Israel’s Musical Inheritance

“Hosanna!” the crowd cries out on Palm Sunday. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people had sung these words before. They’re right out of Psalm 118:25-26.

“Hosanna” is a transliteration of two Hebrew words in v. 25: HOSHIAH NA. HOSHIAH means “Save!” It comes from the verb YASHA, which forms the base of Jesus’ Hebrew name YEHOSHUA, “Yahweh saves.” NA carries a sense of urgency, and is trickier to translate. In Lutheran Service Book it says, “Hosanna is a Hebrew word of praise meaning ‘save us now’” (LSB pg. 195), which captures the sense of urgency. The ESV translates, “Save us, we pray.” The KJV has, “Save now, I beseech thee,” and the RSV has, “Save us, we beseech thee.”

Understanding what the word “Hosanna” means is interesting enough. But there’s something else quite interesting about the words that are in the mouths of the people on Palm Sunday. Notice that at this incredibly significant event they don’t author something new. Their first reaction is to take up on their lips the ancient words that their fathers had sung.

Nor is this an isolated phenomenon. The Palm Sunday crowd picks up Psalm 118, but the author of Psalm 118 didn’t start from scratch either. He took up two other famous lines from the hymnody of Israel.

Ps. 118:14 says, “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Israel first sang these words after crossing the Red Sea. In fact, that song is the first song recorded in Scripture. The song begins, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Ex. 15:1-2a). The author of Psalm 118 took these words verbatim from the Song of Moses and Israel.

Nor is the author of Psalm 118 the only one to do it. Isaiah does likewise: “You will say in that day: ‘I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Is. 12:1-2).

In addition to quoting the Song of Moses and Israel, the author of Psalm 118 also takes up the famous line, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” This phrase comes up in Psalm 106:1, 107:1, 118:1, 29, 136:1. None of these psalms have inscriptions that would indicate who wrote them or when they were written. The first time the phrase comes up in Scripture and we can connect it with a person and a time is in 1 Chronicles 16.

In 1 Chronicles 16 King David brings the ark of the Lord into Jerusalem. Recall that the Philistines had captured the ark of the Lord in 1 Sam. 4:11. They took it to their country, but were afflicted with plagues from the Lord. In 1 Sam. 6 the Philistines returned the ark to Israel, and the Israelites kept it in Kiritah-jearim (also called Baale-judah, 2 Sam. 6:2, and Baalah, 1 Ch. 13:6) for some twenty years (1 Sam. 7:2).

After David captured Jerusalem (1 Ch. 11), all Israel went to Kiriath-jearim to bring the ark to Jerusalem. On the way back to Jerusalem the oxen stumbled and Uzzah put out his hand to the ark, and the Lord struck him down. David took the ark aside to the house of Obed-edom, who kept it for three months.

At the end of three months, David brought the ark to Jerusalem. Once again all Israel assembled. All of David’s preparations for this are recorded in 1 Ch. 15 and 2 Sam. 6. Not only did David arrange Levites to carry the ark, but he also appointed priests, who sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal every six steps that the ark traveled (2 Sam. 6:13), and he appointed choirs and musicians.

When the ark reached the tent in Jerusalem it says, “Then on that day David first appointed that thanksgiving be sung to the Lord by Asaph and his brothers” (1 Ch. 16:7). Then follow the actual words of praise: “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples” (1 Ch. 16:8, Isaiah quotes this in Is. 12:4). And the praise concludes, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” (1 Ch 16:34).

Whether this was the first use of the phrase or whether Psalms 106, 107, 118, or 136 predated this event, we don’t know. What we do know is that this phrase became an ordinary in Israel’s song. Psalm 118 especially became connected with Israel’s feasts and the people sang it regularly. But more than a general, regular use, we can also point to several specific events when the people sang, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

When Solomon dedicated the temple during the Feast of Booths, again all Israel was present and the king had the ark moved to the temple. Solomon prayed, and at the conclusion of his prayer “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (2 Ch. 7:1). All the people bowed down “and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (2 Ch. 7:3).

When Jehoshaphat went into battle against the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites he appointed a choir to go before the army onto the battlefield, singing, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (2 Ch. 20:21). The three enemy armies destroyed one another. The Israelites had done nothing but sing.

When Babylon had Jerusalem under siege and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. The Lord told how Jerusalem would be destroyed, but promised restoration: “Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord” (Jer. 33:10-11).

And this promise of the Lord came to pass. When Cyrus the Great had captured Babylon and the Israelites were under the Persians instead of the Babylonians, Cyrus allowed the exiles to return to Israel. In the second year after they had come back to Jerusalem, in the second month, the Israelites began to rebuild the temple. They rejoiced greatly when the foundation was laid: “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid” (Ezra 3:11).

Thus when we hear the crowd singing, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” we shouldn’t wonder that they’re singing words that have been sung before. The Israelite view of corporate singing was not to create ex nihilo, but to inherit the song of their fathers and then create variations on a theme.

The Church has this same view of corporate song because the Church is Israel. The Church sings a “new song,” certainly. But the song isn’t new in that it breaks from everything that came before it. The song is a “new song” (Rev. 5:9) because it’s a song that recounts Christ’s redemption of his people. The Old Testament saints couldn’t sing of Jesus’ crucifixion, but they sang of everything that pointed to it. In the same way that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17), so it can be said of the Psalms and songs of Israel: Jesus did not come to abolish the ancient song of his people, but to fulfill it.

And therefore we continue to take up the ancient song on our lips. In the liturgy, we sing, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He, blessed is He, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord” (LSB pg. 195). We sing, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endureth forever” (LSB pg. 200). We sing, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation” (LSB pg. 261 and hymns 925 and 927).

And as we inherit the song we likewise add to it, creating harmonies and variations, adding facets to the jewel. The ancient song does not enslave us, just as it did not enslave the author of Psalm 118. He picked up old words, but didn’t stop there; there’s much more to Psalm 118 than the two lines quoted from antiquity. In fact, he wrote a new line that we now regard as belonging to antiquity: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Now granted, Psalm 118 is Scripture. I’m not saying we should devise new songs and then put them on the same level as God’s Word. Nevertheless, the Church’s song grows. It does not grow by rejecting the past and going our own way. The Church’s song grows when, like babies, we learn the mother-tongue of our people: when we sing the psalms and biblical canticles until the words are engraved on our hearts. And then, once something like Psalm 118 leaps from our lips without us even thinking about it, then we’re ready to add our harmony to the Church’s song.

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