As the Gospel describes the entry of the King into Jerusalem, why does Matthew 21:1–11 focus so much on the donkey that Jesus rides?
Worship your humble King. The crowds herald the Son of David as King. Jesus is arriving at Jerusalem. The remainder of the Gospel is concerned with the final week of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem along with the crowds coming to celebrate the Passover. The need for secrecy is gone, and Jesus allows the crowds to hail him as the Messiah. The confrontation with the leaders of Israel will take place, and will culminate in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Crowds (plural) join in hailing Jesus as the Messiah. The acclimation, “Son of David” identifies Jesus as the Messiah. “Of greater significance perhaps is [Matthew’s] report of the employment of this title [‘Son of David’] in the acclimation which Jesus received as he entered Jerusalem, which may be compared with the records of the other synoptists [Mt. 21:9, 15; Mk. 11:9f.; Lk. 19:38]. In all these reports there is the same expectation of the messianic kingdom and of the coming king, and Mark as well as Matthew recalls the promise made to David, but only Matthew’s quotation centers attention explicitly on Christ as Son of David.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, pages 223–224) The very route that Jesus takes into Jerusalem retraces a path, walked the other direction, by his ancestor: 2 Samuel 15:23, 30. Hosanna (literally “save now”) became not only a prayer, but a shout of praise. The blessing upon the one coming in the name of the Lord is taken from Psalm 118, a Psalm used in connection with the Passover celebration. The crowds have their own notion of who the Messiah is and of what he came to do. The palm branches and carpeting of cloaks, along with the shouts, indicate the presence of a king. The crowds welcome Jesus, but have little time for him as the Christ. The Galilean pilgrims identify him a prophet from Nazareth. They are concerned that shouts of praise be sounded in the heavenlies, but they pay scant attention to what he would really do on earth.
The donkey reveals the King. Yes, Jesus accepts the acclaim of the crowds, but his very actions indicate his understanding of his messiahship. The choice of a donkey’s foal is not simply the result of the best available last-minute transportation. Rather, that animal is selected specifically by the Lord. Your Lord certainly understands the way that the prophecies and history of God’s dealing with his people use the donkey to point to the coming King. Jacob, before his death, spoke of Judah tying his donkey to to a vine, Genesis 49:8–12. Last week I read something by Kat Armstrong, reflecting on the ugliness and shame of Judges 19, which begins, “In those days, Israel had no king,” and describes the terrible way that the Levite treated his concubine. He leaves Gibeah with her body on a donkey. But on the day Matthew describes, Israel does have a righteous King, and he intentionally chooses a donkey as he enters the city. He not only consciously fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy, but also, the donkey’s foal is a decidedly un-military, non-regal mode of transportation. Jesus is the King, but as Zechariah had prophesied, he came, not to battle the Roman legions, but as the gentle Savior. The crowds may be willing to accept the quiet appearance of Jesus at the moment, but they must have expected that at the right time he would command them to follow him as a conquering army. The donkey of the Son of David tells you of his work. “We never hear of Jesus riding an animal elsewhere in the gospels; he and his disciples seemed to have walked everywhere, as most people except the wealthy did in first-century Palestine. His decision to ride a donkey for the last mile or two into the city, when he has walked more than a hundred miles from Caesarea Philippi, can hardly have been a matter of physical necessity…. [T]o ride the last mile into the city among a wholly pedestrian crowd could only be a deliberate gesture, designed to present his claim as the messianic king.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NOCNT, pages 775–776)
Trust the One who comes in the name of the Lord. The messianic titles do belong to Jesus. The crowds may have had a very inadequate notion of how their words applied to Jesus, but they did speak the truth. He is the fulfillment of the promise the Lord had made to David. He did come in the name of the Lord. He is the Savior, totally worthy of praise. Your Lord understands the prophecy of Zechariah differently than the crowds. He is willing to be acclaimed as the King he is, but he reveals the nature of that kingdom by choosing, not a charger, but a donkey’s foal for his mount. He structures his entry into the city to show that his kingdom is different from that of Rome. His work is more gentle, but more powerful than the rulers of the earth. But remember that same Jesus is the triumphant mounted figure of Revelation 19:11–16.
Trust the Savior who was rejected in your place. “While Jesus is performing miracles, raising Lazarus, distributing food to the thousands, suppressing demons, this people honors Him. But a few days later, when He will bring the perfect sacrifice of fulfillment, will supply what God’s justice demands, it will be ashamed of its meek and lowly king. And that is the best, although it is the most horrible, proof of the fact that its hosanna comes from admiration of the miraculous and not from a saving faith.” (K. Schilder, Christ In His Suffering, p.125) The crowds shout quotes from Psalm 118:25–26, but they ignore verse 22, that speaks of the stone the builders rejected being made the capstone. Near the end of the week, as the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before leaving for the Garden of Gethsemane, it was likely this Psalm they sang, since it was widely used in connection with the Passover. When Christ takes the Psalm on his lips, he sings all of it, including the part about his rejection. In fact, it is only in his rejection that he ends up triumphing as the King. It is because he was gentle and lowly that his kingdom was established. It is because of what he does here on earth that the heavens do indeed ring with the song of triumph. It is because he is the rejected stone that he is your Savior, your “Hosanna.”
Yes, you can join in singing Hosanna to the Messiah. But don’t do it just because the crowd is doing it. Don’t do it to try to manipulate him into meeting your expectations. See him rejected for your sake, and with a broken heart, exclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”