Exploring the Scripture
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem the last week of his life. The Gospel writers tell us Jesus rode a donkey, a symbol of coming in peace. The people placed palm branches or garments on the road to welcome him. They shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13).
Those images appear in the scripture reading today from Psalm 118. However, it was not written as a prophecy of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The connection with Jesus is subtle.
Written many centuries before Jesus, this psalm of thanksgiving and praise may have been used in worship at the beginning of a new year. It is also one of seven psalms (113–118) the Levites sang as they slaughtered the lambs for the Passover Festival. In those traditions, we see symbols of Jesus as both king and lamb.
Psalm 118 is a processional psalm. Some scholars think it is the king who traditionally spoke the opening words as he and the people journeyed through the streets of Jerusalem to the temple. He directed the people in verse 2: “Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’”
The king directed other groups of worshipers to respond with the same declaration. The psalm describes the king’s difficult battle and gives thanks for a victory that delivered the nation from enemies.
Arriving at the temple the king asks for entrance but is told only the righteous shall enter (v. 19). The speaker admits being rejected by God for sin. But God provided salvation and mercy because “the stone that the builders rejected,” has become the cornerstone and ruler of the nation (v. 22).
The image may have come from a common proverb of the day. It speaks of something or someone who moves from a position of no value to a place of great prominence and power. A cornerstone was a key foundational feature of a strong building.
Verses 22 and 24 are favorite scripture passages for the Christian community. According to Matthew 21:42, Jesus used the image of the cornerstone to tell the people that God would take the kingdom away from them and allow those who are rejected and poor to build the kingdom.
Verse 25 is a petition to God to “Save us.” The Hebrew word for “save us” is “hosanna.” It is the word the people shouted as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The following verse also includes words shouted during the triumphal entry: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In the original psalm, the words referred to the king who had entered the temple. Branches are mentioned, with the direction that they are to be tied to the horns of the altar. Then a hymn of praise to God completes the psalm of thanksgiving.
Were the people using their well-known Psalm 118 to praise Jesus that day so long ago, as their hoped-for king? Or did the gospel writers use the familiar phrases to describe the excitement and expectant hope of the crowd? We have no way of knowing.
What we do know is that a week that began in misplaced expectation of a new ruler ended in the crucifixion. Their hopes were dashed. The rest of the story must wait until next week.
Project Zion Podcast
Co-hosts Karin Peter and Blake Smith consider how this week's scripture connects to our lives today.
- In this psalm and in Jesus’ entry, there are symbols of kingship, sacrifice, salvation, and the Passover lambs.
- Thanksgiving and praise dominate the psalm, by raising a rejected, powerless figure to a position of power and triumph.
- God is the prime mover and actor in bringing about victory and restoring hope.
Questions to Consider
- How does an understanding of Psalm 118 transform your understanding of the words and actions of the crowd who witnessed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem?
- When have you felt like “the stone the builders rejected?” How has God transformed you?
- If you were to write a psalm to praise God as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, what would you say?