THE COMING OF THE KING
When they were coming near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and to Bethany, Jesus despatched two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and as soon as you come into it, you will find tethered there a colt, on which no man has ever yet sat. Loose it and bring it to me. And if anyone says to you, `Why are you doing this?’ say, `The Lord needs it,’ and immediately he will send it.” And they went away and they found the colt tethered, outside a door, on the open street, and they loosed it. And some of those who were standing by said to them, “What are you doing loosing this colt?” They said to them what Jesus had told them to say, and they let them go.
We have come to the last stage of the journey. There had been the time of withdrawal around Caesarea Philippi in the far north. There had been the time in Galilee. There had been the stay in the hill-country of Judaea and in the regions beyond Jordan. There had been the road through Jericho. Now comes Jerusalem.
We have to note something without which the story is almost unintelligible. When we read the first three gospels we get the idea that this was actually Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem. They are concerned to tell the story of Jesus’ work in Galilee. We must remember that the gospels are very short. Into their short compass is crammed the work of three years, and the writers were bound to select the things in which they were interested and of which they had special knowledge. And when we read the fourth gospel we find Jesus frequently in Jerusalem. (Jn.2:13, Jn.5:1, Jn.7:10.) We find in fact that he regularly went up to Jerusalem for the great feasts.
There is no real contradiction here. The first three gospels are specially interested in the Galilaean ministry, and the fourth in the Judaean. In fact, moreover, even the first three have indications that Jesus was not infrequently in Jerusalem. There is his close friendship with Martha and Mary and Lazarus at Bethany, a friendship which speaks of many visits. There is the fact that Joseph of Arimathaea was his secret friend. And above all there is Jesus’ saying in Matt.23:37 that often he would have gathered together the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings but they were unwilling. Jesus could not have said that unless there had previously been more than one appeal which had met with a cold response.
This explains the incident of the colt. Jesus did not leave things until the last moment. He knew what he was going to do and long ago he had made arrangements with a friend. When he sent forward his disciples, he sent them with a pass-word that had been pre-arranged–“The Lord needs it now.” This was not a sudden, reckless decision of Jesus. It was something to which all his life had been budding up.
Bethphage and Bethany were villages near Jerusalem. Very probably Bethphage means house of figs and Bethany means house of dates. They must have been very close because we know from the Jewish law that Bethphage was one of the circle of villages which marked the limit of a Sabbath day’s journey, that is, less than a mile, while Bethany was one of the recognized lodging–places for pilgrims to the Passover when Jerusalem was full.
The prophets of Israel had always had a very distinctive method of getting their message across. When words failed to move people they did something dramatic, as if to say, “If you will not hear, you must be compelled to see.” (compare specially 1Kgs.11:30-32.) These dramatic actions were what we might call acted warnings or dramatic sermons. That method was what Jesus was employing here. His action was a deliberate dramatic claim to be Messiah.
But we must be careful to note just what he was doing. There was a saying of the prophet Zechariah (Zech.9:9), “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, and riding on an ass and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” The whole impact is that the King was coming in peace. In Palestine the ass was not a despised beast, but a noble one. When a king went to war he rode on a horse, when he came in peace he rode on an ass.
- K. Chesterton has a poem in which he makes the modem donkey speak:
“When fishes flew ind forests walk’d And figs grew upon thorn, Some moment when the moon was blood Then surely I was born.
“With monstrous head and sickening cry And ears like errant wings, The devil’s walking parody Of all four-footed things.
“The tatter’d outlaw of the earth Of ancient crooked will; Starve, scourge, deride me, I am dumb, I keep my secret still.
“Fools! For I also had my hour, One far fierce hour and sweet; There was a shout about my ears, And palms before my feet.”
It is a wonderful poem. Nowadays the ass is a beast of amused contempt, but in the time of Jesus it was the beast of kings. But we must note what kind of a king Jesus was claiming to be. He came meek and lowly. He came in peace and for peace. They greeted him as the Son of David, but they did not understand.
It was just at this time that the Hebrew poems, The Psalms of Solomon, were written. They represent the kind of Son of David whom people expected. Here is their description of him:
“Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, At the time, in the which thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel, thy servant. And gird him with strength that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample her down to destruction. Wisely, righteously he shall thrust out sinners from the inheritance, He shall destroy the pride of sinners as a potter’s vessel. With a rod of iron he shall break in pieces all their substance. He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth. At his rebuke nations shall flee before him, And he shall reprove sinners for the thoughts of their hearts.
“All nations shall be in fear before him, For he will smite the earth with the word of his mouth forever.” (Wis.17:21-25,39.)
That was the kind of poem on which the people nourished their hearts. They were looking for a king who would shatter and smash and break. Jesus knew it–and he came meek and lowly, riding upon an ass.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day, he claimed to be king, but he claimed to be King of peace. His action was a contradiction of all that men hoped for and expected.
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