The Epitome of Praise
And most of the multitude spread their garments in the road, and others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road. And the multitudes going before Him, and those who followed after were crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest!” (21:8–9)
As Jesus began to ride into the city on Monday, most of the multitude spread their garments in the road. It was an ancient custom (see 2 Kings 9:13) for citizens to throw their garments in the road for their monarch to ride over, symbolizing their respect for him and their submission to his authority. It was as if to say, “We place ourselves at your feet, even to walk over if necessary.”
While those people were putting their clothes in Jesus’ path, others were cutting branches from the trees, and spreading them in the road. From John 12:13 we learn that the branches were from palm trees, symbolic of salvation and joy and picturing the magnificent tribute that the “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” one day will present “before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches … in their hands” (Rev. 7:9). There was great excitement and ecstasy as the multitude proclaimed praise to the Messiah, to the Rabbi from Galilee who taught with such authority and who had healed their diseases and even raised the dead.
The Lord was now completely surrounded by a mass of humanity, perhaps several hundred thousand people, some of whom were going before Him and some who followed after Him. Fickle as they would prove to be, the people now disregarded the warning of “the chief priests and Pharisees [who] had given orders that if anyone knew where [Jesus] was, he should report it, that they might seize Him” (John 11:57). The expectations that the Messiah would bring deliverance were so great that the crowd became totally caught up in what, from a human perspective, was a frenzy of mob hysteria. Yet completely in accord with God’s plan, they unwittingly fulfilled prophecy, just as Caiaphas unwittingly fulfilled prophecy when, a few days earlier, he had arrogantly declared to fellow members of the Sanhedrin: “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” As John went on to explain, Caiaphas did not say that “on his own initiative; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation” (John 11:49–51).
Seemingly with one voice, the whole multitude was crying out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” The Hebrew word hosanna is an exclamatory pleas meaning “save now.” But the crowd on that day was not interested in Jesus’ saving their souls but only in His saving their nation. Like the Twelve, they had long wondered why, if Jesus were truly the Messiah, He had not used His supernatural powers against the Romans. Now at last, they thought, He will manifest Himself as Conqueror. They were about to celebrate Passover, which commemorated the Lord’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. What better occasion could there be for the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah, to make the ultimate and final deliverance of His people from tyranny?
The people wanted a conquering, reigning Messiah who would come in great military power to throw off the brutal yoke of Rome and establish a kingdom of justice and righteousness where God’s chosen people would have special favor. But Jesus did not come to conquer Rome but to conquer sin and death. He did not come to make war with Rome but to make peace with God for men.
Although the shouts of the multitude were entirely appropriate and were, in fact, fulfillment of prophecy, the people had no idea of the true significance of what they were doing, much less of what Jesus would soon do on the cross in their behalf. They neither understood the Lord nor themselves. He intentionally did not enter Jerusalem with a powerful retinue of soldiers who would fight for Him to the death. He entered instead with a ragtag multitude of ordinary people, most of whom despite their loud proclamation of His greatness, would soon turn against Him, and none of whom would stand by Him
The multitude acknowledged Jesus as the Son of David, which was the most common messianic title. They were crying out for Messiah’s deliverance, pleading, in effect, “Save us now, great Messiah! Save us now!” They were quoting from a popular praise psalm from the Hallel (Psalms 113–118), in particular Psalm 118, which was also a psalm of deliverance, sometimes called the conqueror’s psalm. Almost two centuries earlier, the Jews had hailed Simon Maccabeus with the same psalm after he delivered the Acra from Syrian domination.
The multitudes knew who Jesus was, but they did not understand or truly believe what they knew. They were right in their belief that He was the Messiah, the Son of David, and that He had come in the name of the Lord. But they were wrong in their belief about the sort of Deliverer He was. They knew He was a king, but they did not understand the nature of His kingship or His kingdom. They did not realize any more than Pilate that the kingdom He came then to bring was not of this world (John 18:36). That is why, when it dawned on them a few days later that Jesus had not come to deliver them from the Romans, they turned against Him. When they clamored before Pilate for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus (John 18:40), they shouted, in effect, the words Jesus had predicted in the parable of the nobleman: “We do not want this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14).
