If you do a Google search for images of Jesus, you’ll find almost an infinite number of pictures—classic pictures of Jesus preaching, Jesus with his disciples, Jesus dying on the cross, the risen Jesus coming out of the empty tomb. You’ll see images of Jesus crying and even Jesus laughing. But one of the pictures you don’t see (at least I’ve never seen one) is a picture of Jesus singing.
In many ways that’s a glaring omission. We see here in our text that at the end of the Passover meal, Jesus and his disciples “sang a hymn and went out.” As a Jew and as a rabbi, Jesus would actually have sung as much, if not more, as he taught and healed. In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that all the events of Holy Week are wrapped in song.
The songs that Jesus sang were contained in the Psalms, the hymnbook of ancient Israel. We read them today, sometimes responsively, but in Jesus’ day the Psalms were always sung in worship and in the course of daily life. The Psalms express the range of human emotion and the depth of relationship with God. Unlike in our day, when the hymnal stays at church or the words are projected on a screen, first century Jews knew the Psalms by heart and they were always sung in community. The leader would sing a line and then the community would respond. During the last week of Jesus in Jerusalem, during the Passover, these songs became even more important, expressing the hope of the people for God’s salvation—songs sung with great expectations.
For example, as Jesus and his disciples came from Galilee to Jerusalem for the Passover, something they had likely done every year of their lives, they would have sung some of the Songs of Ascents. Going up from the Jordan River Valley to Jerusalem is about a 15 mile walk with about 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Pilgrims on their way to Passover literally “ascended” to Jerusalem, and there were psalms designated for the journey. Psalms 120-134 are generally considered to fit this mold, and while we don’t know what the tunes were, we do hear the joy the songs convey. Here is the beginning of Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” Or Psalm 125: “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore.”
Cresting the Mount of Olives one could see the city and the Temple, which caused them to sing Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor build it in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”
There were songs for being in the temple—Psalm 11, for example: “the Lord is in his holy Temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind…For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall see his face.”
But there were also Psalms to be sung at Passover. The “Hallel” Psalms, Psalms 113-118, were usually reserved for the high holy days and sung as a unit during the festival. Matthew doesn’t tell us what hymn they sang, but it probably came from this collection. Psalm 113 opens with praise: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Psalm 114 recounts the story of the Exodus. Psalm 115 rejects idols and extols the greatness of God. But then there is Psalm 116—a Psalm of thanksgiving, but one that might have given Jesus and his disciples pause as they sang it: “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!”
I wonder how Jesus looked at them as he led them in song. He had been telling them for quite some time that he was about to die. He had just told them again during the Passover meal. He had taken the bread and broke it, as was the Passover custom, but then he gave it a different meaning than they were used to: “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he took the cup—one of the many cups of wine used during the meal. It could have been the cup of blessing, or the cup of suffering, but Jesus reinterpreted it to them as one cup containing both. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood offered for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.”
As they sang the Psalm, did they catch the power of it? “I will lift the cup of salvation…Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” Did they hear it again in Psalm 118, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.”
After they sang this, they went out into the darkness. The disciples would have wondered where they were going. Jesus knew exactly where he was going. The echo of the songs off the stone walls of the upper room were still ringing as Jesus went out to his death—a death offered for his people, an answer to all their songs of praise and lament.
Indeed, this isn’t the last song that Jesus sang. The next day, he would be nailed to the cross and he would sing again, even as crucifixion squeezed the breath from him. We don’t always recognize it, but the words of Jesus from the cross are a Psalm—Psalm 22. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” No Israelite standing there would have missed the song—a song of deliverance from suffering and hostility. Here was the king, offering the first line to be sung. To sing it, was to sing the whole thing. His body broken, his blood being poured out, just as he had told his disciples the night before—this night—Jesus died with a Psalm on his lips.
But as with most of the Psalms of lament, this one ends with a word of hope: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
We come to the table with this song of hope on our hearts. We take the broken body and shed blood of Christ and we lift it up as a sign and a song—a song of remembrance, a song of worship, a song to be sung generation after generation. It’s a song we must know by heart, a hymn we sing near the end of every worship service that shouts at us to go and proclaim his deliverance to a people who don’t yet know this song of praise, this song of Christ.
Yes, Jesus sang. And he calls us to sing along.