The City, the Donkey, and the Joy

Matthew 21:1–17

My goal is morning is very simple: I want you to see Jesus as marvelous.

This story of Jesus riding into the great city on a donkey’s colt, for thousands of eyes to see, can seem so bizarre to us in the twenty-first century. It is strange, odd, peculiar, because there are often a few key clarifying pieces we’re missing. So what I’d like for us to do this morning is look briefly into three of those enigmatic pieces in this text to get a better sense for what is going on here on Palm Sunday as Passion Week begins.

Here the most important figure in history rides into the greatest city of his first-century milieu for the most important week that ever has been. And I want you to marvel with me.

Not only does this unrecognized prince have a rightful claim to the throne of his people as the true heir of King David, but he rides in manifest humility, on the back of a donkey’s colt, like no other ruler in the first-century, or the twenty-first century, would dare stoop to do.

And this, of course, is not the extent of Jesus’s meekness and lowliness. He will stoop yet further this holy week, and then further still, to be “raised up” to the lowliest of all places, to the utter shame and ignominy of a brutal public execution, even death on a cross.

The Glow of Palm Sunday

But for now, Holy Week begins here in Matthew 21 with the strange and wonderful glow of Palm Sunday. We feel the radiance of the coming King, ushered into the great city by crowds stirred for the arrival of a veritable dignitary.

The crowds says in verse 11: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

In their excitement, verse 8, they “spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road,” and so give “Palm Sunday” its name.

Joy radiates in Jerusalem on this Sunday — a joy, as we now know, that anticipates a supernova of gladness that coming on the following Sunday, which we call Easter. In a celebration of hope, the crowds rehearse the praises of Psalm 118, hoping against hope that perhaps this is, at long last, not just a prophet but the great “Son of David,” the promised rescuer-king, riding into the Holy City to finally save his people from their oppression.

They cry out in verse 9, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Hosanna — which literally meant, “Oh save [us]!” — has become a Hebrew declaration of adoration and delight and is their expression of joy on this day.

Tinged with the Coming Pain

Still the radiance is tinged, even in the emotional highs of Palm Sunday. This is not yet the king’s coronation at the right hand, on the throne of heaven. And this is not the final triumph when heaven itself will descend and remake our fallen world — with all sorrow and pain, and every tear and enduring rebel, banished to outer darkness.

No, even in the throes of joy, the threatened authorities begin their diabolical plot.

In verse 14, when the humble king heals the blind and the lame, the establishment sees, verse 15, “the wonderful things that he did . . . they were indignant.” The growing joy of the crowds is the growing anger of Jerusalem elite. This is the dark side to Palm Sunday.

Joy Set Before the Man of Sorrows

Here on Palm Sunday we find, in miniature, the joys and sorrows of the legendary week ahead. This initial clash with the authorities anticipates the conspiracy that is coming, the traitor that will emerge, the fearful disciples who will flee, and the sheer demonic wickedness that will descend upon the city and culminate in his death by sundown on Friday. And yet the joy of Palm Sunday forecasts the unrivaled euphoria that is coming Easter morning.

The dark notes of Palm Sunday correspond to Jesus being our “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). While the joy of Palm Sunday corresponds to Jesus’s own joy, his indestructible gladness, his willingness to come to Jerusalem, and go even to the cross, for the joy set before him. The one on whom is poured, according to Psalm 45 (verse 7), the oil of gladness beyond his companions is the same one who will be despised, rejected, and well acquainted grief, as prophesied in Isaiah 53 (verse 3).

Three Pieces of Palm Sunday

I said that I want us to marvel at Jesus this morning. Another way to put it is that I want to move you from neutrality about Jesus, to either anger or joy. If we clear away the dust and debris, you will identify with the happy crowds or the disgruntled authorities. Neutrality is just as bad, if not worse, than indignation, so it’s worth the risk to dispel your neutrality in hopes of drawing you into joy.

When a purported dignitary rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, no one is supposed to stay neutral. The crowds cried Hosanna for joy (verse 9); the chief priests and scribes “saw the wonderful things that he did, and . . . they were indignant” (verse 15).

I think there are at least three pieces we need here some two thousand years later to understand what’s going on in this strange scene:
1) What’s so significant about this city, Jerusalem?
2) Why does Jesus enter on a donkey colt?
3) What is the significance of the crowd reaching for the words of Psalm 118 (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”) to give expression to their joy?

So, let’s look at the city, the donkey, and the joy.

1) The City

What’s so significant about Jerusalem? This whole scene starts as they come to Jerusalem. Verse 1: “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem . . .”