The people wanted Jesus on their own terms, and they would not bow to a King who was not of their liking, even though He were the Son of God. They wanted Jesus to destroy Rome but not their cherished sins or their hypocritical, superficial religion. But He would not deliver them on their terms, and they would not be delivered on His. He was not a Messiah who came to offer a panacea of external peace in the world but to offer the infinitely greater blessing of internal peace with God.
Many people today are open to a Jesus who they think will give them wealth, health, success, happiness, and the other worldly things they want. Like the multitude at the triumphal entry, they will loudly acclaim Jesus as long as they believe He will satisfy their selfish desires. But like the same multitude a few days later, they will reject and denounce Him when He does not deliver as expected. When His Word confronts them with their sin and their need of a Savior, they curse Him and turn away.
The Romans were godless and cruel oppressors, and the Lord would not allow them to survive indefinitely. But they were not His people’s greatest enemy. Their greatest enemy was sin, and from that they refused to be delivered. God would allow the holy Temple of His chosen people to be destroyed long before He allowed their pagan oppressors to be destroyed. He would, in fact, allow those very pagans to destroy the holy Temple.
On the day after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus “entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer;” but you are making it a robbers’ den’ ” (Matt. 21:12–13). That cleansing of the Temple was purely symbolic and had little lasting effect. The mercenary moneychangers and sacrifice sellers were doubtlessly back in business the next day. But less than forty years later, in a.d. 70, the Romans would utterly destroy the Temple, after which, just as Jesus foretold, not one stone of it was left upon another that was not torn down (Matt. 24:2). Not until modern times, nearly two thousand years later, could even its ruins be identified.
As far as the true intent of the people was concerned, Jesus’ coronation was a hollow, empty pretense. The words of the multitude were right, but their hearts were not. In any case, He had not come at that time to be crowned but to be crucified.
He will be crowned one day in a way that is perfectly befitting. The times of rejection will be over, and at His name “every knee [will] bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and … every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11). The first time He came, He came to provide men’s salvation. But when He comes again, He will come to display His sovereignty. His great and ultimate coronation is described by John:
And when He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” And I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped. (Rev. 5:8–14)
9. Hosanna to the Son of David. This prayer is taken from Psalm 118:25. Matthew relates expressly the Hebrew words, in order to inform us, that these applauses were not rashly bestowed on Christ, and that the disciples did not utter without consideration the prayers which came to their lips, but that they followed with reverence the form of prayer, which the Holy Spirit had prescribed to the whole Church by the mouth of the Prophet. For, though he speaks there of his own kingdom, yet there is no reason to doubt that he principally looks, and intends others to look, to the eternal succession, which the Lord had promised to him. He drew up a perpetual form of prayer, which would be observed, even when the wealth of the kingdom was decayed; and therefore it was a prevailing custom, that prayers for the promised redemption were generally presented in these words. And the design of Matthew was, as we have just hinted, to quote in Hebrew a well-known psalm, for the purpose of showing that Christ was acknowledged by the multitude as a Redeemer. The pronunciation of the words, indeed, is somewhat changed; for it ought rather to have been written, Hoshiana, (הושיע נא) Save now, we beseech thee; but we know that it is scarcely possible to take a word from one language into another, without making some alteration in the sound. Nor was it only the ancient people whom God enjoined to pray daily for the kingdom of Christ, but the same rule is now laid down for us. And certainly, as it is the will of God to reign only in the person of his Son, when we say, May thy kingdom come, under this petition is conveyed the same thing which is expressed more clearly in the psalm. Besides, when we pray to God to maintain his Son as our King, we acknowledge that this kingdom was not erected by men, and is not upheld by the power of men, but remains invincible through heavenly protection.
