Rejoice greatly, O Daughter Zion! Shout, O Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
~ Zechariah 9:9
The next day the great crowd that had come for the [Passover] heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!”
~ John 12:13
In ancient times, the Jews waved palm branches to welcome their king in victory and peace while reciting Psalm 118, especially the cry “Hosanna!” followed by verses 26-26, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism, an expression of the people’s desire for political freedom. Thus, the palm, or lulavim, became a symbol of freedom placed on Jewish coins from the time of King David until the Babylonian Exile. When the Temple was rebuilt, artisans carved palms and open-faced flowers with cherubim, and over-laid the carvings with gold.
Five hundred years later when Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, people expected an earthly king in an impending military victory over the Romans. They demonstrated their surrender to His authority by taking off their cloaks and laying them on the ground before Him. Their cry of “Hosanna” meant, “Please save us! Give us freedom!” It became a slogan of the ultra-nationalistic Zealots, but they completely misinterpreted Jesus’s true heavenly kingship.
The ancients regarded this particular palm as particularly characteristic of Palestine because of its abundance. According to my Google searches, ancient Greeks and Romans called the whole land of Palestine “ the land of palms,” or Phoenicia. The finest specimens grew at Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:3) and along the banks of the Jordan. Sadly, today palm trees have become quite rare in the Levant.
The palm tree itself includes many botanical species, but only the date palm — Phoenix dactylifer of Linnaeus — is pertinent to the biblical Palm Sunday event. It is a slender tree reaching forty to fifty feet, sometimes more. Its branches sprout near the top and appear almost feathery, made of equally-spaced green fronds along opposite sides of an axis extending six to twelve feet bending and swaying in the breeze.
Date palms today grow in the Middle East as well as Morocco, Pakistan, and India — as well as in California to where Spanish missionaries brought them in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These varieties reach upward of seventy-five feet! Dates are the dark, sweet fruit that many use in desserts from holiday fruitcakes to tea breads, often with nuts and raisins. Sephardic recipes for the Passover charoset, for example, is based on dates chopped with pine nuts, combined with a sweet wine into a paste, to symbolize the mortar that Hebrew slaves in Egypt prepared for building the pyramids.
This coming Sunday, the 26th of March, is Palm Sunday. It opens Holy Week, the most solemn liturgical season of the church year. Christians worldwide will process into their churches and cathedrals while waving long green and white palm fronds and singing “Hosanna!” They will recall the first such procession in honor of the Messiah soon to suffer His death, only to rise again on the third day in glorious triumph. And I, too, will be one among them.
The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree . . .
They will still bear fruit in their old age; they will stay fresh and green.
~ Psalm 92:12, 14