And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  Mark 11:7-10

The story is familiar.  A determined Jesus sets his eyes toward Jerusalem, knowing that this will be his final journey.  He enters the city riding on a donkey, enticing hysteria, and fulfilling prophecy.  The crowds go wild, throwing cloaks and palm fronds on the road, screaming hosanna and blessing.  They’ve heard of this rabbi who promises salvation and they are greedy to throw off the yoke of their Roman oppressors.  He will be their king – they’ll force him, if they have to – and so they sing of their relief and rescue.

Of course, we know that it will only be a matter of days before the same voices that screamed “hosanna” will chant for crucifixion.  We know that the salvation he promised was not a freedom from the oppression of an earthly ruler but from the oppression of the sin that lives inside our bones.  We know that this raucous Sunday isn’t Christ’s victory march; His truest triumph comes on the quiet Sunday a week away.  The crowds have no idea how deserved their “hosannas” will be, and in his mercy, he lets them celebrate anyway.

To the western reader, this passage paints a portrait of a beginning.  Palm Sunday begins the journey into Holy Week, the beginning of the end of Jesus’s life on earth.  We look forward, expectantly, to what the next week will entail.  But to a Jewish reader, this passage would have drawn their eyes to the past.  The God of the Old Testament is one of metaphor-laden rituals, of holy symbols hidden in the midst of repetitive action.  And as Jesus marched into Jerusalem on that celebratory Sunday, the crowd would not have missed the symbolism in his journey.

Sukkot

To better understand the symbolism of the triumphal entry, we may look back to sukkot.  Once a year, the Israelites would observe a week long ritual known as sukkot, or the feast of booths.  The Jews would leave the comfort and security of their own homes, and take up residence in a ramshackle tent for an entire week.  All meals and often all sleeping would all take place in these “booths” which were generally 8’ x 8’ shelters with wooden walls and greenery-covered ceilings.  Every booth would have been different – different boards, different branches – but one thing would remain the same.  Whatever greenery composed your roof, you needed to be able to see through it.  How else to find the stars?[1]  The ceiling was so important, in fact, that it even had its own name.  Schach.  Today, a schach is typically a woven bamboo mat, but rabbinical scholars argue that it really could have been anything.  Twigs.  Bark.  

Palm branches.

As with all rituals, God had a purpose behind every little act.  When He instituted sukkot,[2]  He set it against the backdrop of harvest time – a time when the community would have been at its wealthiest and its most fulfilled.  In the bounty of their wine and grain, God asks them to remember their need.  It would have been so easy to be comfortable: the work is finally done and the grain is full.  And yet, God asks them to turn away from the ease of their success and remember their need.  

Sukkot reminds the Israelites of their time in the wilderness when they were tent dwelling nomads. In the days of Moses, the people are saved from their oppressors by the mighty hand of God.  But their salvation doesn’t lead immediately to the land of milk and honey.  Between the deliverance and the promise lies the desolation of the desert.  And God doesn’t want them to forget. They had been saved, and they were also waiting to be saved.  In their comfort, God commands them to sleep in their dependence, lest they forget.

In the desert, there were no comfortable homes, no reliable food sources, no consistent watering holes.  There was only dependence.  Over and over again, God provides.  Manna rains from heaven, streams flow from rocks, and tents remain intact.  There may be blessing now, but first there was the desert of dependence.

Hallel

Each morning, as the sun would peek through the palm frond roofs, the Jews observing sukkot would wake up and recite their prayers.  During sukkot, they recited a series of prayers called the hallel, prayers pulled from the deliverance cries of Psalm 113-118.[3]  The Jews would whisper these prayers into the morning air every day until the seventh day of sukkot, a day literally called the day of “The Great Salvation.”[4]  On that day, the Jews would gather together to worship and read the hallel.  At the end of the prayers, they march around the Torah seven times, throw willow branches on the ground, and shout out their cries for salvation – a ceremony so rich in symbolism one has to wonder if the stones of Jericho shook in remembrance.[5]

So there they were.  Those shouting, remembering masses, screaming over and over again the hallel plea of Psalm 118:25.  “Save us, we beg!”[6] Or, as it would have sounded in Hebrew, “Hoshi’an na.”  It was a plea but also a praise – a cry for salvation but also a remembrance of freedom given.  It asked for something that had already come. 

Later, as scholars decided how to draft this Hebrew word into New Testament Greek, the decided the simplest thing to do was to transliterate it. [7]    To translate it literally would make it sound too much like a prayer alone; it was also an exultant praise.  So they created a word based on the way it sounded, as the way to honor the depth of meaning that it carried in its original. And so, the passage reads, “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  This plea.  This prayer.  All summed up in an emotional cry that most accurately means “Praise God and His Messiah, we are saved.” 

When Jesus entered into Jerusalem, the Jews would have carried these sukkot rituals and symbols deep in their skin.  The connection could not be lost on them, as they took the fronds of their desert roofs and threw them on the ground at Jesus’s feet.  As they sang the chants of hallel deliverance, they were making a powerful statement.  Why chant prayers for salvation at a podium when the King of the Universe is in your midst?  Yes, God had saved them in the desert but the Truer Deliverance had come.  And little did the crowds know that in seven days, they would indeed celebrate the final day of The Great Salvation.

So this Palm Sunday, may we take up the cries of our forefathers.  May we take hold of our dependence and throw it on the ground at Jesus’s feet.  The King is here.  Thank God and His Messiah, we are saved.


[1] Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God

[2] Exodus 23, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy 16

[3] Posner, Menachem. “What is Sukkot: A Guide to the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, and the Meanings Behind It.” 

[4] Hoshiana Rabba

[5] Parsons, John J. “Hebrew for Christians: Hoshana Rabba”

[6] Aronson, Jason. “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer.” (1996)

[7] Elwell, Walter E (edi).  “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.”

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