Praise on the Threshold of Death
Today is Maundy Thursday on the Christian calendar. We remember this day as the night Jesus was betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night he sweat droplets of blood as he prayed, the night of the last supper. If you’ve never heard Terry Feix’s Maundy Thursday message, watch it here. You’ll never think about the Last Supper the same way again.
Because of the sleepless night Jesus spent between Thursday and Friday, think of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as one long day, beginning at the table of fellowship and ending in the tomb.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know where the story goes on Easter weekend, but for the Jews, Thursday was the beginning of another Passover celebration. God instructed the Jews to observe this feast every year to remember their deliverance from Egypt. By the time Jesus and his disciples gathered together in the upper room, the Jews had celebrated this feast for over a thousand years. Few of them knew that the next day they would witness an even greater and more cosmic version of the Passover right before their eyes.
Jesus and his disciples came to the upper room to eat one last meal together and to remember what God had done for them. Jesus alerted the disciples during the meal that he would shortly be betrayed by one in their midst. Eleven of the twelve looked around the table in disbelief, each questioning the other, and one, Judas Iscariot, slipping out to betray the savior of the world for a few months’ rent.
As they finished the meal, Jesus instituted the last supper, utilizing the ritual of the Passover to forecast an even greater celebration: the return of Christ and the wedding supper of the lamb. Then they did something that would have seemed completely pedestrian to them, but totally significant for us: they sang a hymn (Matt. 26:30).
I don’t know how many times I had read this passage and missed the significance of this line. They sang a hymn. One time through, it occurred to me to ask, I wonder what hymn they sang? We happen to know exactly what they sang.
After the Passover meal, Jews since the time of the exile sang a group of Psalms known as the “Hallel,” Psalms 113-118 in our Bibles. “Hallel” means “praise.” It’s where we get the word “Hallelujah” which means “praise the Lord!” and it begins Psalm 113: “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord!” Jesus and his disciples sang these six psalms in hearty baritones only moments before they crossed the threshold of the upper room and made their way to the Garden of Gethsemane.
When Jesus left the upper room, there was no turning back. As he went to the garden to pray, he knew that Judas had betrayed him and that shortly, his time would come. As a last act of the Passover celebration, Jesus sang these words as he left the table of his friends and crossed the threshold of death.
Praise on the Threshold
It’s amazing to read these psalms with this context in mind. What was Jesus singing the night before his death? Songs of praise. You could hardly pick a more triumphant set of psalms. Psalm 113 sets the tone of the group, extolling God’s exaltation above the earth and his mercy on the poor. “Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!”
Next, Psalm 114 remembers the Exodus, how God split the Red Sea to rescue his people from Egypt. All of the earth trembles before the Lord, the psalmist exclaims.
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory!” begins Psalm 115. The other nations praise idols who do not speak, do not hear, do not feel, and cannot deliver, but the God of Israel is a help and a shield to his people. He blesses all those who fear Him. The dead do not praise God, but “we will bless the Lord,” he declares, “from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the Lord!”
Psalm 116 really comes alive in the context of Maundy Thursday. The psalmist cries out for deliverance in the face of death, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!’” Now we can hear Jesus praying these very words, not just as rote remembrances of Israel’s past, but earnest cries about his own future: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling: I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” How true those words would prove in just four days.
The short verse in Psalm 117 adds to the chorus of praise: “Praise the Lord all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!”
Now we come to the final song. I don’t know if you could construct a more powerful prayer in a time of distress than Psalm 118. As you read these verses, you can hear how earnestly Jesus must have been praying these words.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
For his steadfast love endures forever! (1)
The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me?
The LORD is on my side as my helper;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. (6-7)
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
But the LORD helped me.
The LORD is my strength and my song;
He has become my salvation. (13-14)
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
That I may enter through them
And give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
The righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
And have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
Has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
It is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it. (19-24)
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
You are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
For his steadfast love endures forever! (28-29)
It’s just like God to have orchestrated the moment this way. Over hundreds of years, the Jews sang and prayed this song. It was meaningful and relevant every time. But now he’s put it on the lips of his beloved son, the true Israel, and the one who was heading to his death for the sins of the world. And, in all of this, he praises.
Take some time to read and pray through the Psalms today and tomorrow. As Jesus crossed the threshold of the upper room, these praises were on his lips. Facing a gruesome death for sins he did not commit, facing the wrath of God on behalf of his enemies, he trusted in these promises. By the end of the weekend, God had made good on his word. If God answered him then, we know that he answers us now.
On Sunday morning, Jesus rose from the dead! God vindicated him. He answered his prayers. He brought him back to the land of the living. He gave him over to death, but death could not hold him. Man did their worst, but Christ gave us his best. Now, these promises are ours: “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; For his steadfast love endures forever!”
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.