Save us, we beseech you: singing a Hallel psalm (Psalm 118; Lent 6A, Palm Sunday)

“Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” This is the cry we hear in the psalm which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, the Sunday in Lent. Psalm 118 is one of the Hallel Psalms—six psalms (113 to 118) which are sung or recited on high festival days, such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and the Festival of Booths (Sukkot), as well as Hanukkah and the beginning of each new month. This final Hallel Psalm, like the other five, is intended to be an uplifting, celebratory song, suitable for the congregation to hear and to sing as a way to inspire and rejoice.


It is no surprise that this psalm is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday—because the Gospel story for this day, of Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd (Matt 21:1–11), is certainly one of celebration and joy. It is also, equally unsurprisingly, offered as the psalm for a week later, on Easter Sunday, which celebrates something much greater and more enduring: the raising of Jesus from the dead (Matt 28:1–10).

But clearly the psalm has a good fit with the Palm Sunday story that we will hear on Sunday; indeed, the Gospel writers report that the crowd cheering Jesus was singing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—which is, of course, a verse from the final Hallel Psalm (Ps 118:26).

Blessing God is a favourite Jewish activity—indeed, so many prayers still used by Jews today begin with a phrase of blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God …”. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth is prayed before a meal. Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine is prayed before drinking wine. And a favourite blessing which I learnt from Jews is Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment. It’s a prayer to mark momentous occasions in life.

All of these prayers of blessing begin with the Hebrew words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam, the same formula of approaching, acknowledging, and blessing God.

We can see that formula used in blessings spoken by David (1 Chron 29:19 and the psalmist (Ps 119:12), as well as in later Jewish texts such as Tobit 3:11; 8:5, 15–17; Judith 13:17; 14:7; the Prayer of Azariah (six times), and 1 Maccabees 4:20. It appears also in New Testament texts such as Luke 1:68; Rom 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; and 1 Pet 1:3.

More familiar, perhaps, is when Jesus uses a prayer of blessing, but speaks it to human beings; “blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah” (Matt 16:17), or “blessed are the eyes that see what you see”, to his disciples (Luke 10:23), or “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29), and most famously of all, in a set of blessings spoken to a crowd on a level place (Luke 6:20–22) or to his disciples on a mountain top (Matt 5:3–12).

So the cry of the crowd as Jesus enters Jerusalem, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:26) is a typical Jewish exclamation at a moment of joyful celebration.


A further reason for linking this psalm with the Gospel narrative might well be that the cry of the crowd, “Hosanna!” (Mark 11:9–10; Matt 21:9; John 12:13). The word transliterated as “Hosanna” might actually be better translated as “save us”—another quote from the previous verse in that same psalm (Ps 118:25). The Hebrew comprises two words: hosha, which is from the verb “to save”, and then the word na, meaning “us”. Hosanna is not, in the first instance, a cry of celebration; rather, it is a cry of help, reaching out to God, pleading for assistance—and yet with the underlying confidence that God will, indeed, save, for “his steadfast love endures forever” (vv.1, 29).


Whilst the psalm, overall, sounds thanks for a victory that has been achieved, the petition, “save us” (v. 25) lies behind the first substantial section of this psalm (vv.5–14), which is largely omitted by the lectionary offering for this coming Sunday (which is Ps 118:1–2, 14–24). That section begins “out of my distress I called on the Lord” (v.5), claims that “the Lord is on my side to help me” (v.7), and concludes with rejoicing, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me; the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (vv.13–14).

Save us” is a prayer offered in other psalms (Ps 54:1; 80:2; 106:47); the petition appears more often in the singular, “save me” (Ps 7:1; 22:21; 31:16; 54:1; 55:16; 59:2; 69:1; 71:2; 109:26; 119:94, 146; 142:6; 143:9). “Save us” when faced with danger is the prayer of the elders of Israel as they faced the Philistine army (1 Sam 4:3) and the all the people a little later (1 Sam 7:8), David when the ark was put in place in Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:35), Hezekiah when Judah was being threatened by the Assyrians (2 Ki 19:19), as well as the prophet Isaiah at the same time (Isa 25:9; 33:22; 37:20).

This prayer in the context of festive celebrations—the context for which Psalm 118 appears to have been written—expresses the firm confidence of the people, trusting in the power of their God. That viewpoint is perfectly applicable to the Palm Sunday story (and even more so to the Easter Sunday narrative!).

But this psalm is not only a prayer of celebration; it is also a strong statement about the resilience and trust of the people, expressing their belief that God will give them redemption, even in the face of their Roman overlords, who had held political and military power for many decades. If this is what the crowd intended with their cry as Jesus enters the city—and I have no reason to see otherwise—then this is a striking, courageous political cry embedded in the story! It is a cry that affirms that salvation is at hand.