Jesus hasn’t been riding a donkey all the way from Galilee. He’s been walking with his disciples. But as he comes to this little town outside Jerusalem called Bethphage, less than a mile east of Jerusalem (this is like stopping in Hudson on your way to the Twin Cities), he sends two disciples to get a mother donkey and her young colt for his grand entry into the big city.

Jerusalem was the center not only of the nation’s economic, military, and political life, but also the center of its religious life, and and messianic expectations. It is the city that King David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, had founded and built about a thousand years before Jesus’s time. Part of the David’s enduring legacy as the nation’s greatest king was that he was the one who founded the holy city. Bethlehem may have been “the city of David” for his birth, but Jerusalem became the city he was known for. And it was King David to whom God had promised, through his prophet, that he would have an anointed descendant (Hebrew Messiah meaning “anointed”) who would surpass even David’s own greatness.

And so it is fitting that Jesus, if he is indeed this long-promised Messiah, make his grand appearance in the great city — “the city of the great king” as Psalm 48:1–2 refers to it.

This is part of the reason why in Luke 9:51 (see also verse 53), Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

But it isn’t only about the kingship. On his path to Jerusalem, he had said, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). And then he had lamented the state of the city in his day:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 13:34–35)

(And there again are the words from Psalm 118 we’ll come to in a few minutes.)

And not only is Jerusalem the geographical center of the first-center Jewish world, but it is also Passover week, which is the heart of the Jewish calendar. Everyone was there (Luke 23:7), and everyone in Jerusalem will know about any significant events that transpire that week (Luke 24:18). This is the first-century Jewish equivalent of live national television with just one station. That’s why Paul could say in Galatians that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified (Galatians 3:1), and that these things did not happen in a corner (Acts 26:26). Jerusalem is the main stage, and Passover is the main event.

This is what makes Palm Sunday so important. Jesus enters into Jerusalem, with messianic hopes swirling, during Passover. And if this Jesus is truly the long-promised heir to David’s throne, we would expect this event should be rife with pomp and circumstance.

And for that, Jesus chooses a surprising mode of entry.

2) The Donkey

Into such a media circus, then, why does he come riding in on a donkey, a beast of burden? And not just on a donkey, but a colt, the foal of donkey? The other Gospels tell us it was a colt who had never been ridden.

It’s not that this is the only animal available. It’s not a sign of his poverty. But it is a sign. Jesus selects this donkey deliberately. He sends his disciples to acquire the animals (a mother donkey and her colt) and gives them specific instructions (verses 1–3). And Matthew steps in as in the narrator in verses 4–5 and tells us why:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The prophetic quotation starts with Isaiah 62 and finishes with Zechariah 9:

  • Isaiah 62:11: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your salvation comes . . .’”

  • Zechariah 9:9, “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.”

Isaiah 62 is about God himself coming to rescue Jerusalem from her devastation and forsakenness, and Zechariah 9 is about David’s heir coming to the people to bring peace. The donkey is a sign of peace. A horse is for war; a donkey for peace. (David, who was a king of war, put his son Solomon a donkey, as a sign of peace, for his kingly anointing.)

What Jesus is communicating in this action by deliberately fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy is that he is indeed the king coming to Jerusalem. And drawing in Isaiah 62, he is the one in whom God’s salvation comes to his people.

But in selecting the donkey for his entry into the city, he not only owns that he is a king, but he does so in the most humble of ways — a communicates that he is not the king the crowds are expecting.

How Many Donkeys?

One clarification to make here in verse 7. It is possible to see some wacky and humorous things in the Bible when you read translated texts thousands of year later and do so with pessimistic unbelief. The heart behind it is very sad, but what is seen can be really silly.

Notice the second “them” in verse 7. “They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.”

In college, I had a tenured professor of religion, with a PhD, who mocked Matthew, the Gospel writer, because she thought that he misunderstood Zechariah 9:9 and so portrays Jesus as riding both colt and its mother. Can you imagine Jesus riding into the crowded city, with people lining the road — he has everyone’s gaze, and he’s straddling two donkeys? It’s bizarre, and shows a very sad snobbery toward the biblical writers, as if they were imbeciles because they were not privy to modern enlightenment.

But if we can understand the Hebrew parallelism in Zechariah 9:9, Matthew did even more. Zechariah 9:9 says he comes “humble and mounted on a donkey, / on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It doesn’t mean that he comes on a donkey and on a donkey’s foal, but that he comes on one donkey — which is a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Very plainly in verse 7 “them” refers to the cloaks (which is the closest antecedent), not both animals. They put their cloaks on the donkeys, and Jesus sat on their cloaks.

