Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

157. The King and his City (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19)*

It was Monday mid-day, or even later, when Jesus left Bethany with a group of his disciples to go into Jerusalem. The arrival of a considerable number of citizens of Jerusalem prevented his making an early start. Word had gone round about Jesus' return to Bethany. So there came also a multitude of Passover pilgrims bearing palm branches and expressing with loud cries their conviction that the Messianic age was about to begin.

Excitement was all the greater because Lazarus was there. Evidently Jesus had perceived that angry Jewish leaders, eager to destroy the evidence that a man had risen from the dead, were set on destroying Lazarus. So when it became necessary to find sanctuary east of Jordan, Lazarus went also, for safety's sake (Jn,12:10).

Now that Lazarus was back, there was intense eagerness to see a man who had died and had been brought back to life four days Inter. And besides Lazarus there were plenty of witnesses to talk to about that amazing sign.

So "the whole multitude of disciples began to . . . praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works which they had seen" (Lk.19 :37). What other "mighty works" besides beholding Lazarus alive and Bartimaeus seeing?

As Jesus and his followers approached Bethphage, he commissioned two of the twelve to go forward into the village. Almost certainly one of the two was Peter, for Mark (Peter's amanuensis) gives a specially detailed description such as could hardly have come from any but an eye-witness. He was probably accompanied by John, for these two were to be given a similar errand together later in the week (Lk.22:8).

Borrowing two animals

Their task now was both unusual and menial—to fetch an ass and its colt, and bring them to Jesus. Was the Lord using this practical method of impressing on two of his leading disciples the lesson of humility and service about which he had spoken so weightily a short while before?

Their instructions were very precise, and everything transpired exactly as Jesus said. As soon as they came to the village they found the two beasts tethered out in the open street by the door of a house. Those who had responsibility for the animals and saw the disciples untying them naturally questioned their authority to do this. The reply, according to instructions, was: "The Lord hath need of him."

It is known that Herod had a palace on the Mount of Olives (see Notes), and that he was "in residence" for that Passover, so since the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, was a faithful disciple (Lk.8 :3), there is fair probability that it was with her help that arrangement had been made beforehand for Jesus to have the use of the ass and its colt.

Should the reading of this unusual incident be taken a step further by enquiring whether it was necessary for Jesus to borrow the animals in this way? Would not that wealthy family at Bethany have an ass to put at his service, or at least be able to borrow one for his use somewhere in their village? Then why should such an unusual means as this be adopted?

The explanation may be that, with connivance, it was king Herod's own royal beast that was brought to Jesus. If so, there is close parallel with the coronation of Solomon, for it was on King David's own mule that he rode to Gihon (1 Kgs.1 :33), thus declaring to all who witnessed that he was the true heir to the throne. Here now the same truth was to be made evident: not king Herod, but king Jesus.

This would also explain why the two disciples were to give the assurance: "The Lord hath need of them; and he will send them back again immediately"(Mk.), words which also carried an indirect intimation that the "triumphal" procession into the city was to be only a dress rehearsal, and not the real thing.

The password spoken by the disciples removed all objections, and they were allowed to bring the animals away.

When the throng realised that Jesus intended to ride thus into Jerusalem, their delight and enthusiasm knew no bounds. This was surely his way of proclaiming himself King of the Jews, in accordance with the familiar Messianic Scripture in Zechariah 9. So, eagerly falling in with the idea, they became the first to pledge their loyalty to King Jesus by throwing their garments on the back of the ass and the colt, that Jesus might sit on them. This was in imitation of the old custom, exemplified when usurper Jehu seized the reins of government (2 Kgs.9:13). Were they wanting Jesus to show himself a Jehu?

From Matthew's text it would seem that Jesus rode the grown ass and then chose to change to its colt; or else (and this is more likely) the ass— which must have been well used to being ridden — unaccountably proved restive when he mounted it, so he transferred to the unbroken untrained colt, which normally would have been exceedingly troublesome; and this, although without saddle or bridle, now quietly carried Jesus amid all the excitement and hubbub in the multitude. There is much significant symbolism in these details (see Studies 158,171). Comments one writer: "The dumb ass rebukes the madness of the apostle (Judas)."

Jesus rode quietly on, intent on making a last unmistakable appeal to Jerusalem, not in all the panoply of royal pomp but by the quiet claim of a "still small voice", the method which, centuries before, heavenly wisdom had commended to Elijah (1 Kgs.19 :11,12; contrast Jer.l7:25).

Lament over the city

As they turned the shoulder of the Mount of Olives, a large part of the holy city came suddenly into view. There, at a spot which today is quite definitely identifiable, the Lord paused and with eyes filled with emotion surveyed the place which had no use for him. Then suddenly he burst into tears, openly lamenting the sad fate which he knew Jerusalem had stored up for herself. But his hostile critics in the crowd curled their lips at the sight of such emotion (Ps.69:9-12).

What was the reaction of the disciples at the awesome sight of their strong Leader reduced to woman's tears at a time when they would fain see him with a resolute glint of conquest in his eye and hear him urge them forward with a bold shout of encouragement? But instead:

"If thou hadst known, even thou—the Greek kai ge seems to imply: 'if indeed that were possible-in this thy day the things which make for peace' (Jer.8 :11; Ps.122 :5-9). He meant, of course, as he always meant, peace with God. But in all the land was there to be found a city more unresponsive, more truculent, than this City of Peace? "But now", he went on, "they are hid from thine eyes" (as in Ex.9:12,16). Already it was obvious enough that, whatever else Jesus might attempt in the way of appeal to this city of God's choice, nothing would change their indifference or hostility into humble faith and obedience. Retribution was now inevitable.

"The days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee (Lk.23 :28,29); and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another."

It was the terrible tale of A.D.70 told beforehand, all made inevitable by stonyhearted wilfulness. Jerusalem refused to acknowledge the one who came with tokens of authority far surpassing any of the prophets. It had thrust him aside. This week it would crucify him. And by these deeds it wrote its own doom in large capitals. Twelve times (in the Greek text) Jesus used "thee, thou, thy" with dreadful emphasis as he wept over this city of golden splendour, which a generation later was to become a scene of savage tumult and carnage. All this horrific progression to ruin, Titus, commander of the besieging Roman army, foresaw, and he set himself to save the city. Yet in spite of himself and against his own inclination he and his men did all that was now foretold, to the last syllable: "not one stone upon another."

This, "because thou knewest not (refused to know!) the time of thy visitation" (Dt.32 :29; Lk.13 :34; Rom l0:19a,21). That crucial word carried a double meaning-the visitation of God in blessing and salvation (e.g. Ex.3:16)or, in judgment (e.g. Jer.8 :12; Is. 10 :3). Jerusalem recognized neither. "The Lord will not do good, neither will He do evil."

Jerusalem means "Jehovah will cause peace (reconciliation) to be seen." But this Jerusalem had shown no inclination to see such a peace, So now it was hidden from the nation's eyes.

The rabbis had a saying: "If Israel be worthy, Messiah comes with the clouds of heaven (Dan.7 :13); if unworthy, riding upon an ass" (Zech.9:9).

The tumult and the shouting

Shrouded in sorrow, Jesus rode on down the hill to the Kidron and past the garden of Gethsemane. Every minute the crowd grew bigger. A really exciting situation was now building up. Many of the people cut branches from the trees, especially from the luxurious leafy date palms. These they waved with acclamation and cast in the road before Jesus to adorn his triumph. In their excitement many of them pulled off their garments and spread them in tribute before him.

But in truth their ovation was for a different Jesus from the one who now slowly and sadly passed on before them. The Jesus who intoxicated their imagination was one made in their own image—a man of power and resolution who right soon would restore to then afresh all the ancient glories of the kingdom of David. The Galileans, ever restless under the hated iron hand of Rome, were now ready at any moment to erupt into violent action-an almost uncontrollable mixture of religious zed and political inflammability.

They were the main, but not the only, element in the crowd. The gospels carefully distinguish the various reactions to Jesus as he now approached the city.

Close to him there were, of course, his own committed disciples (Mk.11 :9), now probably in grave danger of being swept away by the seething effervescence around them, for they were strongly infected with the same nationalistic spirit.

"Hosanna to the Son of David," they all shouted. They may have meant: "Salvation by the Son of David. Hosanna! Save now!" They knew not what they asked. Their prayer was indeed answered, and before the week was out—but how differently from what they meant.

Their cry and their waving of palm branches were alike more appropriate to the Feast of Tabernacles (Lev.23 :40). But many of them, in a surge of genuine religious fervour, saw in the coming of Jesus a fulfilment of all which that feast foreshadowed: "They praised God with a loud voice" (Lk.).

It is not an easy matter to assign a precise idea to some of the acclamations reported in the gospels. What does "Hosanna in the highest" (Mt.) mean? And why the cry: "Peace in heaven" (Lk.)?

If the first of these is read (as the Greek text certainly allows): "(Grant) salvation now by means of those who are in the highest (heaven)", the words are an eager prayer that by the exercise of angelic power God would bring in the Messianic kingdom.

"Peace in heaven" chimes in with this idea, when it is realised that God, the author of both good and "evil" circumstance in human experience (ls.45 :7; Am.3 :6), chooses to operate through the ministrations of not only angels of good but also angels of evil (Ps.78:49; Ex.12 :23; Acts 12 :7,23). Thus "peace in heaven" means the abolition of evil in the kingdom of Messiah, all the angels of God brought into one harmonious ministration of good for the blessing of Christ's redeemed people.

"Blessed be the coming kingdom, the kingdom of our father David" (Mk.).

"It is probable that not a few who cried 'Hosanna' took part in crying 'Crucify' a few days later. This would be all the more likely to happen, because those who had shouted in the Messiah's honour believed that they were escorting him to a throne which would restore the ancient glories of Israel. When they saw that nothing of the kind was going to take place they would visit their disappointment upon the object of their previous enthusiasm" (Plummer).

Other sections of the crowd

With the disciples, also, but not daring to join in the shouting, was a group of the more sympathetic Pharisees ("the Jews"). They had come out to Bethany that morning, and were now returning to the city with Jesus (Jn.12 :9,17). Some of these had been present when Jesus brought Lazarus from the tomb (Jn.11 :45).That morning they had spoken with Lazarus again, and knew there could be no arguing about that mighty miracle.

But there were also Pharisees of a very different kidney (Lk.)—men who valued their religious authority and prestige in the nation more than anything, and who would stick at nothing to hold on to it. As Jesus came in triumph into the city, these, exasperated beyond measure, with biting scorn bade Jesus quell the excitement which seethed all round him. What a superb unintentional tribute it was to him that they should deem him capable of such control over an undisciplined crowd!

Jesus swept their complaining aside: "I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out." The Hebrew (and Aramaic) words for "sons (disciples)" and "stones" are almost the same. If disciples cannot praise God for their Messiah, then the temple itself will add its witness by crashing to the ground in a thunderous roar—"not one stone left upon another!"

Among themselves the Pharisees differed widely in their attitude to this bedlam of enthusiasm for Jesus. "Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing!" (Jn.). In more modern speech: 'Look what's happening! You can't make any headway against this.' The exasperated complaint to their president was: "Behold, the world is gone after him." They used the word kosmos with reference to the Jewish world, but reporting it the apostle John is careful to set it down immediately alongside the pregnant incident of Greeks coming to Jesus (12 :20), thus suggesting a more far-reaching significance. Again, as Caiaphas earlier, all unconsciously the enemies of the Lord were true prophets (cp.11:51).

