A king riding on a donkey (Matthew 21)

Cultural/political significance in the ancient Near East

Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday represents one of the most significant public events of His ministry. Each f the four Gospels records this incident, though with distinctive details (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:29-38, John 12:12-15). Central to each report is Jesus’ deliberate choice to enter the city riding upon a donkey. Scholars have noted three significant points regarding this chosen mount. These aspects are not mutually exclusive, and each contributes to  a more complete appreciation of the meaning of Jesus’ symbolic action and its decisive consequence:

  • The donkey was a traditional mount for kings and rulers in the ancient Near East (Judges 10:4, 12:14, 2 Samuel 16:2); Jesus was therefore making an implicit claim to be the King of His people.
  • The act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey near the time of the Passover celebration invoked a central image of Messianic expectation, linked to key Biblical texts such as Genesis 49:10, Isaiah 62:11 and Zecheriah 9:9. Two of the four Evangelists explained the significance of Jesus’ entrance explicitly as the fulfilment of Scripture (Matthew 21:5, John 12:15). In Jewish literature and teaching moreover, the image of a king on a donkey approaching Jerusalem was consistently understood to signify the arrival of the Messianic King. Thus, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah and proclaiming that the age of restoration was dawning through His own person.
  • In light of the frequent Old Testament association of horses with war and human pride, the donkey may have presented an image of peaceful humility. Jesus, in this interpretation, was making a statement regarding the nature of His kingship (cf. Deuteronomy 17:16, 2 Samuel 15:1, Psalms 20:6-9, 33:16-18, 147:10-11, Proverbs 21:31, Zecheriah 9:9-10).
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