John 12:12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem is staged as a royal victory parade. Of sorts.
At the most basic level, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem represented the climax and completion of a pilgrim journey timed to coincide with the Passover festival.
In Old Testament Judaism, people made the journey from wherever they lived up to the temple at Jerusalem at least three times a year (Ex 23:17). It wasn’t intended as a kind of religious tourism or just another holiday weekend. Instead, the physical journey became a spiritual journey. The journey meant left your normal daily life behind. It was a deliberate coming near to the presence of God. It was a time of celebration, remembering the faithfulness of God and his great act of Exodus salvation— the Passover. The journey began in prayerful repentance, and concluded with songs of praise.
By the time the book of the Psalms had reached its final form, there was a special collection of psalms that were pilgrim psalms called Songs of Ascent (Ps 120 -134). They were songs for ascending, for going up, to the Temple.
And so, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem with the pilgrim crowds, they are at the spiritual high point and well used to singing psalms as they went along. And so it is appropriate in John 12:13 that they break out into singing one of their pilgrim songs. But, actually, they are singing a psalm from just outside the usual collection of pilgrim songs. They have very deliberately chosen to sing Psalm 118.
This psalm frames everything that Jesus does here. In a sense, one hasn’t fully grasped “Palm Sunday” until they’ve grasped Psalm 118.
Psalm 118 is like a performance psalm— words, music and drama work together in one great event. Some scholars think that this psalm might have actually been acted out every year—with singers, musicians, soldiers and the crowd; all parading across the Kidron Valley, up the hill, into the walled city of Jerusalem and then processing towards the Temple. The central figure in the performance is, of course, the ‘Son of King David’ who is also a great battle-warrior.
After an initial burst of praise, Psalm 118 begins at the scene of the battle. God’s king is hard pressed and desperate. He is surrounded by deadly foes on every side until God intervenes and rescues, until God gives victory in battle.
The scene then moves to the celebration of that great victory; first of all in the tents of army as the soldiers recover from battle, and then climactically as they return to Jerusalem in procession, marching up to the temple.
So the great procession of Psalm 118 is all about God’s king going up the Temple to offer prayers of Thanksgiving, to celebrate God’s salvation and his victory in battle over his enemies. And so, at the climax, as he approaches the temple, the great gates are closed protecting all the people inside. That’s why in verse 19 the King says:
19 Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. 20 This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. 21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. 22 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; 23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. 24 This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalms 118:19-24).
And then the people respond:
25 O LORD, save us [literally, “Hosanna!]; O LORD, grant us success. 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. 27 The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs [palm branches] in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.
So Psalm 118 would all be acted out annually, almost like a coronation re-enactment. It was well known to all, with a clearly understood narrative.
Now, roll forward many centuries to Jesus, and the band of pilgrims and disciples travelling with him. They understand the Psalm and what is happening in it; and they also know their part when they see God’s King arriving in Jerusalem. And so in verse 13 John quotes them singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD”
So also, as in the Psalm, the crowd sing, “Hosanna, Hosanna.”
Now John describes the scene– with the benefit of hindsight– as the Jerusalem pilgrims preparing their hearts with anticipation for Jesus to decisively act… at last. The crowd have great messianic expectations as they re-enact Psalm 118.
John mentions it, but Luke records in detail, how Jesus went to great lengths to carefully stage manage his arrival in Jerusalem so that the people would recognise him as their Messiah-King. That’s what riding the donkey was all about. Jesus could have chosen a white stallion, or perhaps even a camel, upon which to arrive. But instead, he chose a young donkey, because he was signalling the words of the prophet Zechariah, who described the Messiah’s arrival like this:
9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 … He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zech 9:9-10)
So as Jesus rides into Jerusalem there is great anticipation and excitement. The crowd expresses hope; maybe even faith and uncertainty mixed together. Here, at last, is their true Messiah King. Or, at least, the one they hope will be their true Messiah King.
And so, in many ways, this Palm Sunday procession is Jesus’ royal victory march. The setting of Psalm 118 reminds us that Jesus’ cross is actually a win; it is his triumph, his victory; his coronation as King of God’s kingdom.
Now we know that the cross, for all its horror and shame, didn’t look much like a victory. But it was indeed a victory of cosmic proportions. Jesus’ carefully staged entry parade reminds us that not only is he the Suffering Servant preparing for the cross but that also he is God’s Chosen King, coming to the Temple to celebrate God’s Victory over his Enemy.