Palm Sunday and Psalm 118: The Entrance of the King

Palm Sunday. As widely celebrated as it is, I’ve often wonder how it fits in. What is its significance? How did it work that so many people participated and what about it so infuriated the Pharisees? The event is “The Presentation of the King” but I had a hard time seeing that even with the Zechariah quote. I think the answer is found in what the people were singing on that day. Remember? When the Pharisees objected Jesus said that if the people stopped singing “the rocks would cry out”. The point here is God had determined that day there was to be a proclamation and if people would not do it then rocks would. Most commentaries will tell you that the people were singing the Great Hallel (Psalms 113-118), which is probably true, but what is quoted is from Psalm 118. This Psalm, I think, holds the key to Palm Sunday. Here, we see a King is coming to his people, and we see how the leaders should have welcomed him. Further, the people of Jesus’ day applied this Psalm in actions that are clearly Messianic.

Psalm 118:1-4 Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.
(2) Let Israel now say that his loving kindness endures forever.
(3) Let the house of Aaron now say that his loving kindness endures forever.
(4) Now let those who fear Yahweh say that his loving kindness endures forever.

This is going to be a brisk walk through this Psalm, but notice first that this Psalm is what we call a responsive reading. One speaks one part and others respond with their part. I believe the Psalm is based on a real military campaign successfully waged by David, but it is a ceremonially stylized retelling. This observation is significant for Jesus’ event.

The lesson to be taught in the Psalm – found in both the opening verses and in the last verse – is that God, whose love endures forever, deserves our gratitude. David supports this lesson with a description of his military campaign. Clearly, David was victorious, but he describes everything in terms of God’s powerful help. Notice, also, that his struggles go from “distress” (v5) to being “surrounded” (v10) to being “pushed violently” (v13) to being God’s “discipline” (v18). Even the actions of the godless enemies are seen as God in action.

After the victory, David returns to Jerusalem and prepares to enter the city. This Psalm is the entrance ceremony. It is a pageant in which the King speaks and his welcomers respond to him. The king says “Open for me the gates of Righteousness” (v19) and from inside the gates the response is “This is the gate of the Lord” (v20) and the King says “I will give thanks (v21). The rest of the Psalm is the pageant of the King entering the city. This is the connection with Palm Sunday and it is from this section that the people are quoting. Jesus used verse 22 a couple of times in his interactions with the Pharisees and the Pharisees never missed that in this ceremonial Psalm they were playing the part of the rejecters who will be overruled by God.

With 25 and 26 comes the real crux of the matter in terms of what this Psalm predicts and how it played out on Palm Sunday. “Hosanna” (“save us now” v 25) cried the celebrators, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (26a). This phrase in Psalm 118 brings the response of the priests of the temple welcoming the victorious king by saying “We bless you from the house of the Lord” (26b). This is where the disconnect with Palm Sunday lies. In response to “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” the Pharisees, recognizing the full importance of the phrase, refused to bless the king but told him to silence his followers. The Pharisees were infuriated that the people applied this Psalm to Jesus. Jesus, for his part, accepted the application and refused to silence it.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” is the proclamation that was to be said on Palm Sunday. This is what the rocks would have cried out, if they were needed. The leaders refused to bless him. Later, Jesus said that the next time he comes to Jerusalem, they will hear this proclamation again, and they will bless him with this Psalm. (Mt 23:39). The pageant of the Psalm will be fulfilled.

One final observation: verse 27 (NIV) reads “with boughs in hand join in the festal procession”. NASB reads “bind the festival sacrifice with cords.” While this seems quite different, the Hebrew phrase can be translated either way, as the word can be translated either “bough” or “cord”. How to translate depends on what is seen as the background of the Psalm. Applying this to Palm Sunday, the question is moot as the people were carrying boughs, but it seems there is more here.

Zechariah 14 describes the coming of Messiah into Jerusalem. He stands on the Mount of Olives (where the Palm Sunday pageant started) and enters the city. Then it says the nations will come to celebrate the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). This feast’s celebration includes the waving of Palm branches (Leviticus 23:40) and the singing of the Great Hallel. It appears that the people on Palm Sunday were preparing to celebrate the Feast of Booths with their Messiah.

Admittedly, Palm Sunday is the wrong time of the year for the Feast of Booths, but I think there is another indication that the people of Jesus’ time associated the Feast of Booths with the coming of the Messiah. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter said “let us build three booths”. Peter was not trying to build dwelling places so that they all could stay up on the mountain, but he was celebrating the Messiah with the Feast of Booths.

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