In the name of the Lord. He is said to come in the name of God, who not only conducts himself, but receives the kingdom, by the command and appointment of God. This may be more certainly inferred from the words of Mark, where another exclamation is added, Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, which cometh in the name of the Lord; for they speak thus in reference to the promises; because the Lord had testified that he would at length be a deliverer of that nation, and had appointed as the means the restoration of the kingdom of David. We see then that the honour of Mediator, from whom the restoration of all things and of salvation was to be expected, is ascribed to Christ. Now as it was mean and uneducated men by whom the kingdom of Christ was called the kingdom of David, let us hence learn that this doctrine was at that time well known, which in the present day appears to many to be forced and harsh, because they are not well acquainted with Scripture.
Luke adds a few words, Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest; in which there would be no obscurity, were it not that they do not correspond to the song of the angels, (Luke 2:14;) for there the angels ascribe to God glory in heaven, and to men peace on earth; while here both peace and glory are ascribed to God. But there is no contradiction in the meaning; for, though the angels state more distinctly the reason why we ought to sing, Glory to God—namely, because through his mercy men enjoy peace in this world—yet the meaning is the same with what is now declared by the multitude, that there is peace in heaven; for we know that there is no other way in which wretched souls find rest in the world, than by God reconciling himself to them out of heaven.
9 Crowds ahead and behind may be incidental confirmation of two other details. First, John 12:12 speaks of crowds coming out of Jerusalem to meet Jesus. Apparently the Galilean pilgrims accompanying Jesus and the Jerusalem crowd coming out to greet him formed a procession of praise. Second, the fact that the Jerusalem crowds knew he was approaching supports the stopover in Bethany, which allows time for the news to spread. Messianic fervor was high, and perhaps this contributed to Jesus’ desire to present himself as the Prince of Peace.
The words of praise come primarily from Psalm 118:25–26. “Hosanna” transliterates the Hebrew expression that originally was a cry for help: “Save!” (cf. 2 Sa 14:4; 2 Ki 6:26). In time, it became an invocation of blessing and even an acclamation, the latter being the meaning here (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 41–43). “Son of David” is messianic and stresses the kingly role Messiah was to play (cf. Mark, Luke, and John for explicit references to “kingdom” or “king”). “He who comes in the name of the Lord” is cited by Jesus himself a little later (23:39; cf. 3:11; 11:3), but some scholars object that if this phrase had been a messianic acclamation by the people, the authorities would have stepped in. The words, they say, must be a formula of greeting to pilgrims on the way to the temple.
Such an assessment betrays too stark an “either-or” mentality to weigh the evidence plausibly. “Son of David” in the previous line is unavoidably messianic, and the authorities do raise objections (v. 16). But crowd sentiments are fickle. On the one hand, acclamation can rapidly dissipate, so instant action by the authorities was scarcely necessary; on the other hand, it is foolish to antagonize the crowd at the height of excitement (cf. 26:4–5, 16). “Hosanna in the highest” is probably equivalent to “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:14). The people praise God in the highest heavens for sending the Messiah and, if “Hosanna” retains some of its original force, also cry to him for deliverance.
Two final reflections on this verse are necessary. First, Psalm 118 was not only used at the Feast of Tabernacles (m. Sukkah 4:5) but also at the other two major feasts, Dedication and Passover—at the latter as part of “the great Hallel” (Pss 113–18). The use of Psalm 118 is, therefore, no support for Manson’s suggestion (see Overview, 21:1–11). Second, Walvoord’s interpretation stumbles badly: “They recognized that he was in the kingly line, although they do not seem to have entered into the concept that he was coming into Jerusalem as its King.” On the contrary, it is hard to think of the crowd’s making fine distinctions between “kingly line” and “king.” Moreover, one growing thrust of this gospel is, as we have seen, that even where Jesus was perceived, however dimly, as King Messiah, he was not perceived as Suffering Servant. In the expectations of the day, it was fairly easy for the crowd, after hearing Jesus’ preaching and seeing his miracles, to ascribe messiahship to him as much in their hope as in conviction. But it was far harder for them to grasp the inevitability of his suffering and death and the expansion of the “people of God” beyond the Jewish race.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, pp. 451–453). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.