Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kings Riding on Donkeys? What the?

Jesus is ready to go to Jerusalem, where he knows he will be killed. "See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day," (Matthew 20:18-19).

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples to get a donkey and her colt. Jesus knows he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he is going to have a royal procession into the city of the great King. To us it seems odd, but in ancient times, kings rode donkeys. In fact, donkeys play into a strong, messianic and royal motif in the Scriptures with allusions to and prophecies of the Messiah. Respected rabbis rode donkeys and Ugaritic texts depict deities riding donkeys as well. In Islamic tradition, several heroes are called "donkey riders" and the early Christian tale Vita Sanctae Pelagiae Meretricis "presents as the apex of beauty and sensuality a woman riding on a donkey."1

Early in the Old Testament, the regal, messianic depiction of donkeys is expressed in Jacob's prophecy concerning his twelve sons. He says,

"The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk," (Genesis 49:10-11).

Jacob predicts here the great dynasty of David, and the greater kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the donkey motif is born here in this regal prophecy.

In Deborah's song of military victory over God's enemies, she sings of the wealthy who ride on "white donkeys" and sit on "rich carpets" (Judges 5:10). Again in Judges, Jair the Gileadite judged Israel for twenty-two years, and "he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities." Donkeys, not horses, were ridden by rulers. King David rode on donkeys, as they were a royal gift to the king (2 Samuel 16:2). Solomon, David's son, rides his father's mule into Jerusalem for his coronation as king (1 Kings 1:38-40).

In the Bible, the donkey is a sign of humility, labor, and strangely enough--regal authority; the horse, however, is a sign of human strength, pride, and war. Interestingly, Saul, the failed, proud, king of Israel, marks his beginning as the nation's leader while searching for a pair of his father's lost donkeys. He never rode them. Absalom and Adonijah, the rebellious sons of King David, promote themselves in their attempt to usurp the father David's throne with horses, chariots, and grand processions. Not a great sign of humility.

The prophet Isaiah, writing some 500 years before Jesus, writes, "Behold the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth; Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense is with him,'" (Isaiah 62:11). Zechariah echoes this prophecy saying, "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," (Zechariah 9:9). Isaiah says, "Behold your salvation comes." Zechariah says, "Behold, your king is coming to you." The king is coming; the salvation is coming.

What kind of king? What kind of salvation?

Matthew equates the words of the prophets by placing kingship and salvation in one person, the humble man riding on a donkey, riding into a great city, where the king knows he will be murdered. Yes, murdered! It is the king who brings salvation, and it is the king who himself is salvation, but it is not the salvation (victory) wrought over the political enemies of Israel by means of military force.

But it is strange and odd, for the salvation is indeed accomplished by means of military and political overthrow. The difference is upon whom the military and political force falls. It's the military (the Romans) and the politicians (the Roman and Jewish leaders), and the people who shouted "Crucify him! Crucify him!" who are the ones that put the king to death, and produce a result, by the providence of God, a gift of eternal life, justification, righteousness and peace for all who believe. The greatest crime becomes the greatest blessing. The king is coming; the salvation is coming. They both culminate together in the one person, Jesus Christ, whose name means "Savior King."

This passage is called, "The triumphal entry." In other words, Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem is a victory ride. But hold on a second. He's riding to his impending doom. He knows he's going to be killed. It's like Robinson Crusoe knowing that if he rescues Friday from the cannibals, he'll be killed too. But he has to do it. He can't stand to see an innocent man suffer. So he leaves the comfort of his self-made, comfortable "castle." and he rescues Friday, almost to his own peril. But he gains a friend that lasts forever. Good ol' Friday!

If Jesus is our model, then the path to victory is through humility and suffering. Remember Joseph? He denied himself the pleasure of Potiphar's wife, was thrown into prison on false charges for rape, but was exalted to the throne after a while of patient endurance. As a friend of mine once told me, "You haven't lived until you've been unjustly fired." Man, I've been livin' then! Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him. The victory is ours by faith, and it is in him. We celebrate! (Even as we suffer).



1. Dictionary of Biblical Imagry, Intervarsity Press, p.215.



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