“Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” So reports the Gospel of Matthew, in the Gospel offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Matt 21:1–11). The same story is told at Mark 11 and Luke 19.
John’s account is much more succinct; that Gospel simply notes, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it” (John 12:14), before explaining that this fulfils what was written in a scripture passage, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” (John 12:15, quoting Zech 9:9).
The narrator in Matthew’s Gospel explains that “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (Matt 21:15). The prophet who is referred to in both John and Matthew is Zechariah, a post-exilic figure whose work is found as the eleventh of the twelve Minor Prophets in Hebrew Scripture.
Zechariah was active in the period when the exiles in Babylon were returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by a decree of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Second Isaiah described as God’s “Messiah”; see Isa 45:1). We are told that in his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).
Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship had been reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple was rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law was read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).
Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and then work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).
Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).
The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire collaborated together to ensure that the temple would be restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).
Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai and perhaps around the same time that the anonymous prophet whose words are known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56—66). Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).
What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).
At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).
Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).
An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, which we will hear this Sunday (Matt 21:5).
A quirky feature is that some interpreters have taken the words of Zechariah so literally, that they imagine Jesus actually had two animals with him as he entered the city. Of course, the original oracle was formed in typical Hebraic parallelism, a pattern whereby an idea is expressed one way, then immediately repeated using other words. Thus, “riding on a donkey” was the first expression of the idea, followed immediately by “on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. One animal, two ways of expressing that.
The remaining chapters of Zechariah continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).
The quotation from Zechariah in the story is a reminder that there is always hope; in the difficult situation of rebuilding the beloved ruins, reconstituting the fractured society, reconstituting the religious practices and customs that had lapsed, hope remains strong. Little did those travelling with Jesus into the city know what lay ahead of him, and them, in the coming days. Their hopes were high, very high, on this day. Joy came easily to them.
It was a day for celebration. This could well be the time when “the Lord will become king over all the earth”—even over the mighty Romans, they may well have felt. Joy was the dominant emotion, as the singing, waving of branches, and celebration demonstrated.
On why Jesus was riding a donkey, and not a horse (definitely NOT a horse!), see https://johntsquires.com/2023/03/27/why-jesus-never-did-and-never-would-ride-a-horse-for-palm-sunday-lent-6/