The palm tree and palm leaves appear again and again throughout the Bible as symbols of integrity, honor, righteousness, holiness, godly authority, and royal glory. The palm was used in the carved decorations of the temple, usually associated with the Cherubim, but also with the regal lion and the flower in full bloom. Indeed, the association of the palm with these ideas recurs more than three dozen times in the Scriptures. The blessing of the Lord is portrayed as “Like palm groves that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters” (Numbers 24:6).
In addition though, throughout the entire ancient Near East the palm also had the common cultural connotation of refreshment and restoration. Waving palm tops along the horizon heralded the location of a desert oasis, a welcome stop for both camel and traveler. Palms provided weary travelers food and shade; the oasis, water. So palm branches become the symbol of welcome, public homage, and journey’s end. It was the sign of completion, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
For both the Romans and the Jews the palm was carried in joyful or triumphant processions. In 293 BC victorious Roman soldiers bore palm branches when parading in Rome; and the palm was given as a victory emblem at public games. Palm branches were the conventional symbol of public approval and welcome by all the eastern peoples to conquering heroes, and were strewn and carried in triumphal processions. The palm tree was embossed on ancient Hebrew coins. Later, the Romans celebrated the conquest of Judea by issuing new currency, retaining the palm tree, but with an added inscription celebrating their crushing victory.
All the Gospels report that people gave Jesus the kingly honor of strewing palm branches along the path during His triumphal entry. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) we are told that they also laid down their garments with cut palm rushes on the street; John more specifically mentions the full palm fronds. The joyous Hosannas that the people were singing (Psalm 118) were actually from the benediction song for the Passover meal, and thus foreshadowed passion Jesus would suffer during the week ahead. In addition, the whole scene was a fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies of the coming King (Zechariah 9:9-10).
Not surprisingly, as early as the late first century the palm was connected with martyrdom (Revelation 7:9) and was used to decorate grave markers and tombs in the Roman catacombs as a sign of the triumphant death of the martyr. On mosaics and on sarcophagi it usually stands for paradise, and Christ is frequently portrayed amid palms in heaven. So also in the earliest Christian art, the Lamb of God and the Apostles are depicted amid palms. In addition, the use of the palm became an almost universal worship convention on Palm Sunday by the end of the second or the beginning of the third century.
This Sunday, let us observe this venerable and ancient practice during the service, as we too sing Hosannas to our King, amidst these old Biblical symbols of royal pomp and joyous celebration.