NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 3: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, tell them, ‘The Master needs them. He will send them back soon.’”
While these instructions are certainly helpful in providing the disciples a reason for suddenly showing up in town and leading away a female donkey and her colt, it also clearly suggests that there was some prior planning that had gone on in arranging this event. Today we would say that Jesus gave His disciples a “code word” that identified them as agents of the Master. Anyone standing nearby hearing such a brief and authoritative response would naturally conclude that whoever this Master was, He was highly respected and influential.
Verses 4-5: This showed the full meaning of what the prophet said: “Tell the people of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you. He is humble and riding on a donkey. He is riding on a young donkey, born from a work animal.’”
As we see, there was more to this than our Lord simply needing the colt of a donkey to ride on, it was also the fulfillment of a prophecy concerning the Messiah.1 The scribe who was translating Matthew’s notes from Aramaic into Greek may have included this commentary to enlighten the reader as to the significance of this act.2 I like to compare what happened here to a parable Rabbi Kahana tells us about a noblewoman whose husband, sons and sons-in-law went to a far country by the sea for business. One day she was suddenly told: “Our sons have come back!” She replied: “Let my daughters-in-law be glad.” “And now look, your sons-in-law!” She replied: “Let my daughters rejoice.” But when she was told, “Behold your husband!” she replied, “Joy! Utter joy!” Likewise, when the Prophets will say to Jerusalem “Behold, your king is coming to you,” she will reply:3 “O joy! Utter joy! I will greatly rejoice in the Lord.”4
This is a clear indication that no one should have been surprised at all by the rejoicing that took place when Jesus the Messiah rode toward Jerusalem. For one thing, riding toward Jerusalem on the back of a donkey was not that unusual. We read where in Deborah’s song she sang during the time of the Judges, she called out: “Pay attention you people riding on white donkeys sitting on blankets, and those walking along the road.”5 So transporting people this way was a long-time custom.
Also, Jesus specifying that they bring both the mother and her colt is significant when seen with Jewish manners and customs in mind. In Jewish literature, we find that domesticated donkeys, called ‘Hamor‘ (a female was called “aton” and the colt was called “ayir”) were put to various uses. Among them was for riding, in which the young colt and female donkey were mainly employed.6 The highly respected Rabbi David Kimchi has a special section on how he saw this prophecy in Zechariah applying to Jesus of Nazareth. It is much too long to replicate here, but in it he states: “The writings of the Jews furnish an unbroken chain of testimony to prove that it was always referring to the Messiah, and that, therefore, the writers of the New Testament did not lay hold of a text, the letter of which seemed to suit their purpose, but applied a passage of Scripture which the Jewish nation always regarded as a test to verify the claims of every pretender to the Messiahship.”7
So Matthew’s application of this prophecy is accepted among many Jewish scholars to this day. The revered Rabbi Ibn Ezra stated: “Commentators were divided on this. Some say, that this king is our Messiah. Others say Messiah son of Joseph.”8 He goes on to say, however, that if this were really a king it would be somewhat odd because riding on a donkey would be something only a poor man could afford.
This certainly can be seen in the disagreement between Rabbi Alexandri and Rabbi Joshua on whether the Messiah would come on the clouds of heaven or arrive riding on a donkey. Upon hearing this argument King Shapur said to them: “You maintain that the Messiah will ride upon a donkey: I would rather send Him one of my white horses.”9 Little did these Rabbi’s know that both of these would be fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. He came to Jerusalem the first time riding on a donkey, but He will return the second time in the clouds of heaven as seen in John’s Revelation, riding on a white horse.10 And, another well-known Rabbi states: “It is impossible to interpret this except as referring to the King Messiah, as it is stated: ‘and His rule shall be from sea to sea.’ We do not find that Israel had such a ruler during the days of the Second Temple.”11
Yet, while many waited for a king to ride in, albeit on a donkey just to fulfill Scripture, another Rabbi reminds everyone of what Isaiah said about Him being a poor man:12 “The King Messiah, is referred to as a poor man riding on a donkey.13”14 Not all Jews saw riding on a donkey as demeaning. One notable Rabbi stated that the donkey ridden by Abraham,15 was the same donkey ridden by Moses when he went back to Egypt,16 and will be the same donkey ridden in the future by the Son of David 17 when he arrives.18 It makes you wonder why the Jews were so upset at all the rejoicing when Jesus showed up. Wasn’t this enough for them to realize that Messiah had finally come?
Was it because they felt like Jesus was trying to be an imitator of the Messiah. The possibilities are, that this was the basic cause of their anger. However, we should not think that such a mindset has vanished. There are many people today caught in the bondage of sin and addiction who are looking for a Savior, but this Jesus of Nazareth from 2000 years ago does not fit their image of the one they desire to see.
