“Save us, O Lord!” Palm Sunday During Coronavirus
Because Psalm 118 is quoted so often in the New Testament, we can be forgiven for overlooking its meaning and importance for the original audience. It’s a processional hymn that recounts the saving acts of God in the history of God’s people, Israel. As the people approach the courts and the altar of the temple, the anthem rings out, praising God for his steadfast love. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”
Steadfast love. Chesed. It’s one of those Hebrew words that defies easy translation. Like shalom or shabbat, it’s a word that signifies a whole world of meaning connected to God’s covenant love for his people. As you review various translations of Psalm 118, you see chesed rendered as mercy, faithful love, steadfast love, lovingkindness and loyal love, to name a few. It’s a word that expresses the bond between God and the people of his affection. The worshipers are so thankful for God’s chesed, they repeat the phrase over and over again: “His steadfast love endures forever!” (For those who think contemporary Christian worship songs are excessively repetitive, we should acknowledge that some expressions of praise are worthy of repetition. Psalm 118 is a prime example.)
The image of the cornerstone from v. 22 is a powerful picture in the imagination of the Hebrew people. The stone that was, at first, deemed unworthy to include in the structure, but then becomes the most important foundation stone, is a vivid narrative account of God’s chesed. It can be applied to the nation of Israel—exiled and enslaved by a pagan empire, but then rescued and restored to the land God had gifted them. It can also be seen as a description of King David, who was least among his brothers and was treated like an enemy of the kingdom during the reign of Saul. Yet, David was exalted to become Israel’s beloved king. Then, the imagery receives its most profound application when Jesus himself appropriates it to describe what the Father is doing through the incarnate Son’s saving mission in the world. Though hated and rejected by the religious establishment, Jesus would become the cornerstone of the new Temple of holy humanity in which God lives by the Spirit. Other New Testament writers pick up this beloved theme: Acts 4:11, Ephesians 2:20, 1 Peter 2:7.
The Lectionary places this Psalm on Palm Sunday for obvious reasons. As a hymn sung during the Feast of the Passover, it was on the minds and hearts of the pilgrims in Jerusalem during the Passover that marked Jesus’ final days before his crucifixion. When he entered the city, it was only natural that the crowds would employ the words of verses 25-26 to welcome their hoped-for Messiah.
“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! . . .
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
The Hebrew word is “Hosanna!” which has a two-fold meaning. First, it’s a cry for help, a plea for rescue or deliverance from enemies. In the context of Psalm 118, it expresses praise for past deliverance and a prayer for continued preservation of the people of God. The second meaning of Hosanna flows naturally from the first—it’s a word of jubilation in the presence of the God who saves. We see both meanings of the word in play on the day of Christ’s triumphal entry. The crowds shouted Hosanna! as a worshipful acknowledgment that Jesus was God’s Sent One, the answer to their hopes and prayers. But, in the context of Roman oppression, we should also hear Hosanna! as a desperate call for help and deliverance from the forces that threatened the peace of God’s people.
Which brings us to Palm Sunday in a pandemic, a day when many will still not gather for worship and children will still not line up to wave palm branches. Our Hosannas on this day will be voiced with a mixture of worship and fear.
With the Spirit’s help, can we appropriate this ancient word and prayer with fresh meaning today? Remember, we are the covenant people of the God of chesed—steadfast, loyal, faithful love. His chesed is better than life. (Psalm 63:3) So, we should not save our Hosannas for next year; we need them today.
From the plague of coronavirus, Save us, O Lord!
From a shortage of medical workers and supplies, Save us, O Lord!
From the fear that surrounds us, Save us, O Lord!
From misinformation and rumors, Save us, O Lord!
From loneliness and isolation, Save us, O Lord!
From lack of dependence and trust in you, Save us, O Lord!
From all that we allow to separate us from you, Save us, O Lord!
Today, from a place in our hearts perhaps deeper than ever before, we sing and pray Hosanna! to the God of steadfast love—the God who saves.