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What Does the Word 'Hosanna' Mean? Should We Still Use it Today?

  • Dawn Wilson Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 31, 2018
What Does the Word 'Hosanna' Mean? Should We Still Use it Today?

Hosanna is a word we love to say in our churches, especially on Palm Sunday. The multitude of Jews and others who gathered as Jesus entered Jerusalem on that day shouted out the word. 

But few Christians today know the origin of the word hosanna, how the Jews used it in the Old Testament, or why its meaning shifted in the New Testament. Many Christians assume hosanna was always a Jewish word of praise to God, but in the Old Testament—in Psalm 118:25—the root was more like an urgent cry for help that would, in context, lead to the nation prospering and not being destroyed. Baker's Evangelical Dictionary tells us, "Originally an appeal for deliverance, it came in liturgical usage to serve as an expression of joy and praise for deliverance granted or anticipated. When Jesus came to Jerusalem for his final presentation of himself to Israel, the expression came readily to the lips of the Passover crowds."

The word Christians use today is the Greeks’ creation. They used Greek letters to create the pronunciation of a Hebrew phrase: hoshiya na, meaning “Save, please!” Some sources also reference this phrase as yasha (deliver or save) plus anna or ‘na (to beg or beseech), but the resultant meaning is similar: “Please, I beg you to save us!”

In one sense, it was a desperate cry—much like a drowning person would yell out for rescue. But it was even more than that; it was an oppressed people’s petition for freedom. Let's discover how the term hosanna evolved from a cry for help to a shout of praise! 

An Oppressed People

The Jews were looking for their Messiah but their expectations were skewed. When Jesus came they misunderstood His Father-ordained mission. They awaited a mighty deliverer who could free them from Rome’s control. They didn’t understand their own prophetic teachings that Messiah, Israel’s hope, would first come as a suffering servant before He would come as a conquering King

When Jesus—Yeshua—arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, they expected the conquering Christ who would restore political power to the Jewish people and set up His kingdom. John MacArthur wrote, “They thought the kingdom was coming. He knew judgment was coming. They thought they would crown Him. He knew they would kill him.”

The Jews didn’t understand how their Old Testament Scriptures pointed to Jesus as a Savior, Prophet, Priest and King. 

Basically, Jesus surprised His people. Instead of attacking the hated Romans, He attacked the Pharisees and Sadducees. He pointed out the religious apostasy in the nation.

Even shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ disciples still questioned the timing of the Kingdom. The apostle Peter asked Jesus, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom?” 

A Shift in Meaning & Usage of "Hosanna"

Psalm 118:26 hints at why the meaning of “hosanna” changed. The verse begins, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” The Psalmist knew God would answer his and Israel’s cry for help. 

John Piper wrote that, because of this shift from begging for help to recognizing God would send help, the word hosanna came to mean, “Hooray for salvation! It’s coming! It’s here! Salvation! Salvation!” It was a personal, joy-filled exclamation of confidence in God and praise for His provision.

I have to smile, because so many expressions of hosanna in Scripture include an exclamation mark at the end! It’s truly an emphatic statement. While hosanna is not the same word as hallelujah, both words—for the Christ-follower—represent a response of joyous praise.

Again from Bakers Dictionary we learn of this essential observation from cries for salvation to praise for salvation! "Those from whose lips "Hosanna" rose that day seem to have looked on Jesus as God's anointed one from the house of David of whom the prophets had spoken and through whom they hoped that all their messianic expectations would be fulfilled. However misguided their particular expectations may have been, their actions underscore the theme of the Gospels that Jesus is indeed the promised son of David through whom the redemption announced by God's prophets has come. In him the age-old cry, "Lord, save us, " has become the glad doxology, "Hosanna, " which equals: "Praise God and his Messiah, we are saved."

Jesus Received Their Praises

Messiah came riding into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, not on an elegant steed. He knew the future. He would sit on a throne in heaven. But He also knew His time had not yet come. Psalm 118 describes a conqueror. It’s a psalm read by the Jews at Passover, part of the Messianic expectation. Salvation would come. 

We might wonder whether the people understood the implications of how the humble Messiah King arrived in Jerusalem. 

