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When They Had Sung a Hymn

Did Jesus sing? It’d be very surprising if He didn’t sing.

Jesus grew up attending the synagogue, where singing was a part of every service. Jesus regularly went to the temple, where the congregation often lifted up their voices in song. And Jesus also observed the annual feasts, special occasions where God’s people rejoiced with praise.

But we’re told only once that Jesus sang. It’s in Matthew 26:30,

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

It’s the last night of Christ’s life. Jesus and his disciples have gathered for a final time before He’ll be arrested, tried, and condemned to death on the cross.

It’s not a happy occasion. For months already, Jesus has been saying that He’s going to die soon. Then, even tonight sitting at the Passover table, He has announced that one of his disciples will betray him to be crucified. He’s even compared his body to the Passover bread, about to be broken before their eyes.

By the end of it, no one felt much like singing. If they sang anything, it should’ve been a mournful tune, a lament for their dear master.

So what did Jesus and his disciples sing before they departed for Gethsemane? Was there a Jewish praise book they could turn to? There was: it’s called the Book of Psalms. These 150 psalms were the songs, hymns, and spiritual songs of God’s old covenant people. When Matthew mentions singing a hymn (and not a psalm, or something else), we should realize that the Greek verb used simply means, “to sing a song of praise.”

How do we know it was a psalm that they sang? The occasion was Passover, the greatest annual Jewish feast. And about the Passover traditions, we have a wealth of information. God’s precepts for it are found in the Old Testament law.

But as the Israelites celebrated the Passover, century after century, layers of tradition accumulated regarding how it was supposed to be done. These ancient practices were written down for posterity by the rabbis.

There’s no reason to think that Jesus didn’t honour the old traditions. That He did honour them, is in fact confirmed by Matthew 26:30. For at the end of the meal, it was the practice that everyone would join in singing a Psalm or two. And it would be a specific song, for everyone would sing from what the Jews called the Hallel Psalms.

In that title there’s part of the word “Hallelujah,” Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” The Hallel Psalms were the Psalms 113-118, a collection of six that are marked by the refrain of “Hallelujah!” The general theme of these Psalms is deliverance, how God saved his people from Egyptian captivity and then brought them into their inheritance: “Praise the LORD!”

It was fitting that these psalms had a major place at the Passover, for it was the chief festival for remembering the salvation of the Exodus. These psalms were chanted in the temple courts while the Passover lambs were being slain. Later, during the home celebration, those gathered sang from the Hallel collection again. Tradition said that Psalms 113-114 were to be sung before eating the meal. Then, once the meal was finished, Psalms 115-118.

These psalms are rich with God’s salvation. Take Psalm 118, the final song of the section. It clearly points to the coming Saviour, the Messiah. Here the disciples would’ve sung those weighty words, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v. 22). The events of the next few days would show just how true this was.

And the crowds had taken on their lips this same psalm earlier in the week. As Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the jubilant words from Psalm 118:26 went up: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

The promised Messiah was written all over this final, Passover song.

Remarkable that this is how Jesus’s Last Supper ends: with a hymn about him! Imagine the low voices of those dozen men, filling that suddenly sombre room, singing from memory the redemption songs they’d sung so many times. The closing words of Psalm 118 would’ve lingered in the air, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! His mercy endures forever” (v. 29).

On that note, Matthew says, “they went out to the Mount of Olives” (v. 30). That’s where the garden was, where Jesus would pray in great agony, where He’d tremble in fear before accepting his Father’s will. That’s where Jesus’s disciple and traitor would lead the soldiers to take Christ to his trial, his torture, and finally, his death. 

How could the disciples sing at a time like this? We can be sure Jesus led them in singing with a voice strong and bold—because He believed. He believed what God said about the rejected cornerstone. He believed what God said about his great day of salvation. He trusted God, so He went to his death singing a song of praise.

In our time, it’s not always easy to sing. Instead, we lament. We weep for the lost and grieve over all the brokenness—and we should.

But Jesus also invites us to sing with him. For He was crucified, He has arisen and has ascended as the Lord over all, our great King and Cornerstone. Sin is paid for and death is defeated, so we praise him.

For you it might be quiet praise today: the praise of a few words in prayer, praise in a moment of meditation, praise in the midst of tears, or praise offered simply by doing what you do for Christ and by loving others well. But these are the hymns to him we can sing. Christ deserves it. Christ commands it. Christ loves it.

May we with every breath and moment give worship to our saving God!


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