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Matthew 21 and Hosanna


This week we are reading through Matthew 19-22. Jesus and His disciples have completed their ministry in their home region of Galilee and are about to enter Judea and its capital for the last time before Jesus will be crucified. Jesus says to His disciples, in a third prediction of His death: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matt. 20:18-19) As Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem, crowds gather to celebrate and proclaim His kingship, and the phrases they shout will be the focus of our study today.

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,

humble, and mounted on a donkey,

and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

When Matthew tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding upon the donkey and colt, we recognize a fulfillment of both Zecheriah 9:9 and Isiah 61:22, which Matthew essentially combines in verse 5. Rather than riding in on a war horse, as any ancient king declaring kingship might do, Jesus rides in on a donkey and a colt as a display of what kind of Messiah He is. He’s not coming to overthrow the Romans by brute, physical force. A much deeper, cosmic war is underway—a war beyond anything the human rulers could have imagined. 

Multiple crowds (going before and after Jesus) celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, aware of the miracles He had produced and messianic nature of this man—even though they lacked the awareness of His impending death. Nonetheless, their shouts of praise were befitting of the Christ:

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

The Triumphal Entry in All Four Gospels

This story is included in all four gospels, and everyone but Luke uses this Greek term transliterated from Hebrew and then into English as Hosanna. Before diving into the the history behind the word, let’s note how the gospel writers formulate these cries from the crowd a little differently, noticing how they bring the picture into fuller clarity as a group.

Mark 11:10 “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!”

Luke 19:38 “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

John 12:13 “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

Although Matthew’s does not explicitly use the term “king,” those very familiar with the Old Testament will recognize the kingship aspect in Matthew’s use of the term “Son of David.” In 2 Samuel 7, God made a covenant with David to keep a king on the throne from David’s lineage, which is why we repeatedly hear people in the gospel call Jesus “Son of David.” We will probably talk about this more next week in our groups, so let’s turn to the important background text of all of these versions, Psalm 118.

Psalm 118 & Hosanna

Psalm 118 is a victory psalm (cf. Ps.118:10-16), the final psalm in a subset of psalms known simply as Hallel (Heb. For “praise”); the group is Psalm 113-118. This collection is more fully known in Jewish liturgical contexts as the Eyptian Hallel, referring the exodus from Egypt mentioned in Psalm 114:1. These psalms are historically recited at the pilgrimage festivals, especially at the Passover meal. The crowds celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem clearly knew it by heart and are applying it to Jesus, whom they say is precisely “the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

To give a little context within Psalm 118, let’s look at verses 19-27. I have italicized verses particularly illustrative of the Psalm’s connection to Matthew 21:

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,

that I may enter through them

and give thanks to YHWH.

20 This is the gate of YHWH;

the righteous shall enter through it.

21 I thank you that you have answered me

and have become my salvation.

22 The stone that the builders rejected

has become the chief cornerstone.

23 This is YHWH’s doing;

it is marvelous in our eyes.

24 This is the day that YHWH has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.

25 Save us, we beseech you, YHWH!

YHWH, we beseech you, give us success!

26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of YHWH.

We bless you from the house of YHWH.

27 YHWH is God,

and he has given us light.

Bind the festal procession with branches,

up to the horns of the altar.

28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;

you are my God, and I will extol you.

29 O give thanks to YHWH, for he is good,

for his steadfast love endures forever.

Verses 25-26 are the key lines recited in the cries of the crowd in Matthew 21. Hosanna comes from the Hebrew command, “Save us!” in Psalm 118:26. By the first century, this phrase had become something one could also say to give praise to someone. Hence, in Matthew 21: 9, the crowds say: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” They are praising God for the help He is sending by way of His King, the messiah, Jesus.

In verses 10-11 Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’” It shouldn’t be surprising the the whole city was said to be in turmoil, if we really understand Jesus as a rightful King entering the city that really belongs to Him and His Father. Those who were answering the question “who is this?” were giving Jesus the highest title they could at the time (i.e. “prophet”), no doubt proud of the fact that He came from Gaililee, which is where He had done most of His miracles and the region from which His current followers also came.

These shouts of praise in verse five, as well as the crowds’ answer of who Jesus is in verse 11, are in the imperfect tense. That is, they were ongoing actions, not just something that happened once. So when Matthew writes that the crowds said these things, it is as though they said these things many times, as they walked before and after Jesus, paving the way for him by throwing their cloaks upon the ground before him, which was something done for other ancient kings as well.

Psalm 118 & The Chief Cornerstone

Another passage later in Matthew 21 also quotes Psalm 118. There, Jesus tells a parable about wicked tenants to whom a landowner had leased a vineyard before he went away. Each time the landownder would send a slave to check in on the vineyard, the wicked tenants would kill them, eventually even killing the landowner’s own son. The landowner will, though, eventually put the wicked tenants to death and lease the vineyard to others who will yield harvest. Then we get another quote from Psalm 118.

Jesus said to them, ‘have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23)

Jesus says this (and more) to the chief priests, elders of the temple, and Pharisees, who realize the parable is about them; they are the wicked tenants.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has on numerous occasions discouraged those he healed from making His ministry widely known. His messianic nature has, up until this point, been something Jesus sought to keep a bit on the quiet side. That is no more. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the capital of Judea and most important city of Jewish history, He now publicly accepts such acclamations and the title of King. There is no turning back.

Hosanna to the Son of David!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”