The Word in the Wings
From the study: tension and peace on Palm Sunday
By: KAYA PRASAD
Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter, begins in the church calendar with the observance of Palm Sunday to remember events narrated in John 12 (as well as Mark 11:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11, and Luke 19:28-44). To set the stage: Jesus’s most recent public act before coming to Jerusalem to observe the Passover festival was raising Lazarus from the grave (John 11). This powerful act had caught the attention of lots of his fellow Jews, some who “believed in him” (John 11:45), and others who saw him as a threat to be eliminated (John 11:53, 57). After laying low for a little while (John 11:54), Jesus joined crowds of others preparing to observe the Passover in the center of Jewish religious life.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
In the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, crowds of Jewish people carry palm branches to celebrate the conquest of Jerusalem and reclaiming of the temple from an imperial power. Seeing that Jesus is coming to their capital city, the crowd hails him as a military victor in this manner. They also identify Jesus as a representative of Yahweh, having authority over Israel as a nation. In a time when the Roman empire governed the region of Judea and its Jewish inhabitants, this is a politically subversive declaration.
If we stop reading here, it might look like Jesus is coming into Jerusalem having conquered the city, intending to wrest power from its imperial rulers. But Jesus responds to the crowd’s symbols of conquest and victory with a symbolic act of his own:
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
Jesus responds to the words and actions of the crowd by mounting a donkey. As John indicates through the quotation, Jesus’s action evokes similar imagery from Zechariah 9.
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
righteous and being saved (my translation),
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In this verse the king’s mount is described with great precision; this combination of terms for “donkey” can be interpreted as indicating that Jesus rode a purebred donkey, as opposed to a horse or a mule. A donkey would have been an appropriate mount for a king processing during peacetime (Way 114). Indeed, the description that follows the king’s arrival is of an end to war.
10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
Commentator Mark J. Boda elaborates, “This king who arrives is not portrayed as a triumphant figure fresh from military success but as an individual faithful to the covenant and reliant on God for salvation” (Boda, 2009. np). A king in the Ancient Near East would ride a horse out to war; logically, he could still be mounted on the same horse as he returned in victory, taking the opportunity to show off his military strength and success.
The combination of images in Zechariah 9:9-10, riding a peacetime mount and commanding an end to war, makes it seem that the king who is arriving is not putting an end to war by fighting to total conquest. Is it possible that this peaceable king is not a military victor, but brings a different kind of peace?
11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
The voice of Zechariah 9:11 switches to first-person; God speaks of the divine role in bringing about this peace by liberating and restoring.
13 For I have bent Judah as my bow;
I have made Ephraim its arrow.
I will arouse your sons, O Zion,
against your sons, O Greece,
and wield you like a warrior’s sword.
But whereas the king “cut off” the bow from the people to put a stop to war, God intends to wield the people of Judah and Ephraim in place of weapons against the nations. Does this mean God’s people will go to war against the nations after all? That seems to contradict the immediate declaration of peace just announced in the preceding verses. Alternatively, are events narrated out of order? Does God wield Judah against the nations before the king arrives? Or is it about replacing weapons with people, not using people as weapons for literal violence?
These questions may make more sense after further reading, but this much is already clear: the king who rides in on a donkey does not himself take up implements of war but leaves all weapons in God’s hands.
Returning to our Palm Sunday scene: since Jesus chooses to mount a donkey in response to the people’s apparent celebration of conquest, his action looks like a corrective that highlights the humble nature of his kingship (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1933). When the people react to Jesus’s arrival as if to a king arriving in military victory, Jesus finds a donkey to ride in order to distance himself from the image of a king conquering by military might. He does come to bring peace, but it will be by God’s hand wielding “Judah,” not through Jesus inciting a human army to pick up weapons.
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
John doesn’t immediately specify what the disciples understand once Jesus has been arrested, killed, and resurrected. But if we read retrospectively, anticipating these aspects of the gospel narrative and how they are interpreted by other New Testament writers, we might notice a few things fall into place.
Christians understand Jesus to be the Davidic king, Israel’s ruler from the family line of Judah. Zechariah writes that God wields “Judah” as a bow, the metaphorical weapon by which God brings peace for the nations. Not long after he enters Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the means for God’s reconciliation with humanity. Though not an implement of war, Jesus is God’s instrument for bringing peace.
In a radical reversal, God brings peace to the people not by turning against the world in violence but by turning the violence of the world on Jesus–on God incarnate. Perhaps the reason for juxtaposing images of peace and warfare in Zechariah 9–and the reason for sending the king to the people in a posture of peace–is that this king overcomes the oppressor’s weapons not through weapons of his own but through truth, grace, and perfect love.
17 So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18 It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Many people are excited to see Jesus come to Jerusalem, and even the religious leaders are frustrated by his apparent influence over the people. But Jesus’s own actions in the scene have made it unclear whether their expectations align with his intentions. As the scene in John 12 concludes, the reader sits in this tension brought on by the reference to Zechariah 9: Jesus comes as a king bringing peace, but he insists on humility and leaves the implements of peacemaking in God’s hands.
Biblical quotations in this post are from the NRSV translation unless otherwise marked.
“Donkey Domain: Zechariah 9:9 and Lexical Semantics,” by Kenneth Way, in Journal of Biblical Literature 129:10 (2010, pp. 105-114).
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