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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Hosanna: a Palm Sunday reflection

Several words familiar to Christians from the New Testament or from hymns are transliterations into English of words from the original biblical languages. Perhaps most obviously, ‘Halleljuah’ (sometimes put in the Greek form 'Alleluia') is Hebrew, meaning literally 'Praise the Lord'. Most Christians probably know that meaning. The meanings of other transliterated words like 'baptism' (from Greek baptisma) and 'apostle' (from Greek apostolos) are less clear because of diverse ways Christians use them, sometimes obscuring the original New Testament meaning. Then there are English words that are derived from a biblical word even though they do not appear in English translations of the Bible – such as evangelise, evangelism and evangelical, all derived from the Greek words euangelion (usually translated ‘gospel’) and euaggelizó (usually translated ‘preach the gospel’).

At some point, I would love to discuss the confusion transliterated words can create and explore the relative merits and weaknesses of transliteration. That will have to wait for another time. My subject for this post is another transliterated word that is especially associated with Palm Sunday – Hosanna.

Hosanna is probably most familiar to modern Christians from praise songs such as the choruses of Paul Baloche’s Praise is Rising (2006) and Brooke Ligertwood’s I See the King of Glory (2007). Traditionalists and lovers of Christmas may think first of the 1924 carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High. All of these are rousing anthems of praise, which may cause us to think that praise is the idea behind the original word that has been transliterated into English. There are some biblical grounds for thinking of Hosanna as a cry of jubilation. In its only appearances in English translations of the Bible – the accounts of the triumphal entry we remember on Palm Sunday – it certainly sounds that way.

Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:8-9)

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! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:8-10)

So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 20:13)

The cries of Hosanna as recorded by Matthew, Mark and John are clearly related to joy at the blessing of God. The eagle-eyed may notice that Luke’s Gospel is not quoted above, since it does not use the word Hosanna. The parallel verse in Luke might, however, add to the sense that the word is a cry of praise:

As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 21:37-38)

Luke specifically uses words like ‘praise’ and ‘rejoice’ to describe what people were doing. In place of ‘Hosanna in the highest’ he has ‘glory in the highest’. So, it is clearly not wrong for Christians to use Hosanna as a cry of praise and rejoicing. But in doing so, we might miss the fullness of its meaning.

As so often, the pathway to a fuller understanding of what Hosanna means is its Old Testament background. The words of the crowds on the first Palm Sunday come from a Psalm:

Save us, we pray, O LORD!

O LORD, we pray, give us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!

We bless you from the house of the LORD.

(Psalm 118:25-26)

Where is Hosanna in these verses? The opening words: “Save us, we pray”. In Hebrew, that is two words: הֹושִׁ֘יעָ֥ה אָֽנָּ֥א (hovshi'ah anna). A close look at the Romanised version in brackets should reveal the origins of the word Hosanna exclaimed by the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem. If the translators of our English Bibles had chosen to translate the word rather than transliterating it, we would have read in Matthew 21:9:

“Save, we pray, Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Save, we pray, in the highest!”

That sounds quite different to what I have normally thought they were saying. It is a cry of praise, but it is also a declaration of hope and a call to Jesus, the Son of David, to save them. This is, after all, a people living under the cloud of Roman oppression. A people with a long history of trusting in (and departing from) God. A people who are hoping for a Messiah from David’s line who will remove the yoke of the Gentiles, judge their enemies and establish God’s eternal kingdom. These people – mainly people who have followed him and already believe he is the Messiah – see Jesus entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives and they think he is about to do what they think a Messiah should do – call down the judgement of heaven and set up his throne. No wonder they are enthusiastic! No wonder the enemies of Jesus are troubled and try to silence them.

What the crowd did not know was that Jesus was not the Messiah they had expected. Or rather, not yet. God’s Messianic plan of salvation would eventually lead to his enemies being judged and his kingdom established in its fullness, but not at that point. Jesus, the Messiah, had not come on this occasion as judge and earthly king. He had come as servant and sacrifice. He would go to the cross. An act of apparent defeat – rejected by the leaders of Israel and crucified by the Roman oppressors. But the supreme act of salvation. The only act that could bring the deliverance we need more than anything. As sacrifice for our sins, Jesus would deliver us from guilt before God and from death itself.

It is because we know this that Hosanna takes on a fuller note of praise for Christians. We rejoice not only in the hope of salvation, but in its reality. We have already been saved by the Messiah Jesus. But this confidence in God’s salvation through his work on the cross should not cause us to lose the original tone of longing that lies behind the word Hosanna. We have been saved. But we still live in a world of oppression, plague and war. We face opposition and even persecution for our faith. We struggle still with temptation and sin. We experience betrayals and conflicts, misunderstandings and disappointments. Above all, we still know the pain of loss to the grave and the reality of our own coming death. From all this we need to be saved. We can still cry, “Save us, we pray!”

Like the crowd at Jerusalem, we need deliverance. And like that crowd we see no other deliverer but Jesus, the Son of David. We have a greater privilege than them, living after the cross and resurrection. But we also know that the fullness of his salvation is yet to come. And we have his promise that he will come again to bring the blessing of the Lord that he died to pour upon us. For now we have the foretaste of that blessing. We have the first fruits of the new creation, the indwelling Spirit by whom we cry ‘Abba Father’ (Romans 8:15). But as we groan in this fallen world, and He intercedes for us according to God’s will (Romans 8:26-27), this same Spirit also leads us to cry ‘Hosanna!’ Christians sometimes say we are saved already from the penalty of sin, we will one day be saved from the presence of sin, and each day we need to be saved from the power of sin. Hosanna wraps these past, present and future dimensions of salvation together in one rich word.

Hosanna is a word of praise laced with longing. A cry of rejoicing tinged with sorrow. An exclamation of jubilation married with hope. As we sing it, we say, “Lord, thank you for saving me, save me I pray!”

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