by Mike McKinniss
When Mark gives the record of Jesus’ last supper, he provides us a curious detail at the conclusion to the disciples’ time in that upper room. He writes, “After singing psalms, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk 14:26).
Those familiar with the story know, of course, that it’s at the Mount of Olives that Jesus is soon betrayed by Judas and arrested, ushered to his midnight trial and the next day executed on the cross. Harrowing events face Jesus in this final night, and Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples do a bit of singing before the plot races toward its conclusion.
What in the world could they have sung?
Traditionally, there are a short set of Psalms that the Jews sing or recite as part of their Passover observances. Psalms 113-118 are known as the Hillel Psalms and largely reflect on God’s covenant faithfulness toward his people, both in the past and in their hopes for the future. They reassure the faithful people of God that, just as the Lord had rescued his people from the hands of the Egyptians at the time of Moses, so too would he again one day save them and decisively.
It is altogether likely that Jesus and his disciples were singing these Psalms before departing the dining room for the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.
And it is quite an expression of Jesus’ faith, knowing what he was in for over the next several hours.
Psalm 118, the last Jesus likely sang, opens with a traditional refrain of God’s faithfulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (Ps 118:1). It is a recitation of God’s unfailing commitment to his people. Surely, the Lord will be good to Israel in the end.
As the Psalm proceeds, the dramatic irony for Jesus ratchets up. “The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me” (v. 6)? What could man do to Jesus? We are about to find out. He can betray him. He can put him on trial. He can level false accusations. He can beat him, humiliate him and force him to carry his own instrument of death and hang him on it. But, declares Jesus, “the Lord is for me.”
Now Jesus moves toward a declaration of God’s impending victory over the wicked nations. “All the nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them” (vv. 10-11). For a Jew in the first century, it is altogether likely his mind would have turned to the Roman legions that occupied Jerusalem. For Jesus, it likely was not lost on him that these Roman authorities would be the very ones executing him.
And most Jews likely would have nodded along or even exclaimed at this point: “I destroyed them!” Surely Jesus knew he would be leveling a certain kind of destruction on the enemy of God’s people, but it would not appear the way so many hoped or expected, neither in the means nor the target. No, Jesus’ path to victory was not lined with soldiers, chariots, swords and shields. Rather, his path marched through the cross and into the grave. And, further, the Romans were not his enemy, but another force far more vile.
And yet, somehow, Jesus is then able to utter this poignant line: “I will not die, but I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done” (v. 17). What confidence the Christ must have had in his God! How can he express such faith? How can he be so certain, knowing what he is about to face?
Yet Jesus is sure that he will walk faithfully through this impending horror, to be welcomed by the Lord on the other side. “Open the gates of righteousness for me; I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord” (v. 19).
And did Jesus know he was speaking of himself a few lines later? “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar” (v. 27b). He had to, and yet he gives his full-throated suport just the same.
How can he do this? How can Jesus hold his head so high in the face of the dire path he’s about to take? He does so by reciting again Israel’s refrain of confidence in their God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (v. 29). And then he walks out along the path toward Gethsemane and Golgotha, the path to the cross and his own death, the path to victory.