This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Hope of Holy Week". See series.
Jesus and his disciples were on the Jericho road. They had already climbed most of the treacherous pathway that twisted and turned for 17 miles from Jericho up to Jerusalem.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, 'Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.' (Matthew 21:1-3)
By this point in Jesus' ministry, most of the disciples had learned to do as they were told, so the two men "went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them" (Matthew 21:6-7). However trivial this errand may have seemed, it was full of biblical and theological significance. It demonstrated that Christ had come to be the King. As Matthew explains, "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: 'Say to the Daughter of Zion, "See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" ' " (Matthew 21:4-5).
When Charles Jennens wrote the libretto for Handel's Messiah, he recognized the significance of this prophecy, and of its fulfillment. One of the unusual features of the oratorio is how little it says about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Messiah focuses on the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, with only the briefest mention of Jesus' earthly ministry. Thus the text passes quickly from Christmas to Good Friday. One moment the angels announce the Messiah's birth, singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men." Soon the choir will sing, "Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world." However, as the music critic Donald Burrows writes:
There is no treatment of Christ's teaching or pastoral ministry between his Incarnation and his Passion. Jennens pays almost no attention to what Jesus said or did, because Messiah is not about these things: the subject of the drama is God's redemption of mankind through the Messiah.
Of all the things that Jesus said and did between his birth and his passion, the one that Charles Jennens chose to include was the triumphal entry. He alluded to it by quoting from the prophet Zechariah: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold thy king cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Saviour and he shall speak peace unto the heathen." Jennens made a good choice: It was by getting on a donkey and riding into Jerusalem that Jesus announced that he was coming as Israel's messianic king.
The rightful king
The people of Israel had always understood Zechariah's prophecy to refer to the Messiah, to God's anointed king. The prophet said: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9).
When Jesus mounted the donkey—not just any donkey, but specifically a pure-bred colt, as Zechariah promised—he was presenting himself as Israel's promised king. By his actions, he was saying, "Behold, thy king cometh unto thee."
The Jews knew their Bibles, and many people in the crowd would have remembered the words of Zechariah and recognized what Jesus was doing. Some of them may have even remembered that when Solomon became Israel's king, he was presented on the donkey of his father David (1 Kings 1:38-39). One clue that the people of Jerusalem recognized this connection is that, when they saw Jesus riding on the foal of a donkey, they said, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Matthew 21:9). In any case, by using that title, they were acclaiming Jesus to be their rightful king. They recognized that he had come "in the name of the Lord!" (Matthew 21:9; cf. Psalm 118:26).
Although it is often overlooked, there is an even older prophecy that explains why Jesus rode a donkey. Long before Zechariah, Jacob pronounced this blessing on his son Judah: "The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch" (Gen. 49:10-11a).
Jacob's prophecy meant that Israel's true king would come from the tribe of Judah, and that in some way he would be associated with the colt of a donkey. What is only hinted at in Genesis was made plain in the Gospel: Jesus, the Son of David, from the tribe of Judah, rode into Jerusalem as Israel's rightful king.
If Jesus is the king, then all his loyal subjects must recognize his kingship. The Jews did this by calling him the Son of David, and also by spreading their cloaks before him. This was the ancient custom; people threw down their garments to make a carpet for the royal procession. We recognize his sovereignty by laying our hearts before him, throwing down our wills in absolute surrender, and asking Jesus to govern everything we think and say and do. Then we praise him as our rightful king. In the words of the ancient hymn by Theodulph of Orleans:
All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!
Thou art the King of Israel, thou David's royal Son,
who in the Lord's name comest, the King and blessed One!
The victorious king
The second thing that Jesus revealed by riding into Jerusalem is that he is the victorious king. Here we encounter a significant difficulty in the translation of the Old Testament. The text for Handel's oratorio reads, "He is the righteous Saviour," which makes Jesus sound like the one who does the saving. That is true enough! Jesus came to save his people from their sins.
That is not exactly what Zechariah promised, however. Charles Jennens has taken certain liberties with the biblical prophecy. "The Hebrew reads, 'He is righteous and saved.' This is indeed the reading of the Geneva Bible of 1560, the version that commanded the devotion of the English-speaking peoples before the King James Version: 'He is just and saved.' The ancient Greek translation, as well as Jerome's Latin Bible, rendered the passive form 'saved' as an active, 'saving.' The King James straddles the issue with its awkward and ambiguous 'having salvation'," a reading that is also adopted by the New International Version.
