The phrase hosanna in the highest appears only twice in the Bible, once in Matthew and again in Mark, during the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The people were crowded around the gate watching Jesus enter the city, and they were celebrating and calling out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9, ESV). Mark 11:10 records the crowd saying, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (ESV). The NIV translates their shout as “Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
The word hosanna comes from a Hebrew word meaning “save now” or “save us, we pray.” The first word of Psalm 118:25 is howosiah-na, translated “Save us!” and the crowd’s use of this word at the triumphal entry was significant—especially as they waved palm branches (Psalm 118 was associated with the Feast of Tabernacles). By saying “hosanna” as Jesus passed through the gates of Jerusalem and referring to David and David’s kingdom, the Jews were acknowledging Jesus as their Messiah. The Jews had been waiting a long time for the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17:11–14; 2 Chronicles 6:16), and their shouts of “hosanna in the highest” indicated the hope that their Messiah had finally come to set up God’s kingdom then and there (see Luke 19:11).
By saying “in the highest,” the crowd was invoking heaven’s blessing on them and the salvation that the Messiah was bringing. The phrase also echoes the song of the angels in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest” (ESV). To paraphrase the shouts of the crowd: “Save us, our Messiah, who comes to fulfill God’s mission! Save us, we beseech you, as you take your rightful throne and extend heaven’s salvation to us!”
Sadly, the salvation that the people of Jerusalem wanted that day was political, not spiritual. They were only interested in a temporary, worldly fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. They chose not to see the prophecies that said the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows” who would bear the griefs of His people and be crushed for their sins. His oppression and death were clearly predicted in Isaiah 53. Yes, Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for, and He accepted their shouts of “hosanna in the highest.” He was truly Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14). But the political conquest and final fulfillment of the David Covenant must await the second coming (Acts 1:11; Zechariah 14:4; Matthew 24:30; Titus 2:13). Before Jesus could take care of the political problems of His people, He had to take care of the sin problem.
As the people shouted “hosanna in the highest,” little did they know what that would actually mean. Jesus had come to save (Luke 19:10), but not in the manner they desired. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Their cries for salvation and their demand that it come “now” were answered with the cross. God provided a spiritual salvation from the bondage of sin, bought at great cost to the Lord Jesus. But the blessed results of that salvation extend into eternity and far outweigh any temporary benefits we could experience in this world.