Hosanna is a word we love to say in our churches, especially on Palm Sunday. The multitude of Jews and others who gathered as Jesus entered Jerusalem on that day shouted out the word.
But few Christians today know the word’s origin, how the Jews used it in the Old Testament, or why its meaning shifted in the New Testament. Many Christians assume hosanna was always a Jewish word of praise to God, but in the Old Testament—in Psalm 118:25—the root was more like an urgent cry for help that would, in context, lead to the nation prospering and not being destroyed.
The word Christians use today is the Greeks’ creation. They used Greek letters to create the pronunciation of a Hebrew phrase: hoshiya na, meaning “Save, please!” Some sources also reference this phrase as yasha (deliver or save) plus anna or ‘na(to beg or beseech), but the resultant meaning is similar: “Please, I beg you to save us!”
In one sense, it was a desperate cry—much like a drowning person would yell out for rescue. But it was even more than that; it was an oppressed people’s petition for freedom.
An Oppressed People
The Jews were looking for their Messiah but their expectations were skewed. When Jesus came they misunderstood His Father-ordained mission. They awaited a mighty deliverer who could free them from Rome’s control. They didn’t understand their own prophetic teachings that Messiah, Israel’s hope, would first come as a suffering servant before He would come as a conquering King.
When Jesus—Yeshua—arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they expected the conquering Christ who would restore political power to the Jewish people and set up His Kingdom. John MacArthur wrote, “They thought the kingdom was coming. He knew judgment was coming. They thought they would crown Him. He knew they would kill him.”
The Jews didn’t understand how their Old Testament Scriptures pointed to Jesus as a Savior, Prophet, Priest and King.
Basically, Jesus surprised His people. Instead of attacking the hated Romans, He attacked the Pharisees and Sadducees. He pointed out the religious apostasy in the nation.
Even shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples still questioned the timing of the Kingdom. The apostle Peter asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom?”
A Shift in Meaning
Psalm 118:26 hints at why the meaning of “hosanna” changed. The verse begins, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” The Psalmist knew God would answer his and Israel’s cry for help.
John Piper wrote that, because of this shift from begging for help to recognizing God would send help, the word hosanna came to mean, “Hooray for Salvation! It’s coming! It’s here! Salvation! Salvation!” It was a personal, joy-filled exclamation of confidence in God and praise for His provision.
I have to smile, because so many expressions of hosanna in Scripture include an exclamation mark at the end! It’s truly an emphatic statement. While hosanna is not the same word as hallelujah, both words—for the Christ-follower—represent a response of joyous praise.
Jesus Received Their Praises
Messiah came riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not on an elegant steed. He knew the future. He would sit on a throne in Heaven. But He also knew His time had not yet come. Psalm 118 describes a conqueror. It’s a psalm read by the Jews at Passover, part of the Messianic expectation. Salvation would come.
We might wonder whether the people understood the implications of how the humble Messiah King arrived in Jerusalem.
The donkey He rode was prophesied in the book of Zechariah. We find a clue about the significance of the clothes strewn before Jesus in 2 Kings 9:13. When Jehu was declared king, the people took off their outer garments and placed them under Jehu’s Feet. The people recognized Jesus as “King.”
Jesus deserved the praise. He has always and will always deserve praise, honor, and worship. John MacArthur wrote of that first Palm Sunday. “Jesus was officially creating His own coronation. He is the Messiah. He is the King. He will not deny their hosannas.”
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