The question is this: Does the rightful king come to save or to be saved? Is he coming to bring salvation, or does he somehow need to be saved himself? Strangely enough, according to Zechariah's prophecy, the king himself will be saved. He is "righteous and saved." But how can this be? The Messiah did not come to be saved, but to save. The very reason for his coming is that God's people need a Savior. What good would it do for God to send us a Savior who himself is in need of salvation?
To understand this prophecy, it helps to recognize that the coming king does not need to be saved from his sins. Zechariah himself says that the rightful king is righteous (Zechariah 9:9). In other words, he does what is right and good. In the case of Jesus—who is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy—the king is perfectly righteous. Jesus kept all of God's commandments. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). All his thoughts were pure, all his words were true, and all his actions were just.
If Jesus did not need to be saved from his sins, as he clearly did not, then in what sense was he saved? He was saved from death by the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit. Although the Bible often uses the word "save" to refer to salvation from sin, it also uses the term in a more general way to refer to any kind of deliverance. For example, when the psalmist praised God for bringing Israel out of Egypt, he said, "He saved them from the hand of the foe" (Psalm 106). The Exodus did not save the Israelites from their sins, but it was a great deliverance, a mighty act of salvation. The word "save" is used in a similar way at the end of Psalm 20: "O LORD, save the king!" (Psalm 20:9). That is not a prayer for the king's salvation from sin, but for his deliverance from his enemies. Or consider another example: King Solomon promised that God "will deliver the needy who cry out … and save the needy from death" (Psalm 72:12-13). For Solomon, salvation meant deliverance from death. That is the kind of salvation Zechariah had in mind when he promised that the king would come "righteous and saved." He meant that God's rightful king would be delivered and vindicated. So perhaps the best translation comes from the Revised English Bible: "See, your king is coming to you, his cause won, his victory gained."
Once we understand what Zechariah meant when he promised that the king would be "saved," we can see why the gospels leave out this part of the prophecy. For example, Matthew simply says, "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey' " (Matthew 21:5). Matthew undoubtedly had the whole prophecy in mind, but he said nothing about the rightful king being victorious. The reason is that Jesus did not win his victory on Palm Sunday. Just a few days later, on Good Friday, the same city that welcomed him as king would call for his crucifixion. Jesus would be wrongfully convicted and brutally executed. He would not win his victory until Easter Sunday, when God saved him by raising him from the dead.
We can take this salvation one step further, however. The fact that God saved Jesus means that he can also save us. Now that Jesus himself has been delivered from death, he has the power to deliver us from death. The one who is "righteous and saved" is able to be our Savior.
The way to enter into this victory is to call on Jesus for salvation, which is what the crowds did when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Even though they did not yet understand his crucifixion or his resurrection, they asked their rightful king to save them. They welcomed him as their victorious Savior, taking palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!" (John 12:13). Palm branches were an ancient symbol of victory. During the Maccabean revolt, the Jews minted coins with the image of a palm, emblematic of their victory over the Greeks. The word "Hosanna!" is not so much a word of praise as it is a prayer. Originally, it comes from Psalm 118, where it is a cry for help: "O Lord, save us" (Psalm 118:25). Later it became an invocation of blessing and an acclamation of praise, what Fitzmyer terms, "a spontaneous cry of greeting or a cry of homage." But its most basic meaning is "Save!" or "Save us!" Therefore, by waving their palms and shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David!" the people were crying out for salvation from their victorious king.
The crowds hardly understood what they were saying. Many of them were looking for some kind of political deliverance, but that is not at all the kind of victory that Jesus came to win. He came to give his life as an atonement for sin. The salvation he offers is deliverance from sin, from death, and from the eternal wrath of God. Therefore, to ask for his salvation is to confess that you are a guilty sinner who deserves to be condemned for your sins. "Hosanna!" is partly a cry of victory; it recognizes that Jesus has the power to save. But it is also a cry of needy desperation, the prayer of a sinner who needs a Savior. "Save me, Jesus!" Or, as the people said on Palm Sunday, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" Since Jesus is the Son of David—the rightful king—submit to his sovereign rule. Since he is praised with loud hosannas, ask the victorious king to be your gracious Savior.
