Some Palm Sunday reflections, for which I am indebted to Jason DeRouchie.
When Jesus came into Jerusalem the week before Passover, the word of his coming spread before him such that a large crowd gathered to welcome him in, believing he would deliver them from Roman occupation and restore the kingdom to Israel. So Jesus rode into town, to fulfill what was written, which, as John put it (John 12:15), was as follows:
Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!
John is mostly quoting from Zechariah 9:9, with a paraphrase here and there. Here’s the text in Zechariah, with the exact words used in John bolded:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So it looks like John left out the parallel second line, the “to you” in the third line, and then the longer description of the manner of the king’s coming at the end. But he didn’t paraphrase the beginning– he just up and changed it from “rejoice greatly” to “fear not.” Why?
The phrases “fear not,” “daughter of Zion,” and “king.” only appear together in one other place– Zephaniah 3:14-17:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
‘Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love.;
he will exult over you with loud singing.’
The passage in Zechariah, which contains the specific prophecy about the donkey’s colt, is largely about God’s judgment of the nations and his deliverance of Israel. God is high and lifted up, the king over the whole earth, the divine warrior– that’s the sort of language used. The king is coming, yes, and coming to save, but he seems rather transcendent and terrifying in Zechariah, particularly in the verses following 9:9. In Zephaniah, the king comes to Israel and stands in her midst, singing over her and telling her not to be afraid. The transcendent God has become the immanent God.
It’s possible that John conflated these two passages accidentally. But I think John is smarter than that. I think that in noting the fulfillment of Zechariah he intended to tell his readers just what kind of king it was who fulfilled the prophecy. There will come a day when Jesus will come on a war horse (Revelation 19:11). But not today. Today the king comes on a donkey, sitting with children and telling his people not to be afraid.
On Friday he will be for us– he will be a priest for us, a sacrifice for us, becoming sin for us, being God and man for us. But today he is the immanent God. Emmanuel, God with us.