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Time of its Commencement
Early on the forenoon of the 14th of Nisan the feast of the Passover may be said to have begun. In Galilee, no work was done all that day; in Judea it was continued till mid-day; the rule, however, being that no new work was to be commenced, though that which was in hand might be carried on. The only exception to this was in the case of tailors, barbers, and those engaged in the laundry. Even earlier than mid-day of the 14th it was no longer lawful to eat leaven. The strictest opinion fixes ten o'clock as the latest hour when leaven might be eaten, the more lax eleven. From that hour to twelve o'clock it was required to abstain from leaven, while at twelve it was to be solemnly destroyed, either by burning, immersing it in water, or scattering it to the winds. To secure strict obedience and uniformity, the exact time for abstaining from and for destroying the leaven was thus made known: 'They laid two desecrated cakes of a thank-offering on a bench in the porch (of the Temple). So long as they lay there, all the people might eat (leavened); when one of them was removed, they abstained from eating, but they did not burn (the leaven); when both were removed, all the people burnt (the leaven)' (Pes. i. 5).
Choice of the Lamb
The next care was to select a proper Passover lamb which, of course, must be free from all blemish, and neither less than eight days, nor more than exactly one year, old. Each Passover lamb was to serve for a 'company,' which was to consist of not less than ten, nor of more than twenty persons. The company at the 'Lord's Passover Supper' consisted of Himself and His disciples. Two of them, Peter and John, the Master had sent early forward to 'prepare the Passover,' that is, to see to all that was needful for the due observance of the Passover Supper, especially the purchase and sacrifice of the Passover lamb. Probably they may have purchased it in the Holy City, though not, as in the majority of cases, within the Temple-court itself, where a brisk and very profitable traffic in all such offerings was carried on by the priests. For against this the Lord Jesus had inveighed only a few days before, when He 'cast out all them that sold and bought in the Temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers' (Matt 21:12,13), to the astonishment and indignation of those who would intensely resent His interference with their authority and gains (John 2:13- 18).
Slaying of the Lamb
While the Savior still tarried with the other disciples outside the city, Peter and John were completing their preparations. They followed the motley crowd, all leading their sacrificial lambs up the Temple-mount. Here they were grouped into three divisions. Already the evening sacrifice had been offered. Ordinarily it was slain at 2:30 p.m., and offered at about 3:30. But on the eve of the Passover, as we have seen, it was killed an hour earlier; and if the 14th of Nisan fell on a Friday--or rather from Thursday at eve to Friday at eve--two `63 hours earlier, so as to avoid any needless breach of the Sabbath. On the occasion to which we refer the evening sacrifice had been slain at 1:30, and offered at 2:30. But before the incense was burned or the lamps were trimmed, the Passover sacrifice had to be offered. *
It was done on this wise:--The First of the three festive divisions, with their Passover lambs, was admitted within the Court of the Priests. Each division must consist of not less than thirty persons (3 x 10, the symbolical number of the Divine and of completeness). Immediately the massive gates were closed behind them. The priests drew a threefold blast from their silver trumpets when the Passover was slain. Altogether the scene was most impressive. All along the Court up to the altar of burnt-offering priests stood in two rows, the one holding golden, the other silver bowls. In these the blood of the Passover lambs, which each Israelite slew for himself (as representative of his company at the Passover Supper), was caught up by a priest, who handed it to his colleague, receiving back an empty bowl, and so the bowls with the blood were passed up to the priest at the altar, who jerked it in one jet at the base of the altar. While this was going on, a most solemn 'hymn' of praise was raised, the Levites leading in song, and the offerers either repeating after them or merely responding. Every first line of a Psalm was repeated by the people, while to each of the others they responded by a 'Hallelujah,' or 'Praise ye the Lord.' This service of song consisted of the so-called 'Hallel,' which comprised Psalms 113 to 118. Thus--
Similarly, when Psalm 113 had been finished--Psalm 114:
And in the same manner, repeating each first line and responding at the rest, till they came to Psalm 118, when, besides the first, these three lines were also repeated by the people (vv 25, 26):
'Save now, I beseech Thee, Jehovah.' 'O Jehovah, I beseech Thee, send now prosperity'; and 'Blessed be He that cometh in the name of Jehovah.' May it not be that to this solemn and impressive 'hymn' corresponds the Alleluia song of the redeemed Church in heaven, as described in Revelation 19:1, 3, 4, 6?
