“And when they had sung a hymn…”
“And then had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30). This is the closing sentence from the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus and the disciples’ time in the Upper Room. The last thing they did before leaving for Gethsemane was to sing a hymn. The musician in me wonders what they sang…what was the melody and the words that were on Jesus’ lips as He went out to begin the ordeal of His passion? The appointed psalm for Palm Sunday this year, Psalm 118, may give us our answer. The Hallel consists of six Psalms (113-118) which were recited (or sung) as a unit on joyous occasions, including during the evening prayers on the first night of Passover. It’s possible (maybe probable) that Jesus and His disciples were singing the Hallel as they were leaving the Upper Room. And how does the Hallel end? Psalm 118.
As it begins, Psalm 118 seems like a typical psalm of praise: “His steadfast love endures forever” repeated antiphonally across the first several verses. But a closer look reveals a psalm with deeply messianic overtones, bearing the unmistakable imprint of the events of Holy Week throughout. The words of vv. 25-26 were on the lips of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. “Save us” (Hebrew: Hosanna), “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” Later in the week, Jesus Himself quoted verses 22-23 when He was confronting the chief priests and Pharisees with the parable of the vineyard owner: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” And now, in their last moments together, Jesus and His disciples were again singing these words. And the words take on a new poignancy. Imagine what was going through the mind of Jesus, the Lamb of God, as they sang v. 27, “Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!” All too soon, He would indeed be bound and sacrificed on the cruel altar of the cross for the sins of the world.
And yet, that wasn’t the end of the story. The hymn has a word of hope in vv. 17-18: “I shall not die, but I shall live and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined Me severely, but He has not given Me over to death.” This one psalm takes us all the way from Palm Sunday to Good Friday through the darkness and despair to the light of Easter Sunday. And with Jesus and the disciples, we conclude the hymn:
You are my God, and I will give thanks to You; You are my God; I will extol You.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!
(Click here for Aaron's full March 2021 newsletter.)