Salvation is what is in the mind of the people as they cry, “save us” (v.25) and the earlier affirmation, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (v.21). As we have noted, “save us” was a recurring cry amongst the Israelites. In the song sung after the Exodus, the people acclaim God, singing “the Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (Exod 15:2). In his song of thanksgiving after battles with the Philistines, David praises God as “my rock, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Sam 22:3; also vv.36, 47, 51; and 1 Chron 16:23, 35).

The same language, of salvation, appears in the psalms (Ps 13:5; 18:2, 35, 46; 24:5; 25:5; and another 40 times) and the prophets (Isa 12:2–3; 25:9; 33:2, 6; 45:8, 17; 46:13; 51:5–6; 52:7, 10; 56:1; 59:11; 61:10; 62:11; Mer 3:23; Mic 7:7; Hab 3:18). From the psalms, we remember “the Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps 27:1); from Isaiah, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is 49:6).

There are a dozen occasions in Hebrew Scripture when God is identified as Saviour (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 17:7; 106:21; Isa 43:3, 11; 45:15, 21; 49:26; 60:16; 63:8; Jer 14:8); as the Lord God declares through Hosea, “I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no Saviour” (Hos 14:4).

Salvation is linked with righteousness; “the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord … he rescues them from the wicked and saves them” (Ps 37:39–40). Being righteous is a quality of the Lord God (Ps 11:7; 35:28; 50:6; 71:16; 85:10; 89:16; 97:2, 6; 103:17; 111:3; 116:5; 119:137, 152; 129:4; Isa 45:21; Jer 23:6; 33:16; Dan 9:16; Zeph 3:5) which is thus desired of those in covenant with God (Gen 18:19; 1 Sam 26:23; 2 Sam 22:21, 25; 1 Ki 10:9; 2 Chron 9:8; Job 29:14; Ps 5:8; 9:8; 11:7; 33:5; Prov 1:3; Isa 1:27; 5:7; 28:17; 42:6; 61:11; Jer 22:3; Ezek 18:5–9; Hos 10:12; Amos 5:24; Zeph 2:3; Mal 3:3).

It is no surprise, then, that this psalm celebrates that “[God] has become my salvation” (Ps 118:21) by holding a “festal procession with branches” (v.27), entering through “the gates of righteousness” (v.19) and proceeding all the way “up to the horns of the altar” (v.27), singing “save us, Lord” (v.25) and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26). This is a high celebratory moment!

So the closing verses take us back to the opening refrain, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (v.29; see also vv.1–4). The celebration is lifted to the highest level, with praise and thanksgiving abounding. And that makes this a perfect psalm for Palm Sunday!


On the indications of the political nature of the Palm Sunday scene, see

The paradox of “the word of the cross” in Corinth (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 4A)

The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). And as we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul.

The thesis is stated in a rhetorically balanced, theologically incisive two-part statement, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1:18). The claim is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear this week (1 Cor 1:18–31) and then next week (2:1–12). It then serves as the basis for much of the ethical and theological discussion that follows in later chapters of the letter.

In the two passages currently in view, Sosthenes and Paul remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that they “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

The rhetorical structuring of this paradoxical argument is evident throughout the whole of the passage that the lectionary offers for this Sunday (1:18–31). There is a neat symmetry of clauses in each verse of the passage, with frequent use of balancing subsidiary phrases continuing the symmetrical structure. I’ve attempted to show this schematically as follows:


To begin, Sosthenes and Paul ground their argument in prophetic declarations drawn from the Hebrew scriptures—in fact, explicit citations bookmark their argument at 1:19 (quoting Isaiah) and 1:31 (quoting Jeremiah). This is typical of rabbinic literature, where an initial citation (a subsidiary text) begins an argument, and then the primary text for the matter being addressed concludes the argument. This was the fourth of Rabbi Hillel’s seven principles for scripture interpretation (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 37).

So there should be no surprise that we find such a technique employed in a letter written by Sosthenes, a leader of the synagogue (the place where scripture interpretation was taught and debates about scripture flourished), and Paul, trained as a Pharisee (at the feet of Gamaliel, if Acts 22:3 reflects historical reality) and well-versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Phil 3:5; Rom 7:12, 22). As Jews immersed in the knowledge of Torah and the application of scripture to daily life, this way of speaking and writing was second nature to them.

After stating their thesis (1:18), Sosthenes and Paul cited the prophet Isaiah in support (Isa 29:14). In the typical rabbinic fashion of arguing a point, this first quotation is the subsidiary text for their argument. The words come from an oracle that the prophet delivers when Israel and Judah had been invaded by the Assyrian power to the north (2 Kings 17–19). This invasion of 721 BCE is characterised by Isaiah as an expression of God’s judgement (Isa 28:21–22). The northern kingdom had been conquered (2 Kings 17) and the southern kingdom was invaded (2 Kings 18). Two decades later, under Sennacherib, the city of Jerusalem itself was under siege (Isa 29:1–3). Ultimately Sennacherib withdrew his army back to Nineveh and was killed by his sons (2 Kings 19:36–37).

