Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:1–11)
When you read through the account of Palm Sunday, it’s hard not to be struck by the thought that Jesus is planning something very specific. This is not simply wandering into Jerusalem after a long journey, but rather Jesus wants to make an entrance, and make an entrance in a particular way. He wants a colt, and so he sends two of his disciples off into the nearby village with very specific instructions.
Once the colt has been retrieved, Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem in a procession. Cloaks were spread out like a makeshift carpet, and branches cut from the fields. “Hosanna” is shouted, and the procession makes its way to the temple. Once there, we would appear to have something of an anti-climax. Jesus has a look around, and then goes back to Bethany. It’s late, we read.
What, you might well ask, was the point of all that?! To answer that question, we would do well to remember the detailed directions Jesus gave to those two disciples. It is clear that he needed a colt on which no-one had sat, and so we’ll start there.
Five and a half centuries earlier, at around 520BC, the prophet Zechariah was at his height. The Jews had returned from Exile, and were tasked with rebuilding the Temple which had been shattered decades before by the Babylonians. He was encouraging them to walk in the ways of God, and looking forward to a time of peace for Jerusalem with the Temple renewed. The enemies of the nation would be judged, and then…
“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.” (Zechariah 9:9)
There’s that colt. It is the transport for the long hoped for king as he comes into Jerusalem. But why a colt which has never been ridden? Well, within Jewish tradition once a beast of burden had been broken and used in labour, it was no longer fully pure. A colt on which no-one had ridden was therefore more appropriate for a king, and must not be used by any other.
The kingly imagery is intensified as Jesus comes to Jerusalem itself. Before him cloaks are laid out on the harsh, dusty road as Jesus processed into the city. Here we find echoes of the coronation of King Jehu: “Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king’” (2 Kings 9:13). On Palm Sunday, of course, they shouted something different - a chant which itself has great significance.
First of all they cry out “Hosanna”. Now, we are very familiar with the word and think of it as a shout of praise, but the meaning of the word is subtler than that. The Hebrew behind the word means “Save, I pray”. It is a call for mercy. Who is to give this mercy? The shout continues: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, which is a quote from Psalm 118. This is a Psalm which deals with God’s steadfast love and mercy. The mercy being sought is to come from God, and Jesus is identified as the one who comes in God’s name. So far so good. The crowd carries on: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”.
Here we hit a problem. Jesus has spent his time preaching about the kingdom of God, and not the kingdom of David. It is true that David was remembered as a religious figure - after all many Psalms came from his pen - but he was primarily a military leader. Under his reign the boundaries of Israel swelled to their greatest extent and he was renowned as a general, as can be witnessed in a song the women in his day sang to one another: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7).
As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd see the wrong sort of king. They are concerned with the kingdom of David and he with the kingdom of God. It is true that he is of the line of David, and that the “Son of David” is a title associated with the messiah, but he is not to reign in his own kingdom. No doubt the crowd, with one eye on the occupying forces, were delighted to welcome a king. Surely this is the man to boot out the Romans, but Jesus has a greater kingdom in mind and so he makes his way to the Temple and not to the barracks. It is the sanctuary which is his focus, not the governor’s palace.
Decades later, when writing to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul urges his readers to: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). How often we limit our horizons to the physical! How saturated out consumer culture is with ‘stuff’! The joy of the Christian is to have his or her gaze fixed on a far horizon, and to have a sure destination. It is to see the hassles of this life as transitory, and to sing with old Newton:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s members know.
Don’t share in the mistake of the Jerusalem crowd. Let the kingdom of God be your goal, and you will not be disappointed.