It’s a good guess that you, like me, would have heard it said, on more than one occasion, that “Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem to protest against the Jews, to tell them that he would not be the military king that they desired”. According to this view, Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, rather than a horse, to signal that he was a man of peace, and also that he would not be acting in the way that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to act.
I’ve discussed this claim quite a lot with my wife, Elizabeth Raine, whose knowledge of classical and Jewish texts has been most helpful in informing this blogpost. In what follows, I want to demolish that claim. Jesus never did, and never would, ride a horse. Nor would the Messiah, in Jewish thinking, be expected to ride a horse, a mighty weapon of war.
Horses were highly valued in the Roman Empire, which was the dominant power in the region at the time when Jesus lived. Horses were valuable both in warfare and in domestic life. They provide efficient and (relatively) quick means of communication along the extensive road system that the Romans built to link all the parts of their Empire, both for the upper classes who could afford them, and within the imperial communications system operating from Rome.
Horses were used for entertainment, in chariot races. And they were important animals in the military strategy that the Romans had developed, as a second line of attack behind the infantry. The foot-and-horseback nstrategies developed by the Romans enabled them to conquer far-flung regions and add them to their burgeoning Empire.
Within Israelite society, we encounter a different approach to horses. The hilly, rocky terrain of Israel must have contributed to this; but there are more factors at work. The Psalmist sets out the basic problem: “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you” (Ps 32:9). The horse is wild, unruly, unstable. Indeed, in the foundational story of Israel, the horse is enmeshed with the enemy, Egypt; “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” is the song of both the prophet Miriam (Exod 15:21) and her brother Moses (Exod 15:1).
Accordingly, the Psalmist sings, “Some take pride in chariots and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God” (Ps 20:7), and indicates that “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength; the war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save” (Ps 33:16–17). The story of the Exodus hovers not far away from each of these assertions. And it begs the question: with this heritage and tradition, why would Jesus even consider riding on a horse to enter Jerusalem?
In the long historical saga of Israel, the great King Solomon is praised for his wisdom; the Lord God grants him “a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Ki 3:12). However, in that same speech by God, we hear also that “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honour all your life; no other king shall compare with you” (1 Ki 3:13). So as the story continues, Solomon is revealed as a man who appointed a large administrate infrastructure, accrued immense wealth, raised a huge army, and built a lavish Temple for the Lord God, as well as a grand Palace for himself (1 Ki 4—7).
To support this grandeur, Solomon, we are told, “had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen” (1 Ki 4:26). In a later story, it was noted that “King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom”, that “the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom”, and that “every one of them brought a present”, including horses and mules (1 Ki 10:23–25).
The effect of this was that Solomon had accumulated “fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses” (1 Ki 10:26), and a note is made that “Solomon’s import of horses was from Egypt and Kure”, at a price of 600 shekels of silver for a chariot and 150 shekels for a horse (1 Ki 10:29; also 2 Chron 1:17). As the work of a labourer was paid with between two and ten shekels per month, both chariots and horses were very expensive commodities.
These descriptions of Solomon demonstrate the grandeur of his court and the profligate nature of his spending. Horses were integral to his means of gaining and holding power, even though a word of the Lord commands that the one set as king over the people “must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt to acquire more horses” (Deut 17:16). Solomon, in his wisdom, disobeyed this word of the Lord—although we recognise, of course, that whilst the speeches in Deuteronomy are placed on the lips of Moses, the actual scroll dates from a much later time—perhaps the time of Josiah (Solomon’s 13th great-grandson!).
Horses were obviously crucial in Solomon’s grand expansionary venture, enlarging the extent of Israel through his military and political nous. The value of horses in warfare is clear from the way that the Lord God describes them in his “speech from the whirlwind” in Job (chapters 38–39). The horse is known for its might; it leaps “like the locust” and snorts majestically; “it paws violently, exults mightily, and goes out to meet the weapons”, all the while being fearless, raging fiercely, as it smells the battle and hears “the thunder of the captains” (Job 39:19–25).
When the trumpet sounds, calling the army into battle, the horse exclaims heach, a Hebrew word regularly translated simply as “aha!” (Job 39:25). Brown, Driver and Briggs note that this word is an “interjection (onomatopoetic) expressing joy”. Perhaps the horse thrives on the battle! But this a somewhat ironic use of the term, which generally has a pejorative sense. When the word appears in psalms, it clearly expresses ridicule, being used as a taunt of derision (Ps 35:21; 40:15; 70:3).
