On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey. Why a donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and a donkey was easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story, there are details about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem:
“Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So, what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he fulfils a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.
In Zechariah 9:9-11, God speaks through the prophet to give a picture of what it will be like when his promised king comes to Zion (or Jerusalem).
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world, and freedom for those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.
His righteousness and victory don’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!
But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.
Now, this act of weakness and lowliness doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from sea to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.
You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. The first time the phrase “blood of the covenant” is mentioned in the Bible is when an animal sacrifice is made on behalf of the people to establish their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).
Those who know the Easter story will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trust in it.
It was for this atoning death that Jesus entered Jerusalem. That is why he came lowly and riding on a donkey. That’s why he didn’t come on a warhorse. He hadn’t come to destroy his enemies. He had come to die for them. To offer them forgiveness and salvation. As the prophecy said, “He shall speak peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:10).
The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “His disciples did not understand these things at first.” And they can hardly be blamed. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. It would have been confusing for the disciples then.
But we who live on this side of the cross are not confused. We live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And we are witnesses of how the great King of Glory overcame his enemies through a humble death on a cross. Every Easter, we remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.
Today, as we reflect on Psalm Sunday once again, let us lift our voices and praise the king. Not having a false expectation that Jesus should establish his rule through aggression and force, but remembering that God answered the cry, “Hosanna” – God save us – with a cross.
*Adapted from “Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King” by Simon Camilleri, accessed from https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/palm-sunday-unexpected-king/ - Pastor Luwin Wong