It is hard to imagine a christian believer who has not heard about the events of the first Palm Sunday. We teach it in Sunday School. We celebrate it every year on the Sunday before Easter. Movies have been made and musicals have been written. Before we were married, my wife taught the kindergartners’ class in Sunday School. On Palm Sunday she asked the children, “what did the crowd shout as Jesus rode on the donkey?” One little one replied, “bananas, bananas!”. Not quite right, but he had the right idea! There were three Jewish festivals that were obligatory to attend at least once in a Jewish man’s life, if at all possible — Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. To this day, a Jewish family celebrating a Passover Seder will end with a toast: “this year here, next year in Jerusalem”, indicating their desire to fulfill this obligation. So as you can imagine, Jerusalem at Passover was overrun by foreigners making their pilgrimage to the Temple as well as locals and those from surrounding areas.
A little detective work puts the numbers into perspective. One year there was an accounting made of the number of lambs offered as sacrifice for Passover, and the number was in excess of 256,000! There was a minimum number of 10 families per lamb and you had to be present when the sacrifice was made, giving a staggering estimate of about 2.7 million people in Jerusalem at the time of the accounting. In today’s terms that’s about the same as the entire population of Lithuania or Jamaica! We obviously do not know the exact number of people in the City on that first Palm Sunday, but we can be certain, as we say in Scotland, that the place was “jam packed full”!
And so it was that Jesus sparked two immense waves of humanity to converge on the road from Bethany to Jerusalem as news that he had raised Lazarus from the dead spread by word of mouth. A huge crowd in Jerusalem wanted to come and see who Jesus was, and another huge crowd of locals from Judea wanted to accompany Jesus to Jerusalem. When the two waves met in the middle it must have made the feeding of five thousand men look like a small family picnic!
There was no opportunity or possibility for Jesus to address a crowd of this size, or even be seen by them, so he chose to use a symbol that would fulfill a prophecy the crowd would know and understand - he rode on a donkey.
To us this may seem mundane, but in that time and place the significance would be enormous because the whole Jewish crowd would know the prophecy concerning Messiah from Zechariah:
“Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey— riding on a donkey’s colt.” [Zechariah 9:9 NLT]
Surely this amazing man who spoke with such authority, performed miracles, signs and wonders, and was even able to bring the dead back to life, must be the promised Messiah!
The sight of this tumultuous welcome of Jesus must have sent the Jewish authorities into despair, because none of their scheming and plotting had been effective in turning the people against him. Even worse, the crowd were singing a song that was one of the first pieces of scripture every Jewish child memorized, and that we know today as Psalm 118:
Open for me the gates where the righteous enter, and I will go in and thank the Lord. These gates lead to the presence of the Lord, and the godly enter there. I thank you for answering my prayer and giving me victory!
The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. Please, Lord, please save us. Please, Lord, please give us success. Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. [Psalm 118:19-26 NLT]
In our congregation today we often sing “I will enter his gates with Thanksgiving in my heart”, and “This is the day that the Lord has made” and “Christ alone, Cornerstone”, and those words come directly from this psalm!
For the Jewish people, this psalm was intimately connected to the Feast of Tabernacles.
At that feast worshippers would carry bundles of palm, myrtle and willow branches to the Temple and circle the altar of burnt offerings and sing this psalm. So that explains why so many of them were carrying palm branches! They were chanting “Hosanna, hosanna!” — not banana, banana! - which is the Hebrew word for “Save now!”. Dr. William Barclay says that the word is best translated in English as “God Save The King!”.
There is no doubt that when the people sang this psalm they were looking at Jesus as God’s Chosen, or Anointed One, “Christos” in greek, “Messiah” in Hebrew, who would be the great conqueror.
It must have seemed like only a matter of time until the trumpets would sound and the Jewish nation would sweep before it Rome, and the rest of the world.
Jesus approached Jerusalem with the adulation of the mob ringing in his ears. I think he would have been hurt by that, because they were looking for him to be the very thing he refused to be.
This Easter there are still a lot of spiritual “tourists” looking for signs, wonders, miracles and shortcuts to eternal happiness, clutching their bunny rabbits and chocolate eggs. We can meet them in the middle with good news! Let us make sure that they are introduced to the true Messiah.
God save the king! Hosanna!
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black