Matthew 21:9-11 recounts Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, as the crowds shout "'Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!'" But only a few chapters later, they were calling for his death on the cross. How do we reconcile these two events, and what exactly does "Hosanna" mean?
Perhaps you are familiar with this phrase found in the Bible, or you recall hearing it when learning about the life of Jesus, or you have sung it in a worship song. Hosanna in the highest is a powerful declaration of praise, need for salvation, and an honor that we know is reserved for Jesus alone. This phrase, found in Matthew’s Gospel, is both popular and often leaves the mind to wonder what it really means.
“The crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those that followed shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee’” (Matthew 21:9-11).
One can only imagine what it must have been like to see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, the rightful king, as he received the glory and worship he alone was worthy. Hosanna in the highest means more than praise and adoration. Rather the word itself means save us. It is used as a crying out for help, salvation, and freedom. Let us take a deeper look at what was happening in this passage and this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life and ministry.
What Does "Hosanna" Mean?
Hosanna is a unique word, only found in a few other verses in the Bible. The Gospels of Mark and John include this word as they retell the same account found in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Mark 11:8-10 - “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘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 heaven!’”
John 12:12-13 - “The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the king of Israel!’”
The Greek word found in the New Testament that we translate hosanna, is derived from the Hebrew word, hoshiana. This Hebrew word is found in the Old Testament, specifically Psalm 118.
Psalm 118:25 - “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success.”
When we take into consideration the use of this word across both the Old and New Testaments, and the Greek and Hebrew languages, it becomes clear that this word is not only a form of praise.
Hosanna means save us. It is a prayer, it is a plea for help, it is a declaration of the need for salvation, and it is a request for freedom. As the Psalmist used it, we find that same meaning, save us, come across when it was used by the Jews as Jesus was riding into Jerusalem. They, too, certainly needed saving that only their long-awaited Messiah could provide. Jesus, who was sent to save humanity by death on a cross, was truly worthy of such praise.
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Is "Hosanna" Different from "Hallelujah"?
The word hallelujah is used to relay a joyous praising of God. Hallelujah is a way to declare God’s goodness, to acknowledge his place as God, and give God the praise he is worthy of.
Though the word hosanna is sometimes mistakenly understood as synonymous to hallelujah, the two have very distinct meanings. Hallelujah means to praise God. Hosanna is more than a form of praise; it is also a type of crying out specifically for God’s saving help. Hosanna means save us. Though these two words are often used interchangeably, they are in fact different from one another.
What Is the Context of This Verse?
At the start of the chapter where this verse is located, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus knew his time on earth was coming to an end and that his death and resurrection was nearing. Just before this chapter, Jesus had predicted his death a third time (see Matthew 20:18).
This verse is found in the telling of a crucial moment in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Here we read the fulfillment of the prophecy found in Zechariah 9:9, that the king would come riding in on a donkey. Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem was a solidification of Jesus’ messianic identity. He indeed was the messiah.
The crowds may have anticipated that Jesus would lead a revolt against the leaders. But this was never Jesus’ intent or reason that the Father sent him. Jesus instead would die a humble, brutal death on a cross, paying the price for humanity. A debt that he bore so that we would be free from death and forgiven of our sins.
Why Do the People Turn on Jesus?
In Matthew 21, the Jews are shouting, “Hosanna in the highest,” and just six chapters later, the Jews are standing in Pilate’s court shouting, “Crucify him” (Matthew 27:22). It is sobering to try and understand how things changed so drastically. Perhaps the crowds calling out hosanna to Jesus were different than the crowds demanding he be crucified. Maybe the crowds felt pressured or intimidated by the Pharisees and Sadducees.
In the end, Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection were why he came to earth. This was the way he would go on to pay the debt and save humanity. The people turned on Jesus for reasons that seem unbeknownst to us, but what we know for certain is that this was all part of God’s good and perfect plan of redemption. He sent his only son to be the savior of the world, and that meant he would die on the cross to make salvation available to all people who would accept this gift.
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Is "Hosanna" a Good Way to Praise God?
Hosanna is a special and beautiful way to praise God. It is especially fitting in times when we need his help or his rescuing. Hosanna reminds us that God is our savior. God is the one whom we can cry out to for help and who will hear our every concern and burden. We need not look to anyone else to save us.
Hosanna teaches us that God had a plan of redemption and came through. God is a god who saves and redeems his beloved children. He is a rescuer who cannot be defeated. He is always victorious by nature. When you are going through trials, hardships, or sinfulness, it is God who can save you. It is through Jesus that we receive the gift of salvation and enjoy real and lasting freedom and eternal life.
This passage in Matthew 21 is quite vivid and readers can likely envision what it must have been like to see Jesus riding in on a donkey as the crowds praised him and cried out to him as the one who could save them, “hosanna in the highest.” It was a monumental occurrence that fulfilled prophecy found in the Old Testament, and it was Jesus’ way of clearly identifying himself as the messiah.
Jesus came to save the world. He was humble, he surrendered entirely to the will of the Father, and in doing so, he made it possible for all humanity to receive the gift of salvation. A gift not earned on our own attempts, but a free gift made available because Jesus paid the price of all sin and death. Jesus is our Lord and Savior, truly worthy of our praise, “hosanna in the highest!”
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Pamela Palmer is a writer, speaker, and the founder of upheldlife.com, the platform on which she produces devotionals and faith resources to inspire keeping faith at the center of life. She is in pastoral ministry and gets to share in the emotional and spiritual lives of others. She lives and thrives on Jesus, coffee, and music. She is the author of Living a Deeper Faith: Nurture Your Relationship with God and Live a Faith-Fueled Life. Pamela married the perfect man for her and they have two beautiful kiddos. She has been published on herviewfromhome.com, and you can follow her at upheldlife.com or on Facebook.com/upheldlife.
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