The donkey He rode was prophesied in the book of Zechariah. We find a clue about the significance of the clothes strewn before Jesus in 2 Kings 9:13. When Jehu was declared king, the people took off their outer garments and placed them under Jehu’s feet. The people recognized Jesus as “King.”

But John 12:13 tells us the people also placed palm branches in Jesus’ path. “Palm branches are always associated in the Old Testament with celebrations,” John MacArthur wrote.

Jesus deserved the praise. He has always and will always deserve praise, honor, and worship. John MacArthur wrote of that first Palm Sunday. “Jesus was officially creating His own coronation. He is the Messiah. He is the King. He will not deny their hosannas.”

Watch this powerful version of John 12:


Rebuking the Hosannas

While the growing crowd continued to praise the humble Messiah, the religious leaders had a fit. “Teacher, rebuke your disciples,” they told Jesus. Perhaps they thought to shame the disciples for ignorance and pride.

But Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones will cry out.” I used to wonder about that, but Scripture tells us all creation groans under the weight of the curse, so perhaps it’s not too hard to imagine creation might rise up in praise when delivered!

Later, when Jesus was in the Temple, children continued shouting hosannas, angering the chief priests and scribes; but Jesus pointed the indignant religious leaders to Psalm 8:2—another fulfilled prophecy.

The Tearful Entry

In the midst of the hosannas, Jesus had a heavy heart.

The people, so caught up in their celebration of the Messiah’s dramatic triumphal entry, likely missed His tears. If the crowd had seen His tears, would they would have asked Jesus, “Why are you weeping?”

John MacArthur wrote that what might have been a triumphal entry in one sense, in another sense was a “tearful entry.” Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and didn’t get caught up in the hosannas. He saw something in the future, and it broke His heart. 

He knew God would bring judgement on Israel’s apostasy—judgment that would come in 70 A.D. at the hand of their Roman oppressors. He knew how desperate the situation was for His people, the Jews. 

And He also knew this was part of the reason He came to die—to set them free. It would not be a bloodless salvation (Hebrews 9:22b). The Old Testament saint, Daniel, wrote that not only would Jerusalem face destruction, something would happen to the Messiah. He would be put to death, cut off from His people.  

Many of those same voices that shouted “hosanna!” would soon shout, “Crucify him!” They were only interested in political salvation, not spiritual salvation. They wanted a king to deliver them from Rome, not a King who would rule over them and hold them accountable. As Jesus stood before Pilate, the angry Jews yelled, “We have no king but Caesar.” 

Beginning to Understand

In Matthew 21:9, 15, we read, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The salvation of the believing Jews, God’s chosen people—and the Gentiles grafted in—came in Jesus Christ, the Son of David. 

Gradually, Jesus’ disciples began to understand the two-part coming of the Messiah-King. While in Acts 1 they wondered when the kingdom would come, by Acts 2, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, their understanding of Jesus’ mission increased. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost clearly shows the Lord was opening their hearts and minds to the truth.

God heard the desperate plea of His people, their hosanna cry—and provided a Savior. Throughout eternity, we will praise Him with gratitude and joy. 

In John MacArthur’s words, “The King came to die, but by Sunday He came out of the grave. Long live the King!” Hosanna in the highest!

Shouting Hosanna Today

Re-watch the video of John 12 above and take time to meditate on your relationship with Jesus. Use the word “hosanna” today as you praise Him for your personal salvation. Use the lyrics from Hillsong's popular worship song "Hosanna" to come to a place of confession and prase for Jesus:

Words & Lyrics:  Brooke Fraser
© 2006 Hillsong Publishing

I see the King of glory
Coming on the clouds with fire
The whole earth shakes
The whole earth shakes

I see His love and mercy
Washing over all our sin
The people sing
The people sing 

Hosanna in the highest

I see a generation
Rising up to take the place
With selfless faith
With selfless faith

I see a new revival
Stirring as we pray and seek
We're on our knees
We're on our knees

Hosanna in the highest

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things unseen
Show me how to love like You have loved me 

Break my heart for what break Yours
Everything I am for Your kingdom's cause
As I walk from earth into eternity ...

Hosanna in the highest

Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach. 

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock