Tomorrow is, of course, Palm Sunday.
Most Christians will celebrate this feast with two prominent features: the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the blessing and waving of palm branches.
This raises the questions: Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey? Why not on a horse? Why not in a chariot? And why did the crowds greet him with branches? The answers to these questions can be found by exploring the Jewish roots of the Triumphal Entry, as revealed in the texts of the Old Testament.
Solomon's Rides a Mule into Jerusalem
The answer to the first question is rooted in two texts: 1 Kings 1 and Zechariah 9. In the book of Kings, we learn that Jesus wasn't the first king to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem. Long before him, Solomon had done the same, immediately before he was enthroned as king of Israel:
King David said... "Cause my son Solomon to rid on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihop, and let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, 'Long live King Solomon!' You shall then come up after him, and he shall come and sit upon my throne... So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride on King David's mule, and brought him to Gihon [the spring alongside the Temple mount]. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent, and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, "Long live King Solomon!" And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:32-40)
Notice that Solomon's triumphal entry on the mule takes place after his having been anointed king in the waters of the Gihon and immediately before his enthronement. Thus, this is not just a triumphal entry, but a royal enthronement.
The Triumphal Entry of the Messiah
Moreover, this text gives rise to a prophecy in Zechariah, which speaks of the coming Messiah, the future king, who will recapitulate the actions of Solomon:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!Lo, your king comes to you;triumphant and victorious is he,humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)
Now, most readers stop here, noting the obvious parallels between this messianic oracle and the actions of Jesus. But keep reading: What does the Messiah do when after he rides into Jerusalem on an ass?
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope... (Zechariah 9:10-11)
This is a stunning oracle. In it, the future king not only rides into Jerusalem on an ass in humility, but establishes (1) a universal kingdom ('to the ends of the earth'), which is characterized by peace, not war (the chariot is 'cut off). Finally, and most stunning, (3) by means of a blood covenant, God sets Israel's "captives" free from "the waterless Pit" and brings them hold to Jerusalem (the 'stronghold'). This last line is particularly strange; since what is clearly in view is deliverance from Exile in Sheol, the realm of the dead, which is frequently referred to in the Old Testament as "the Pit." Zechariah clearly seems to expect the messianic return from exile to include those who had descended into Sheol, who would somehow be released through the "blood of [the] covenant."
Jesus' Triumphal Entry
Once this Old Testament background is in place, Jesus' Triumphal Entry takes on a deeper significance. First, he is deliberately recapitulating Solomon's royal entry into Jerusalem when he was enthroned as king. Second, he is performing a prophetic sign of the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. In other words, Jesus is both a New Solomon and the long-awaited Messiah. Should there be any doubt about this, Matthew's Gospel makes both very clear, since he not only cites Zechariah 9, but the crowds describe Jesus as none other than the 'son of David', a title to which, above all people, Solomon bore the right:
And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them', and he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass." [Zech 9:9]. The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:1-9)
The Palm Branches of the King Who Comes to Offer Sacrifice
This leaves us with one key question: Why the palm branches? No palms are mentioned in 1 Kings or Zechariah . As Matthew's account makes clear, the branches are tied to Psalm 118, the Great Hallel psalm, which the Jewish crowds are chanting as Jesus enters into Jerusalem. What is striking about this psalm is, when read in context, it too describes the coming of the king into the city. But in this case, the king enters not to be enthroned, but to ascend to the altar and offer sacrifice:
[King speaking:] "Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner...
[Crowd speaking:] "Save us [Hosanna], we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD... Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!" (Psalm 118:19-27)
That this is the psalm chosen by the pilgrims to celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is no accident. For while the crowds recognize that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited king of Israel, the new Solomon, what they do not see--what they cannot see--is what kind of king he is, and how he is going to reign. For the altar on which Jesus will pour out "the blood of the covenant" is not the bronze altar in the Temple, but the table of the Last Supper. And the throne to which Jesus is about to ascend as king is not the golden throne of Solomon, but the wooden throne of Golgotha. As king, he will indeed go up to the horns of the altar to offer sacrifice and ascend to the throne of his kingdom to reign. But his triumph will not be through the power of the chariot or the violence of the bow, but through the offering his own life. By means of his blood, the blood of the new covenant, he will bring home the exiles from the land from which no man returns, and will set all captives free, including those imprisoned in the "waterless pit."
At every Eucharist, when we sing the Sanctus, the Church, the new Jerusalem, takes up this cry of the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and makes it our own: "Blessed is he comes in the name of the LORD!" (Ps 118:26).