The singing of the 'Hallel' at the Passover dates from very remote antiquity. The Talmud dwells on its peculiar suitableness for the purpose, since it not only recorded the goodness of God towards Israel, but especially their deliverance from Egypt, and therefore appropriately opened (Psa 113) with 'Praise ye Jehovah, ye servants of Jehovah'--and no longer of Pharaoh. Hence also this 'Hallel' is called the Egyptian, or 'the Common,' to distinguish it from the great 'Hallel,' sung on very rare occasions, which comprised Psalms 120 to 136. According to the Talmud, the 'Hallel' recorded five things: 'The coming out of Egypt, the dividing of the sea, the giving of the law, the resurrection of the dead, and the lot of the Messiah.' The Egyptian 'Hallel,' it may here be added, was altogether sung on eighteen days and on one night in the year. These eighteen days were, that of the Passover sacrifice, the Feast of Pentecost, and each of the eight days of the Feasts of Tabernacles and of the Dedication of the Temple. The only night in which it was recited was that of the Passover Supper, when it was sung by every Passover company in their houses, in a manner which will hereafter be explained.
Completion of the Sacrifice
If the 'Hallel' had been finished before the service of one division was completed, it was repeated a second and, if needful, even a third time. The Mishnah remarks, that as the Great Court was crowded by the first two divisions, it rarely happened that they got further than Psalm 116 before the services of the third division were completed. Next, the sacrifices were hung up on hooks along the Court, or laid on staves which rested on the shoulders of two men (on Sabbaths they were not laid on staves), then flayed, the entrails taken out and cleansed, and the inside fat separated, put in a dish, salted, and placed on the fire of the altar of burnt-offering. This completed the sacrifice. The first division of offerers being dismissed, the second entered, and finally the third, the service being in each case conducted in precisely the same manner. Then the whole service concluded by burning the incense and trimming the lamps for the night.
When all had been finished in the Temple, the priests washed the Great Court, in which so much sacrificial blood had been shed. But this was not done if the Passover had been slain on the Sabbath. In that case, also, the three divisions waited--the first in the Court of the Gentiles, the second on the Chel, and the third in the Great Court--so as not needlessly to carry their burdens on the Sabbath.
But, as a general rule, the religious services of the Passover, like all positive religious injunctions, 'made void the Sabbath.' In other respects the Passover, or rather the 15th of Nisan, was to be observed like a Sabbath, no manner of work being allowed. There was, however, one most important exception to this rule. It was permitted to prepare the necessary articles of food on the 15th of Nisan. This explains how the words of Jesus to Judas during the Passover (not the Lord's) Supper could be misunderstood by the disciples as implying that Judas, 'who had the bag,' was to 'buy those things' that they had 'need of against the feast' (John 13:29).
It was probably as the sun was beginning to decline in the horizon that Jesus and the other ten disciples descended once more over the Mount of Olives into the Holy City. Before them lay Jerusalem in her festive attire. All around pilgrims were hastening towards it. White tents dotted the sward, gay with the bright flowers of early spring, or peered out from the gardens and the darker foliage of the olive plantations. From the gorgeous Temple buildings, dazzling in their snow-white marble and gold, on which the slanting rays of the sun were reflected, rose the smoke of the altar of burnt-offering. These courts were now crowded with eager worshippers, offering for the last time, in the real sense, their Passover lambs. The streets must have been thronged with strangers, and the flat roofs covered with eager gazers, who either feasted their eyes with a first sight of the Sacred City for which they had so often longed, or else once more rejoiced in view of the well-remembered localities. It was the last day-view which the Lord had of the Holy City--till His resurrection! Only once more in the approaching night of His betrayal was He to look upon it in the pale light of the full moon. He was going forward to 'accomplish His death' in Jerusalem; to fulfil type and prophecy, and to offer Himself up as the true Passover Lamb--'the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.' They who followed Him were busy with many thoughts. They knew that terrible events awaited them, and they had only a few days before been told that these glorious Temple-buildings, to which, with a national pride not unnatural, they had directed the attention of their Master, were to become desolate, not one stone being left upon the other. Among them, revolving his dark plans, and goaded on by the great Enemy, moved the betrayer. And now they were within the city. Its Temple, its royal bridge, its splendid palaces, its busy marts, its streets filled with festive pilgrims, were well known to them, as they made their way to the house where the guest-chamber had been prepared for them. Meanwhile the crowd came down from the Temple-mount, each bearing on his shoulders the sacrificial lamb, to make ready for the Passover Supper.