The gentle king
In ancient times, when a king rode into a city, it was usually with a show of power and wealth. Thus one might have expected Jesus to enter Jerusalem at the head of a mighty army, bearing dazzling prizes for his royal treasury. But here is the surprising thing: the rightful king, the victorious king, is also the gentle king. Jesus comes to greet his subjects, not with pomp and circumstance, but with all humility and meekness.
Gentleness is one of the royal attributes Zechariah mentions in his prophecy: "See, your king comes to you … gentle" (Zechariah 9:9). The king's gentleness is symbolized by his mode of transport. At the very least, one would expect Jesus to ride a horse. But instead of coming on a mighty war horse or a proud stallion, he rides a lowly beast of burden. He is riding a donkey, of all creatures—and a borrowed donkey, at that! Clarence Macartney writes:
How strange a contrast to the triumphal entry of ancient warriors and conquerors into the cities which they had taken! This time no wall broken down for entry; this time no garlanded hero standing in his war chariot, driving down the lane of cheering subjects past smoking altars, and followed by captive kings and princes in chains. Instead of that, just a meek and lowly man riding upon the foal of a donkey.
Another indication of his gentleness is the relationship Jesus has with his subjects. He treats them as members of his own family. Zechariah's prophecy begins: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!" (Zechariah 9:9a). The word "daughter" is a reminder that God regards his people as his own beloved children. The Old Testament often uses this kind of filial language. "This is what the Lord says: Israel is my first-born son" (Exodus 4:22). "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your Savior comes!' " (Isaiah 62:11b). God's love for his people is like the love a good father has for his own dear sons and daughters.
Imagine a father going in to say good night to his little girl. She is already asleep, and in the darkness he can just make out the small shape of her body under the covers. He kneels down by her bedside, kisses her soft cheek, and then rests his head against her body. He can feel her chest breathing in and out, out and in. In the silence he whispers, "You are my precious girl!" Such is the tender love God has for his people. Out of the warmth of his heart he sends his gentle Son to be our king.
The king's gentleness is not a sign of weakness. The preceding verses (Zechariah 9:1-8) describe how God will destroy Israel's ancient enemies, like the Syrians and the Philistines. The following verse promises that the gentle king who rides the donkey will conquer mighty armies, with all their horses: "I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zech. 9:10).
Although this part of Zechariah's prophecy is not quoted in the gospels, it is included in Handel's Messiah, with the phrase, "He shall speak peace unto the heathen." "Heathen" is an unfortunate choice of words because it has the connotation of godless paganism. But Zechariah simply meant Gentiles—the non-Jewish peoples of the world. His promise was that one day the gospel of peace would be preached to all the kingdoms of this world. This promise was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and King of kings. When Jesus came riding into Jerusalem, he did not come to be the King of the Jews only, but to be the universal king. He came to save people from every people, tribe, language, and nation.
What Christ the King proclaims to the nations is peace. The Hebrews called it shalom, which is not simply the absence of warfare, but also the presence of welfare. Shalom is God's fullest blessing of harmony and prosperity. In order to bring such peace to the nations, the Messiah must disarm his enemies, breaking the bow of battle.
Here, then, is an extraordinary combination of omnipotence and gentleness. Perhaps the best word to describe it is "meekness," which means power under control. Some kings coddle their enemies; they lack the resolve to vanquish their foes. Others are fierce towards their own subjects; they rule with a rod of iron. But Jesus is the meekest of kings. He is a mighty and awesome potentate, strong and fierce enough to crush all his enemies. Remember Malachi's question: "Who may abide the day of his coming?" But this same Jesus is also tender, loving, and peaceful to everyone who trusts in him. He is gentle enough to care for all God's children.
One way Jesus displayed this unprecedented combination of omnipotence and gentleness was by performing miracles of healing. After announcing the coming of the king, Handel's Messiah quotes these words from the prophet Isaiah: "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing" (Isaiah 35:5-6). These are the very miracles Jesus performed to confirm that he was the Messiah. When John the Baptist began to doubt whether Jesus really was the Christ, he was told, "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matthew 11:4-5). Since they fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, these miracles offered proof that Jesus is the Messiah.
