And when they had sung an hymn…

Mark 14:26 records “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” Sometimes people have asked, did they have a hymn book? What did they sing? Israelites did indeed have a hymn book; it was called the Book of Psalms, and certain Psalms were sung on different occasions. Some were sung as one ascended to Jerusalem for certain feasts and holy days, others at the crowning of a new king, others in the temple/tabernacle to accompany certain sacrifices. Notably, the Psalms for Passover were referred to as The Hallel, Psalms 113-118. Hallel should look familiar, as it’s the first half of hallelujah, or hallelu-yah, meaning “praise (a plural command) Yahweh” i.e. the Lord.

Psalm 113 embodies this faithful praise, repeated elsewhere thought the Hallel. hallelu yah, hallelu ‘avdey Yahweh, hallelu ‘et shem yahweh. Praise The Lord, praise, o servants of The Lord, praise the name of Yahweh.

As he surely knew what was shortly to come, the words of Psalm 116 in Jesus’ mouth may have tasted just as bitter as the Passover herbs they were eating.

I love the LORD, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the LORD; O LORD, I beseech thee, save my life!…[and] thou delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.

Once on the cross, the words of very different Psalm crossed Jesus lips-

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

Perhaps we may say that because of the abandonment of Psalm 22, Psalm 116 has become all the more true; not in saving our souls from mortal death, but in guaranteeing eternal life. Today as we celebrate the ultimate rising and the light after the dark, let us too sing a hymn of praise.

5 comments for “And when they had sung an hymn…

  1. March 31, 2013 at 5:30 am

    Thanks Ben. This is poignant.

  2. Jason
    March 31, 2013 at 7:24 am

    Interesting that as music has become more readily consumible for populations at large, the less active most of us become in participating through raising our voices in song. The hymns sung at religious gatherings give a special opportunity to personally engage with music. Thanks Ben!

  3. Julie M. Smith
    March 31, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Side issue, but what are our sources for knowing how developed the seder was at this point in history? I know we’ve got psalm singing and multiple cups of wine attested to in the gospels(and of course the unleavened bread and lamb), but do they have the bitter herbs, etc., at this point?

  4. Ben S.
    March 31, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Good question, Julie. Exodus 12:8 is the source for the bitter herbs and flatbread. This article from Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism lists some tangential sources, such as the DSS, a papyrus from Elephantine that mentions cleaning the house of chametz/yeast, Philo, etc.

  5. Julie M. Smith
    March 31, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    I forgot that the herbs were mentioned in Exodus. Thanks!

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