Nahum describes with poetic vigour “the crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot, horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end” (Nah 3:2–3). However, to the Psalmist, “the horse is without understanding”, for “its temper must be curbed with bit and bridle” (Ps 32:9), and the rider must always be ready with a whip (Prov 26:3). A later writer noted wistfully that, just as an “unbroken horse turns out stubborn, [so] an unchecked son turns out headstrong” (Sir 30:8).
As we have noted, in Israelite piety, “the war horse is a vain hope for victory” (Ps 33:17); although “the horse is made ready for the day of battle, the victory belongs to the Lord” (Prov 21:31) and the delight of the Lord “is not in the strength of the horse” (Ps 147:10). The horse exemplifies the folly of sinful Israel—those who “turn away in perpetual backsliding … do not speak honestly … no one repents of wickedness … all turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle” (Jer 8:5–6). Such behaviour clearly undergirds the divine lament that “my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord” (Jer 8:7).
Indeed, a story told of the time when the people were in Exile in Persia, the scroll of Esther, has a scene in which a Jew, Mordecai, is clothed with royal robes and a royal crown and, seated on a horse from the royal stables, is led through the open square of the city, with a proclamation that he is to be obeyed (Esther 6:6–11).
Earlier in the saga of Israel, recounting how the people of Israel came to take control of the land of Canaan, the “very many horses and chariots” of King Jabin of Hazor and the alliance of kings which he had gathered to stand against Joshua (Josh 11:1–5) proved not to be a barrier to the forces assembled by Joshua. The instructions to “hamstring their horses and burn their chariots with fire” are, it is said, executed precisely by Joshua and his “fighting force”, as he takes Hazor, “the head of all those kingdoms” (Josh 11:6–15)—a strategic victory in the conquest of the land.
Nevertheless, prophets employ references to horses both to indicate the power of the Lord (Isa 43:16–17; Jer 51:20–23). It is a horse bearing a rider “of frightening mien” who vanquished Heliopolis as he prepares to sack the Temple (2 Mac 3:25–28), thereby demonstrating “the sovereign power of God (2 Mac 3:28). Much later, in a Christian apocalypse, a series of horses appear to deliver vivid messages: a white horse “to conquer”; a red horse with “a great sword”, to wage war; a black horse, whose rider “held a pair of scales in his hand”; and a pale green horse “whose rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him” (Rev 6:1–8).
Later still, another white horse appears, whose rider leads an army to do battle with “the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies” (Rev 19:19). This climactic battle ends with “the beast” and “the false prophet” thrown into “the lackey of fire that burns with sulfur” and the others slaughtered to provide carrion for the hovering birds (Rev 19:20–21). The imagery is potent; the account is not, of course, intended to be either literal history or specific predictive prophecy.
It is a prophecy of Zechariah, writing during the period of return to the land of Israel after Exile in Babylon, that is then applied to Jesus by the writer of two of the Gospels, as he enters Jerusalem. In this prophecy, the victorious ruler does not ride a horse; he comes riding on a donkey. Zechariah, centuries earlier than Jesus, had informed the exiles returning to Judah that a ruler would soon come to usher in universal peace; “his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech 9:10). This ruler arrives, “triumphant and victorious … humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9).
Indeed, the prophet declares that the king riding on a donkey “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem” (Zech 9:10). The peaceful ruler will use force to rebut and destroy the weapons of warfare—chariots and horses. Thus the prophecy is seen to be particularly applicable to Jesus; it is cited at Matt 21:4–5 and John 12:14. So under no circumstances would Jesus, wishing to fulfil this prophecy, intending to place himself as the one chosen by God to bring in the kingdom, give consideration to riding on a horse. That would send all the wrong signals.
So we should not think that he considered this as an option. Nor would his followers, or the faithful people of Israel in the crowd that welcomed him as he enters the city, have thought that Jesus would appear riding on a horse. Not at all!!! So I hope this speculative idea doesn’t find its way into any sermons, this Palm Sunday!
For further posts on the Palm Sunday story, see