The king of peace is so different. When the disciples first recognized Jesus as God’s anointed, he told them to keep it quiet (16:16-20). Now others have had their eyes opened to the son of David, and they cannot be silenced (20:30-34). This growing crowd forms a festal procession, celebrating the return of the son of David to the capital in the name of the Lord (21:9).
Yet, this son of David does not look like the kings who came before him. Solomon had 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots to defend his kingdom (2 Chronicles 1:14). Jesus doesn’t even have a donkey. If he’s to be carried into Jerusalem, he must borrow a pack-animal for this occasion — the return of the king to Jerusalem after 600 years.
Jesus sends his servants to untie a donkey (21:2). In our culture, that might feel like the equivalent of stealing your car. Our preoccupation with personal property does not match the king’s authority to requisition what he needs. If our Lord needs it, kingdom people release it (21:3).
Jesus asks so little that he’s not a burden on his people. The original son of David placed such a heavy yoke on his people that it literally broke the kingdom apart (1 Kings 12). Jesus’ kingship is an easy yoke, a light burden for his people (see on Mt 11:25-29). With no palace where it’s safe to rest, this son of man asks for less than what the animals have (see on Mt 8:20).
But how can a king like this defend himself? No army. No fortresses. No horses and chariots. Not even a donkey. How can he save his people?
After the failure of the Davidic kingship (587 BC), the prophets declared that God would restore his people. Zechariah promised the coming of a king who would do right and gain victory without being a belligerent ruler asserting his own power. As the representative of their true sovereign in heaven, this humble king would ride into Jerusalem on a mere donkey, because God would give him the victory:
Zechariah 9:9–10 (NIV)
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
In Zechariah’s vision, God would heal the division of his people (Ephraim versus Judah), and secure their borders from foreigners. The servant king could arrive on a donkey because he was not enforcing his own power, but trusting the power of heaven to raise him up and save his people.
The crowds could not contain their joy as they saw Zechariah’s vision unfold before their eyes. They hailed the son of David coming to save them, the king returning to Jerusalem with the authority of the YHWH, the restoration of heaven’s highest authority to the earth (21:9).
This is the leader who restores God’s kingship to the earth, saving us from oppression under evil, restoring God’s peaceful reign to the earth. What a king!
Open Matthew 21:1-9.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 777–778:
Even if the reader did not notice the echoes of the story of David noted above, Zech 9:9–10 would be readily recognized as a messianic oracle, with a king coming to Jerusalem and establishing universal peace and worldwide dominion. There is a subtle tension within Zechariah’s description of this messianic king: he is victorious and yet meek, and his triumph is received rather than won (“vindicated and saved”). He rides a donkey rather than a war horse, and his kingdom will be one of peace rather than of coercion. When Jesus chose this oracle to enact as he approached the city, he was thus claiming to be the Messiah, but not the sort of Messiah much popular patriotism might have hoped for. Zechariah’s vision prepares the reader well for a kingship which will be established without violence and indeed through submitting to the will of his enemies, so that his ultimate triumph will come only when he is “vindicated and saved” from death by the power of God.