Passover Songs (Psalms 113 – 118): Did Jesus and his apostles sing these verses at the last supper?

Passover Songs (Psalms 113:0; & 118:0;): Did Jesus and his apostles sing these verses at the last supper?

Through many generations, all celebrating Jews have sung a selection of psalms at Passover. Psalms 113:0; & 114:0; are sung before the meal begins and Psalms 115:0; – 118:0; after supper. We know from Matthew 26:30 that Jesus and eleven of his intimate disciples ‘sang a hymn’ before they ‘went out to the Mount of Olives’.

Assuming that, even back then, these were the lyrics to which they also gave voice, let’s appreciate what these verses would have meant to our Lord as he approached his own exodus, and what reflections the disciples must have experienced after he had risen from the dead and ascended on high, especially as they each week, or even daily, shared the communion meal that the Lord had introduced for future celebration throughout the ensuing centuries ‘until he comes again’ (1 Corinthians 11:26 all quotations from the New Living Translation).

[] Psalm 114:0  recalls how ‘Israel became his kingdom’ (Psalm 114:2) at the original Passover in Egypt, after which the Lord’s awesome presence caused ‘the Red Sea’ and later ‘the Jordan River’ to tremble and yield a passageway for his people on their journey from slavery to their inheritance in the land of Canaan (Psalm 114:3, 5, 7).

There are several notable features in this group of psalms. Three angles from which to consider ‘The Great Hallel’ (Psalms 113:0 – 118:0) in order to gain valuable understanding of this collection are: its historic aspect, its poetic aspect, and its messianic aspect.

  1. An historic aspect

According to a footnote in The NIV Study Bible: ‘… the “Egyptian Hallel” (Psalms 113:0-118:0) … came to be used in Jewish liturgy at the great religious festivals (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, Dedication, New Moon; see Leveticus 23:0 Numbers 10:10; John 10:22 … At Passover, Psalms 113:0 and 114:0 were sung before the meal and Psalms 115:0-118:0 after the meal.’

[] Singing the lyrics of Psalm 113:0, worshippers rejoice at Yahweh’s exaltation: ‘enthroned on high … above the nations [including the Romans such as Pontius Pilate, who now rules the Holy Land], … higher than the heavens’ (Psalm 113:4-5), and ‘he stoops to look … on heaven and on earth’ (Psalms 113:6) and, seeing the needy, he ‘lifts the poor … from the garbage dump’ and ‘sets them among princes’; he also ‘gives the childless woman a family’ as he had done for Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Psalms 113:9).

[] Psalm 113:9, ‘He gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother’ was historically true of the matriarchs of Israel, the wives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Sarah (Genesis 16:1 and 21:1-2), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21) and Rachel (Genesis 30:22-23).

[] Psalm 114:0 is particularly historic in tone, right from the opening phrase: ‘When the Israelites escaped from Egypt’ (Psalm 114:1), and therefore it is appropriate as a song at the Passover meal. It goes on to refer to ‘the Red Sea’ and ‘the Jordan River’ that both opened a pathway for them on their journeying, and ‘mountains’ such as Sinai that jumped like frightened ‘rams’ and ‘lambs’. Indeed, one mountainous ‘rock’ mentioned in Psalm 114:8 yielded to Moses’ rod to give them a refreshing ‘pool of water’ (see Exodus 17:6).

[] If he sang these lyrics in the upper room, Jesus was rejoicing that his Father was about to demonstrate his kingdom rule by parting ‘the Red Sea’ and ‘the Jordan River’ of death, and releasing many souls from slavery to sin. Indeed the ‘earth’ would actually ‘tremble’. According to Matthew 27:50-51, ‘The earth shook, rocks split apart’ when ‘Jesus’ from the cross ‘shouted out … and released his spirit’ with his final breath! A flawless Passover Lamb had been sacrificed.

[] Even in Psalm 118:14 at the end of the series there is a note of victory that ‘perhaps recalls the triumph song of Exodus 15:0’ (NIV Study Bible). ‘The Lord is my strength and my song; he has given me victory’ is a direct quotation of Exodus 15:2!

  1. A poetic aspect

Since they ‘sang a hymn’ before exiting the upper room, we can anticipate the rhythms of musicality in the lyrics. These are present in abundance in The Great Hallel.

[] Psalm 113:0 begins and ends with the rare Hebrew phrase ‘Hallelu Yah’. (Yahweh was by far the more frequent way to refer to the Lord.)

[] Psalm 113:1-3 repeats three times that ‘the name of the Lord’ should be given ‘praise’.

[] Psalm 113:4-5 emphasises how ‘high’ the Lord is enthroned

[] Psalm 115:2-8 make a mockery of idols as the products of human craftsmanship in a series of seven non-functional body parts – ‘mouths’, ‘eyes’, ‘ears’, ‘noses’, ‘hands’, ‘feet’, and ‘throats’.

[] Psalm 115:9-13 repeats another trio – Israel, priests and God-fearers (among the nations) – who are assured that ‘the Lord … is your helper and your shield’, those whom ‘he will bless’ (verses 12-15).

[] Psalm 115:15-17 has a slightly hidden trio of the dimensions of creation, namely, ‘heaven’, ‘earth’ and [Sheol, the realm of] ‘the dead’, or ‘the grave’.

[] Not only does ‘the Lord … enthroned on high … stoop … to look down on heaven and on earth’ (Psalm 113:5-6), but in doing so ‘he bends down to listen … [to] my prayers for mercy’ (Psalm 116:1-2).

[] Psalm 118:1-4 invites the trio of Israel, priests and God-fearers (of Psalm 115:9-13) to ‘repeat’ in praise: ‘His faithful love endures forever.’

But let’s not get carried away with the poetry as a topic in itself. Let’s appropriate in full –

  1. The messianic aspect

Since the disciples also ‘sang a hymn’ with Jesus after supper, the alternating pattern of predominantly corporate lyrics (Psalm 115:0 and 117:0) and mainly personal ones (Psalm 116:0 and 118:0) is appropriate; and those personal psalms refer often to death and resurrection:

[] Jesus is about to enter the Garden of Gethsemane. ‘I will pray as long as I have breath’ (Psalm 116:2) will be so true there, especially as Death wrap[s] its ropes around’ him, and ‘the terrors of the grave over[take]’ him (Psalm 116:3). How reassuring that he could sing, ‘I was facing death, and he saved me … from death (Psalm 116:6 and 8).

[] And how suited is Psalm 116:15 (NIV), ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints’, especially the redeeming death of his beloved Son.

[] He could include the high priest and Pontius Pilate in the lyrics of Psalm 118:9, ‘It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes’ who had ‘no power over [him] at all unless it were given [them] from above’ (John 19:11). The hosts of hell that ‘swarmed around [him] like bees’, he ‘destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord’ (Psalm 118:12 – a poetic echo of verse 11).

[] His prayer for resurrection beyond his death on Calvary asserted: ‘I will live to tell what the Lord has done’ (Psalm 118:17). ‘Songs of joy and victory’ will ensue (Psalm 118:15) when God ‘open[s] for me the gates … [that] lead to the presence of the Lord’ (Psalm 118:19-20).

[] ‘The stone that the builders rejected’ will then have ‘become the cornerstone’ (Psalm 118:22-24) – a very definite messianic prophecy (1 Peter 2:7).

N.B. Because, in his praying in Gethsemane, Jesus did not shrink from the cup of anguish that awaited him in the day ahead, he could eventually ‘lift’ aloft in celebration ‘the cup of salvation’ (Psalm 116:13) – his salvation, and ours!

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