A miracle requires supernatural power. Only God can make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, and the dumb to speak. But as he performed these great miracles, Jesus also displayed uncommon gentleness. Often he healed people with a gentle touch. Jesus touched people with various illnesses and fevers, and with diseases like leprosy (e.g., Matthew 8:3&Matthew 8:15). By the power of his gentle touch they were healed. A blind man came and begged Jesus simply to touch him, and when Jesus reached out and touched the man's eyes, he was healed (Mark 8:22; cf. John 9:1-7). Then there was the man who had his ear whacked off the night that Jesus was betrayed. Jesus "touched the man's ear and healed him" (Luke 22:51). Jesus performed these miracles with absolute authority, yet he also performed them with perfect gentleness. He was so gentle that people brought their babies to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).
With the same regal grace, Jesus helps everyone who comes to him in faith. His kingship does not treat people roughly or abusively. Instead, he rules with a gentle strength that brings healing and wholeness. When we are disobedient, gentle Jesus restores us to the right path. When we are disheartened, gentle Jesus encourages us not to give up. When we are downcast, gentle Jesus wipes away our tears. Our rightful, victorious king has both the power to help us and the gentleness to heal us.
When John Newton preached on Zechariah 9 back in the 17th century, he explained how wonderful it is to serve Jesus Christ, the gentle king: "Happy are these his subjects who dwell under his shadow. He rules them, not with that rod of iron by which he bruises and breaks the power of his enemies, but with his golden scepter of love. He reigns by his own right, and by their full and free consent, in their hearts. He reigns upon a throne of grace, to which they have at all times access; and from whence they receive, in answer to their prayers, mercy and peace, the pardon of all their sins, grace to help in every time of need, and a renewed supply answerable to all their wants, cares, services and conflicts."
If we are saved by such a gentle king, then we should serve him with all gentleness. Gentleness is one of the marks of the Christian, the fruit of God's Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5:23). Our lives should be living demonstrations of the "meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:1). Sadly, many Christians are harsh in their judgments, abrasive in their opinions, and rough in their handling of the weak. One would think that they serve a ruler who rides a high horse, rather than the gentle king who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. But those who love him best follow this command: "Let your gentleness be evident to all" (Philippians 4:5).
Something of the Messiah's gentleness seems to have worked its way into the heart of George Friedrich Handel. Handel was not a gentle man, by most accounts. His musicians often found him difficult to work with because he was harsh in his judgments. Yet Handel donated all the proceeds from Messiah to the poor and the needy. When the oratorio was first performed in Dublin, the newspapers advertised it as follows:
For Relief of the Prisoners in the several Gaols, and for the Support of Mercer's Hospital in Stephen's Street, and for the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay, on Monday the 12th of April, will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel's new Grand Oratorio, call'd the Messiah.
This tradition continued throughout the composer's lifetime. According to one 18th-century historian, "From that time to the present, this great work has been heard in all parts of the kingdom with increasing reverence and delight; it has fed the hungry, clothed the naked, fostered the orphan … more than any single production in this or any country."
Handel's generosity was in keeping with the character of the Messiah himself, who healed the sick and made the children sing.
No wonder the crowds gave Jesus such a royal welcome! He was coming—with all gentleness—to be their rightful, victorious King. It must have been an amazing sight, not to mention an awesome sound. Jesus approached Jerusalem at the start of the Passover Feast, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were crowding into Jerusalem. As he came to Bethphage and mounted his donkey, he would have been surrounded by people going up to Jerusalem. When he reached the top of the Mount of Olives, and looked over the city of Jerusalem, he would have seen crowds of people streaming out the city gates. As the word spread that the king was coming, the pilgrims who were already in the city came out to greet him. Therefore, as Jesus rode down into the Kidron Valley, there were people in front of him, behind him, and all around him. They were waving palm branches and throwing down their robes to make a procession of praise. They kept shouting and shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!" (Matt. 21:9).
It was exactly the kind of welcome Jesus deserves. He is the Son of David, our true and rightful king. To him we give all our high hosannas, for he is our gentle, gentle Savior. In the words of a hymn from the old Strasbourg Psalter,
Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
reigning omnipotent in ev'ry place:
so come, O King, and our whole being sway;
shine on us with the light of thy pure day.
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
no harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
and ever stay in thy sweet unity.
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.