Donkeys + Palm Branches: What’s the deal with Palm Sunday?

Birthdays and bridal showers.  Work schedule and working out.  Fundraisers and friends.  Trips and to-do lists.

I just turned 32, and when people ask me if I feel any different, I respond, “I feel tired.  I think feeling 32 feels like being tired.”

In the midst of this, because I work at a church and Easter is kind of a big deal for us, I’ve spent countless hours thinking about the significance of Easter and the events leading up to it.

In doing so, I realized I’ve never given much thought to Palm Sunday.  At best, it served as a week’s notice that Easter would be here soon, cueing a rush to get those Easter eggs dyed and stock up on my annual Cadbury fix, because the real show would be coming soon.  It was the advance warning:  If you are singing hosanna and there’s talk of palm branches, make sure you’ve got your Easter plans locked in because you’ve only got a week left.

Poor Palm Sunday.  You’re the opening act.  No one actually buys tickets to see you.

And yet this year, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m excited to celebrate Palm Sunday.  Why?

Palm Sunday is one big party about how life is better when Jesus is in charge.

Here’s a  little more of what I’ve learned about Palm Sunday, and why you might want to be excited about what it points too as well!

PASSOVER

The original Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before his eventual crucifixion, was taking place at the end of Passover.  Passover week commemorated God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of the clutches of the Egyptians. It was a joyous celebration, a time when people from all over Israel would converge in Jerusalem to remember and celebrate what God had done.  Under the current Roman occupation, hopes for a future deliverance would be running high.

Psalm 118 was on the lips of everyone at the time.  It was a song that looked forward to the Messiah, the descendant of David who would reclaim the throne and restore Israel.  All week, people were shouting:

LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you.

The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

(Psalm 118:25-27, NIV)

HOSANNA

One of the Hebrew words from Psalm 118:25 looks like this:

הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה

 If you squint just right, or if you know your Hebrew alphabet, this spells hosanna

It’s from the Hebrew verb, yasha, to save, deliver, give victory, or help.  In other words, “Lord, save us!”

Expectantly hoping for the Messiah, the one who would deliver them, the Israelites looked forward to the day when God’s rightful king would once more ascend the throne.  He would lead his people to victory, and he would also lead them back to true worship of Yahweh.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNT), on the origin of the word “hosanna,” elaborates on the significant role of Psalm 118:

“The Psalm is suited for a description of the Davidic king, in his role as the Melchizedek priest, leading his people in procession to Yahweh’s house.  In this context the cry, ‘O, Save’ would indicate an imploring cry to Yahweh to bring to reality that which the liturgy has depicted.  Judaism later followed out this thought by making the great cry focus on the expectation of the messianic king.”

DONKEYS AND PALM BRANCHES

Psalm 118:27 describes how the Messiah’s procession would be celebrated with boughs (palm branches) in hand.

In addition to the messianic hopes of Psalm 118, another key passage the Israelites would have fresh in their minds as they look for their deliverer is Zechariah 9:9 (NIV):

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The NIDNT continues to expound on the significance of “hosanna” as its use continued in 1st century Judaism:

“By NT times, Hosanna had become a full ‘cultic cry’…. The sight of Jesus fulfilling the kingly prophecy of Zech. 9:9, coupled with the strewing and waving of branches reminiscent of the ceremonial fronds which had come to characterize the Feast of Tabernacles, prompted the shout appropriate to that occasion and, all unwittingly, they greeted the true David with the Davidic welcome.”

Passover, hosanna, donkeys and palm branches

Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?  Now that you have some historical context, read the account from Matthew about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem:

Matthew 21:1-9 (NIV)

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him 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!”

 WHY PALM SUNDAY MATTERS TODAY

The people of Israel are beat up, broken, oppressed, marginalized, and longing for the days when God’s favor was with them.  They are holding out hope for this promised Messiah figure, the one who would once again establish God’s rule and reign.

 They know that life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

 When God’s anointed is on the throne, all is as it should be.

That’s what people are hoping for that first Palm Sunday. And maybe that’s a little bit of what you and I need today.


Even at its best, this life on earth carries with it a level of brutality and brokenness.  I would say there are a lot of good things in my life right now.  But even with all those good things, I’m so aware of my own sin and brokenness, and the profound brutality and brokenness of the world around me.

Even at its best, this life is far from perfect.  And this world will never BE perfect until Jesus comes again and once more humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of the rightful King.

Palm Sunday is about the hope that God will make, and indeed is making, all things right.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.

Humankind was made to live in a proper relationship with our Creator—a relationship where His divine design for life and human flourishing is realized.  Humanity is at its best when it is submitted to the way God designed life to be lived, reconciled to God as well as to each other.

The first Palm Sunday inaugurated a beautiful opening act, setting the stage for Jesus to conquer the power of sin and death through his death and resurrection.  The rightful king reclaimed his people, his territory.  Since that first triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story of God taking back the hearts of his people from the clutches of the enemy continues to unfold.  The rule and reign of Christ was undeniably established that week, but it is not yet fully here.

This Jesus life is here, now, in glimpses.  Sin no longer has mastery over us.  Death no longer has the final say.  Hope, joy, love, and peace are abundantly available as we walk through life with God.

There are moments, glimpses, when we see just how breathtakingly beautiful life with God was meant to be.  But then we come crashing back to this earth, and the brutal reality of living in a broken world hits us anew.

Life is always better when it is lived under the leadership and guidance of the rightful king.  As we encounter the places in this world where the ways of God are not recognized or lived out, it serves as a brutal reminder of just how broken this world still is.

Can you imagine what it will be like when there’s no more glimpses, and we are blinded by the beauty that is fully revealed?

Can you imagine what it’s like when, for the first time since the garden, humanity is living fully under the rule and reign of God and sin and brokenness are nowhere to be found?

Palm Sunday is a foreshadowing of what the real triumphal entry will be like.  Jesus came once to Jerusalem and initiated a new way for God’s people to be reconciled, a new way to live, a new way for the kingdom of God to start pushing back the darkness in this world.

But another Palm Sunday is coming, and on that day all the wrongs of this world will finally be made right.

The rightful king will be on the throne, and all will be as it should be.

The King of Kings will be the ONLY King, and the ways of God will rule once more on earth.


For the first time in my life this week, I genuinely prayed for Jesus to come back.

I love my life, and yes, there are definitely still a lot of things I’m hoping to experience and see before my time here on earth is done.  But honestly, I’m also ready to be done with the brokenness.  I’m ready to be done with sin.  I’m ready to not have my heart broken as I hear about the brutal and harsh realities taking place around the world.

God, save us.

Hosanna, God save us!

This world will never fully be right until YOU are once again fully in charge. 


That, dear friends, is a little bit more of what I think Palm Sunday is supposed to be about.  I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating this Sunday.  Let’s celebrate that Jesus is the rightful king, and rejoice in the victory He has already accomplished over sin and death.  But let’s also look forward to the day when the final Palm Sunday arrives!

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Author: lauramcopeland

Jesus follower. Coffee consumer. Reluctant runner. Outdoor explorer. Travel opportunist.

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