What an irony there was about this situation! These men of power were the very people who, not long before, had issued their imperious instruction that "if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him"(Jn. 11:57).

Now, no need to enquire where Jesus was. But take him they dare not. Let them give the slightest sign of attempt to do so that day, and Jerusalem would be reduced to a shambles of riot and fury.

Another segment of the crowd affected by this sensational event was the populace of Jerusalem itself. As Jesus entered the city, the disturbance was like an earthquake (Mk.21 :10Gk.). "Who is this?" they asked in alarm. Iti st o be remembered that the capital had hardly recovered from the upheaval and chaos lately created by Barabbas' attempt at violent revolution (Lk.23 :18,19).


Who is this? They knew well enough, for the name of Jesus of Nazareth was on the lips of everybody. So their question meant: What is he here for? What does ne intend to do? Then was it the demeanour of Jesus himself, or the fact that he rode on an ass, and not a charger, which held back the enthusiasts from answering: "The Messiah himself, the King of Israel, bringing in the kingdom of our father David. Blessed be the king that cometh in the name of the Lord"? Instead, proud to own him as one of themselves, they acclaimed him now as "the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee." Again, what dramatic irony, for it was a matter of minutes only before this that Jesus had made his first explicit detailed prophecy of the utter destruction to which Jerusalem was doomed.

It soon became evident that Jesus had no revolutionary intentions. He rode to the temple enclosure and dismounted. Then he made a tour of inspection (Mk.) of every part of the sacred area to which a layman had right of access. With anger in his eyes he noted that the Bazaars of the Sons of Annas were plying their unscrupulous trade again. Three years before, he had swept them all away. His scrutiny gave notice that another spring-cleaning could be expected—but not now, for the sun was already on the horizon (Mk.), so he called the twelve together, and returned quietly to Bethany.

In the city the excitement subsided like a punctured tyre. That day, with the leaders perplexed, panic-stricken, and divided amongst themselves, and with the multitude of Passover pilgrims eager to back him up, Jesus could have done as he pleased. Yet all he did was to go into the temple, look round, and go away again. No harangue of the crowd, no threats against the rulers, no violence against the hated legionaries, but only tears, sadness, quiet rebuke and unspoken anger.

Was ever so promising an opportunity so foolishly thrown away? What was the matter with the man? Could this indeed be the Messiah?

And the reaction set in.

Notes: Mk. l1:1-11

Bethphage and Bethany. Why mentioned in this order, for he almost certainly came to Bethany first. The village itself had not been entered the day before because the home of Lazarus was on its eastern edge, The Talmud mentions that Bethphage and Bethany had a big reputation for hospitality to pilgrims coming to the feasts.
The village must be Bethphage, and not Bethany, for Mt. mentions only the former.
A place where two ways met. In LXX (e.g. Jer. 17 :27) this word amphedon normally means "a palace" (Herod's?).
Even as Jesus had said. "Commanded" (Mt.) should read "organized".
Branches from the trees. Jn: palm trees. Palms and Hosanna were both associated with the Feast of Tabernacles, not Passover. Thus the gospel writers intimate that this ride into Jerusalem was only a type and foreshadowing, although the crowd thought differently.
Looked round about. The time of "visitation" (Lk.)

Lk. 19:29-44

With a loud voice. Jn's word for this (in some MSS.) comes in only one place: Ezra 3 :13LXX
Wept over it. The tears of the Son of God: Jn.ll :35; Heb.5 :7; and such Messianic Psalms as 6.-6; 39:12;42:3; 56:8; 69:10; 116:8.
Peace, as in ls.53 :5; 59 :8; Jer.8 :11; Ps.122 :5-9; cp. Lk.14 :32s.w. Contrast the hostility in Mt.22 :15ff.
The day will come. This somewhat unusual Gk. verb seems always to be used regarding God in action (see concordance).
Visitation Cp. also Lk.l :68,78; Mk. 11:11,13; Mic.7:6.

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