew “na” communicates urgency as in “now/quickly” or it is a polite way of speaking like “please” or “I beg you” It is a very well-known and often used part of speech in Biblical Hebrew. So you see Hosanna is actually a Hebrew world and it does not really mean “Praise God!” but it is an exclamation begging for God’s quick and urgently needed salvation – “Save us, we implore!”

Consider the crowd’s words as they appear in the Greek manuscript that we have today.

Ὡσαννὰ τῷ υἱῷ Δαυίδ
Εὐλογημένος ὁ ἐρχόμενος ἐν ὀνόματι κυρίου·
Ὡσαννὰ ἐν τοῖς ὑψίστοις.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

So what the crowds are saying out loud when Jesus rides into Jerusalem is not “Praise be to the Son of David”, but they are quoting a part of the well-known Psalm.  In fact, during three pilgrim feasts, Israelites from all over came to Jerusalem to celebrate in the Temple. As they approached the city and as they worshiped in the temple during these three feasts they sang what we know as Hallel, a section from the book of Psalms. To be more precise it was Psalms 113-118 as attested in early rabbinic texts.

What is the difference between the first Passover and the second? The first Passover is subject to the prohibition about leaven: It shall not be seen and It shall not be found (Ex. 12:19, 13:7). As to the second, unleavened bread and leaven may be in the house right alongside one another. The first Passover requires the recitation of the Hallel Psalms when it is eaten, but the second Passover does not require the recitation of Hallel Psalms when it is eaten. This and that require a Hallel Psalm to be sung while they are being prepared. And [both Passover offerings] are eaten roasted, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. (m. Pesahim 9:3)

Such was the custom of Passover in the days of Jesus. And most people had the words of these Psalms memorized. Which explains why they spoke these very words to Yeshua. That is what everyone had on their mind. These were the lyrics of the season.

Look at the content of what the crowd chanted carefully. “Save us now, we implore”, to the (in /with/by) son of David they added.[2] Why do they proclaim this? Because if Jesus is the prophet who came to announce the Messiah, the son of David, he can do something about this. Never the less, the words are directed to God. Because to an ancient Israelite, only God can actually save.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” – no changes or additions, the words are identical to the Psalm here. Because if Yeshua is the prophet who comes in God’s name, then he is truly blessed. This is not a request but a statement, simply affirmation of the reality.

And then one more exclamation – “Save us, please!” from the Psalm again, and then they add a phrase “in the highest” This addition is actually the hardest to explain.[3] Most people see the word “highest” as a reference to “heaven”. It could mean just that, idiomatically, of course. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that predate Jesus (Septuagint), the Greek word ὕψιστος (upsistos) is how people translated the Hebrew name God Most High. When Melchizedek was called by Moses the “priest of God Most High” that is exactly the Greek word the ancient translators used. So the word “highest” and the term “most high” are very similar. And this phrase “the highest” is in the plural –  τοῖς ὑψίστοις (tois uspois) in Greek, so it means “highest places” or “heavens” to be precise. Thus the complete statement is a request “Save us in/by the heavens, please!”

The book of Psalms is like an ancient Hymnal of Israel. Just like Christians know hundreds of songs by heart, so do Jews, only in Hebrew and it happens to be from the book of Psalms. There is another passage that is often called the Great Hallel or “Great Praise” in Jewish tradition. It is also sung at special occasions. It is Psalm 136. Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever… It is called the Great Hallel because the Psalm begins with creation lists many of God’s works of deliverance, including the Exodus and the Red Sea occasion.

And one may think this is a coincidence, but it ends with this phrase הוֹדוּ לְאֵל הַשָּׁמָיִם כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ׃ “Give thanks to the God of heaven.His love endures forever” (Ps 136:26). Is it possible that the last of the requests from the crowd addressed to Jesus and inspired by the Hallel Psalms is playing of the least phrase of the Great Hallel? There is no way to know for sure because reversing translations is not always a precise science. But looking at how the Hallel Psalm is used in this portion of Matthew’s story that is not such an unreasonable idea.

To sing “hosanna” one better mean what one says. The exclamation “Hosanna” an urgent petition for salvation. That is what this word actually means based on its Hebrew usage. So lesson number two is – know the meaning and mean what you say!

The third lesson to be learned from the crowds that accompanied Jesus

  1. Recognize God in Our Midst

Faith is an amazing gift humans have. One can have firm convictions, believe, trust in God and his purposes but one can still miss when God does something right before one’s eyes. One can say all the right words, and on the surface, all looks well but one is riding a train in the opposite direction. We are humans, we are finite, we can be so short-sighted and so mistaken at times. Did the crowds think that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God when they exclaimed those amazing words? Matthew clearly does as he quotes the prophets to show us, his listeners. He makes his point clear who Jesus is. But the crowds probably do not think he is their savior.

But why do they shout Hosanna then? There answer can be bound by looking at verses 10 and 11. When someone asks who this Jesus is – the answer those same crowds give is – this is a prophet from Galilee. As far as they know Jesus is a Galilean prophet, not the Messiah, not Lord, not God, not King, but just a prophet. A welcome, long-awaited prophet, indeed.

It would be a stretch to think that these crowds of pilgrims considered Jesus to be God. It would take quite a bit to arrive at such conclusion. Remember the doctrines of the trinity and Jesus’s divine nature which everyone knows so well today, cannot be assumed. They will yet appear and be clarified hundreds of years from this moment.

So what is the excitement and shouting is about them? The prophet preaches God’s Kingdom, not Caesar’s. And that probably means freedom from Roman oppression. One can see why Jerusalem is all stirred up. One can see why the authorities are nervous. That is exactly the reason why Romans would march a cohort of soldiers from the coastal Caesarea to Jerusalem, just in time for the feast.

You may be puzzled. I know most often people see Jesus’s triumphal entry as the arrival of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And no doubt, that is how Mattai sees it. He knows who Yeshua is. But according to his own words, the crowds saw Jesus not as Messiah, but as a prophet who would announce and reveal Messiah, perhaps. And they called out to God to save them.

In Mat 23:39 Yeshua says, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Now he quotes this very Psalm because Hallel is full of messianic hope.

Indeed, he came as the Messiah, as the redeemer, but was rejected and not recognized. Hosanna –  Save us now, we ask – was the cry of people in those days. It’s not that the crowds did not believe that God could save them. Their faith was placed firmly in God and many hoped that salvation was truly at hand. Yet it was destined for them not to recognize the Messiah when he came. They were looking for salvation from their oppressors, not from sin and death. How else would the words of the Psalm be fulfilled when it says “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23)

What we can gather from this drash is that sometimes God is right in our midst and we do not recognize him. People can sing Hosanna and not know that God has already provided salvation for them. Learn this from the crowd. Show God how you feel. Live your faith, demonstrate it tangibly. Mean what you say. Know what you are saying too, especially when speaking Hebrew. It makes a difference. And do not fail to recognize God when he is present near us. That takes faith, of course. But when we call Hosanna, he answers.


[1] Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 283.

[2] Grammatically “Son of David” is in Dative, but it is not a simple Dative. This can be Dative of sphere, means, or Dative of association. Its debatable which kind of Dative, but the translation can be altered considering this aspect.

[3] Grammatically this is another Dative, but this time most English translations do not hesitate to consider it as a Dative of sphere.