Okay, so silly objection tackled, but don’t forget the main point here — and it’s a glorious point that leads us right into Psalm 118. Perhaps this is why Satan has tried to create confusion by having tenured religion professors say such silly things; he wants to divert us from a stunning glimpse of Jesus’s glory.

Jesus planned this donkey ride, and the point is not just the subtle point that he is David’s heir, but the obvious point is that he is a king unlike any other. This is theMessiah, and he is not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

3) The Joy

Finally, now we ask about Psalm 118. What is the significance of the crowds shouting a line from this psalm? I suspect in God’s good providence they are doing something even more profound than they know.

It is remarkably fitting on this strange and wonderful Sunday — that the people reach for Psalm 118:26 and join together in the words of the psalmist, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!”

It is this psalm that captures so well the peculiar glory of Palm Sunday. It is just a breath before verse 26 that the psalmist writes, in verses 22–23, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

And when you give Psalm 118 a closer look, you see quite the catalogue of difficulty this psalmist has been through long before the triumphant declaration of verse 26 comes. There has indeed been rejection. Humans have despised and opposed the very one that God exalts.

He writes verse 5, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD.” Verse 7 mentions “those who hate me.” Verses 10–11: “All nations surround me . . . . They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side.” Verse 12: “They surrounded me like bees.” This is not the kind of path a merely human king would choose for himself in coming to glory. Verse 13: “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.” Yet God is not absent; he is at work in it. This is not condemnation, but discipline. Verse 18: “The LORD has disciplined me severely.” And he is there to hear him, and respond in his perfect timing. Verse 20: “you have answered me” in my distress, “and have become my salvation.”

Then comes this peculiarly glorious turn in verses 22–23: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The rejected one is raised to the exalted place. The one who was in distress now calls out in triumph. The one who rode humbly on a donkey, and put himself forward as a sacrificial lamb, is not only the long-promised king of Israel, but God himself come to save his people. “This is the LORD’s doing,” and for those with eyes to see, “it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The glory of Palm Sunday is not that the long-awaited king parades into town amid the pomp and flair of natural human expectation. This is not a king of unchallenged pedigree, born in a palace, nurtured by world-class tutors, surrounded by accomplished generals, trumpeting into the great city to conquer his foes and lay claim to his crown.

Rather, here is a Nazarene, a backwater, rumored to have been conceived in shame, a common laborer by trade, riding into the holy city not on a noble steed, but on the humble colt of a donkey. He comes not to brandish his sword and demonstrate his quality for the popular expectations, but to give his own neck to the knife, and display his meekness in uncompromised sacrifice. He comes not to kill, but to be killed, accompanied not by generals and soldiers, but twelve bumbling companions, one of whom will betray him, another deny him, and all of whom will scatter when heat turns up.

Marvelous in Our Eyes

The long-awaited Messiah comes not in human glory, but in the peculiar glory of God himself — the glory of strength in weakness, the glory of indomitable joy in excruciating pain, the glory of the Lion of Judah who gives himself as the Lamb of God. He comes on a donkey’s colt to be the stone the builders will utterly reject on Friday, and that God himself will unveil as the very cornerstone on Sunday morning.

To the natural mind, whether Jew or Greek, such is sheer madness. To the Greeks, a crucified hero is folly, to be dismissed; to the Jews, a rejected Messiah is a stumbling block and cause of indignation (1 Corinthians 1:23).

But for those who have been received the gift of true sight, it is marvelous in our eyes. We receive it with shouts of joy. We welcome him with Hosannas. We say, this is indeed God’s doing. No creature could plan it like this. Palm Sunday, and the Passion to follow, is no human creation, no happenstance of history. This bears the indelible marks of the divine, and this is the very unveiling of the promised rescue.

And so when Jesus says in verse 3, “The Lord needs them,” we see he is referring to himself as Lord. And when the crowds shout in verse 9, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we see that he not only comes in God’s name, but is himself the Lord. And when he says “my house” in verse 13, he is not only quoting Scripture, but embodying the word of God as God in the flesh. And boldest of all, when he responds to the indignant chief priests and scribes in verse 16, he applies the praise of God in Psalm 8:2 to the children’s statements about him.

No, neutrality is not an option with this Jesus. Does he make you indignant? His presumption to deliberately fulfill prophecy, but with manifest humility, his hints to be God himself — does such make you mad? Or do you rejoice? Do you say, “Hosanna” as an expression of joy?

I want to close by praying that you would see him as marvelous.