Whilst the experience of the people in the besieged city of Jerusalem was one of “moaning and lamentation” (Isa 29:2), the prophet presses the claim that this is brought about by God himself: “the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers” (Isa 29:10). This, the prophet insists, “comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom” (Isa 28:29).

Because the people claim allegiance to God but fail to live according to the covenant they have made with God—“their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isa 29:13)–God’s intervention through the Assyrian encirclement of Jerusalem will mean that “the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (Isa 29:14). Eventually, through this intense hardship, “those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction” (Isa 29:24).

It is this message of the paradoxical inversion of the widely-accepted wisdom by divine intervention that the apostle and his co-author draw on, when they remind the Corinthians of God’s way: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19, quoting Isa 29:14b).


In developing their argument in the following verses, Sosthenes and Paul explain this inversion to the Corinthians in three compact sequences. First, they pose a series of three rhetorical questions ending with a fourth question that expounds the paradoxical nature of how God acts:

The implied answer, of course, is “yes”.

Then follows a doublet with matching halves (wisdom of God, wisdom of the world; foolishness, salvation):

The pattern of wisdom-wisdom, folly-?? is broken with the declaration of salvation for believers; this is what “God decided”.

The third sequence contrasts Jews with Greeks (that is, Gentiles) but then places both of them in contrast to the proclamation of “Christ crucified”. The word of the cross functions as the definitive marker; this is the pivot on which the section turns.

The word of the cross—the proclamation of “Christ crucified”—might be understood as a stumbling block and a folly, but is actually a demonstration of divine power and wisdom. It is in the cross that the age-old dynamic of how God works is seen: it is an upheaval, a reversal, an overturning of received wisdom—just as Isaiah had been proclaiming to his fellow Judahites eight centuries earlier.

The conclusion is made clear in a punchy doublet in parallel paradox:


In what follows next, attention turns to the actual community of believers in Corinth. The letter writers invite the believers in Corinth to “consider your own call, brothers and sisters”, followed by two triplets of rhetorically powerful statements:

That few were wise, powerful, or born as nobles in Corinth should come as no surprise. Certainly, a number of high-status names are mentioned in the letter (Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Acaicus at 16:17; and perhaps Chloe, if “Chloe’s people” at 1:11 are her servants), and other letters demonstrate a similar presence of high-status people, such as those who host “the church in the house of” Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3), as well as a number of those mentioned in the string of names in Rom 16:3–16.

However, later in the letter we learn that when the community of believers comes together, some enjoy a rich meal and get drunk, while others starve (1 Cor 11:21). The condemnation is on those who “humiliate those who have nothing” (11:22); they are instructed, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33). Here, as in a number of other places in the letter, the teaching is given that all members of the community are to be regarded as equal, for “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

Indeed, in the second century, Pliny would describe Christians as being “of every age, of every rank, of both sexes” and “not only in the towns, but also in the villages and farms” (Pliny, Epist. 10.96.9). And social-scientific commentators on the early Jesus movement have published careful analyses that support the notion that early Christian communities contained a cross-section of society (see Gerd Thiessen, The First Followers of Jesus, on the rural origins of the movement, and Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, on its consolidation in the cities of the Roman Empire).

So in the rhetorically powerful argument of 1:18–31, God’s paradoxical choice is emphasised; God chose fools, weaklings, and lowly despised people, not wise, powerful, noble-born. In the second triplet, the final affirmation is extended with another rhetorical intensifier, reinforcing “the wisdom from God” with three additional theological claims (righteousness, sanctification, and redemption).


At the end of the argument, in typical rabbinic style, a closing citation clinches the case, with words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:23–24): “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). This is the primary scripture passage which undergirds the argument that commenced in 1 Cor 1:19 with the citation of the subsidiary passage from Isaiah.

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile. He was sent into exile in Egypt (Jer 43:1–8), even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. That is certainly the case for the long oracle from which the one-line quotation at 1 Cor 1:31 is drawn.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”, the prophet laments (Jer 8:18), posing a question that has come into popular speech in later times: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:22).

Jeremiah warns of the coming devastation that the Babylonians will bring, framing it as God’s righteous judgement: “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 9:11). Accordingly, the prophet poses the question, “who is wise enough to understand this?” (Jer 9:12), calls for the people to mourn (Jer 9:17–23), and advises them that the Lord declares, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer 9:23–24).

This is the declaration from which Sosthenes and Paul take the one line to draw the argument to a close, pressing the paradoxical way by which God overturns the power of the world and inverts the wisdom of the world. There can be no boasting in human wisdom. Trust can only be placed in the wisdom of God, which has its own logic and distinctive purpose. Boasting is feasible only in this context: “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). That is what “the word of the cross” is, to the believers in Corinth–and to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.