Verse 6: The followers went and did what Jesus told them to do.
We see that His disciples did not hesitate to follow their Master’s instructions. This was a trait they may have inherited from Noah, “Noah did everything God commanded him to do.”19 One outstanding Jewish commentator noted on Noah’s response: “In addition, Noah did not try to comprehend what was in God’s mind, to find something unspoken that might be expected of him. He observed the letter of the law without deviating, but without trying to understand the spirit of the law.”20 However, I disagree. I believe that Noah followed God’s instructions because he believed they were perfect and would result in bringing about God’s plan and purpose for building the ark in the first place. Another Jewish translator prefers a different rendering: “And this Noah did; as all that God commanded him, that’s what he did.”21
Verse 7: They brought the mother donkey and the young donkey to Him. They covered the donkeys with their coats, and Jesus sat on them.
In those days there were no saddles as we know them today, so placing blankets on the back of the donkey was traditional. In centuries to come these blankets would continued to be used as saddle blankets in order to absorb sweat, cushion the saddle, and protect the animal’s back. But these admirers of Jesus were not content with using any ordinary blanket, they wanted to cushion their Messiah’s ride with their personal clothing. But another thing to consider is this: some people preferred to ride on donkeys because riding a horse could be taken as boasting, since horses were most often used in war. But, when we see this same Jesus in John’s Revelation, He has traded in His donkey for a stallion, one fit for a conqueror.
Jesus is never recorded as riding on donkeys during His ministry, He is always seen walking. But on this occasion, He did so in order for those who knew of this prophecy in Zechariah would be able to make the comparison so as to recognize Him as their expected Messiah. Some did and rejoiced, and some concluded that Jesus was only pretending to be the Messiah. But they would soon find out that He was for real.
Verse 8: On the way to Jerusalem, many, many people spread their coats on the road for Jesus. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.
This was not a new gesture. It was customary for subordinates to use their clothing for a king to step on or sit on. We read that when Jehu was anointed King over Israel: “Each officer quickly took his robe off and put it on the steps in front of Jehu. Then they blew the trumpet and made the announcement, ‘Jehu is king!’”22 In the Aramaic Targum of the Book of Esther it says: “…the streets were strewed with myrtles, and the courts with purple, when Mordecai went out of the king’s gate.”23 So the use of branches, fronds, and many colored cloths were already a part of celebrations for welcoming someone held in high esteem and revered.
This would occur later in Jewish History during the time of the Maccabees, where it says they were: “…carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to Him who had given success to the purifying of His own holy place.”24 But there was more going on here than showing reverence for a holy man. We find a similar scene when Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger, a Roman senator and historian, finished his military service. We read: “He was sent on his way, not with blessings, as is common, nor yet with praises, but with tears and endless embraces, the soldiers casting their robes down for him to walk on, and kissing his hands, things which the Romans of that day rarely did, and only to a few of their commanders.”25
Did this crowd following Jesus know that they were sending Him on His way to the end of His earthly service? If they did, they didn’t show it. To them, they were accompanying Him on His way to the greatest battle in history, and believed with all their hearts He would win. If sending Jesus to His destiny on the back of a donkey’s colt was done with such jubilation and festivity, I can only imagine what the celebration will be like when He returns in the clouds of glory on a stallion with “King of all kings and Lord of all lords” written on His robe.26
1 Zechariah 9:9
2 See Psalm 9:14; Isaiah 12:6; 62:11; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Daniel 2:44; Micah 5:2
3 Isaiah 61:10
4 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit. Piska 22:3, p. 464
5 Judges 5:10
6 See Numbers 22:21; Judges 10:4; 12:14; II Samuel 16:2; I Kings 1:33; II Kings 4:24
7 David Kimchi’s Commentary on Zechariah, Observations in Defence of the Christian Interpretation of Chapter IX, pp. 92-110
8 Ibn Ezra on Zechariah, loc. cit. (Also see Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 99a)
9 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 98a
10 See Revelation 6:2; 19:11
11 The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Isaiah 26:6
13 Zechariah 9:9
14 The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, op. Cit. Isaiah 26:6
15 Genesis 22:3
16 Exodus 4:20
17 Zechariah 9:9
18 Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, op. cit. Ch. 31., The Binding of Isaac on the Altar, pp. 224-225
19 See Genesis 6:22; (cf. 12:4; Exodus 29:43; 40:16)
20 Rabbi Abraham Saba, Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit. p.145
21 Robert Alter, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 29
22 II Kings 9:13
23 Esther 8:15
24 II Maccabees 10:7
25 Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Vol. 8, Ch. 12:1, Leob Classical Library Edition, 1919, p. 261
26 Revelation 19:16