Jesus’ Triumphal Entry in Matthew and Zechariah
By Matthew Pickens
Matthew makes numerous citations of and illusions to Zechariah 9-14 throughout his passion narrative. This pattern starts on the first day of that narrative with Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Matthew records this event in 21:1-11. He begins by citing Jesus’ instructions to the disciples to go into the village, bring a donkey and her colt to him, and explain their actions to anyone who asks by saying, “The Lord needs them.” (Matt. 21:2-3) Matthew then tells us that this is to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet (Matt. 21:4). He cites:
Say to the daughter of Zion,Matthew is citing Zechariah 9:9 with a couple of changes. First, Zechariah opens this prophecy (Zech. 9:9-13) with an exhortation, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!” Matthew instead writes, “Say to the daughter of Zion.” What he does is amend his quotation by mixing Zechariah 9:9 with Isaiah 61:11b. The reason he uses Isaiah’s “say” instead of Zechariah’s “Rejoice” is to change the focus of the citation to an evangelistic appeal to unbelieving Israel, which is the original audience of his Gospel.
'Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Matt. 21:5)
Second, Matthew omits “righteous and having salvation is he” from Zechariah’s prophecy. “Having salvation” is probably better translated in the NRSV as “victorious.” This explains Matthew’s omission of this line. While from the time of his baptism until his passion Jesus works many miracles in Matthew’s Gospel his true victory is achieved in his resurrection. Because that has not yet happened at this point in Matthew’s narrative he omits the line about victory. The same is true in the parallel text in John 12:15-16.
The whole passage and its connection to Zechariah 9 helps to stress several important truths about Jesus’ work. First, the primary import of Jesus entering the city while riding on a donkey is not to emphasize his lowliness but rather his kingship. Normally pilgrims traveling into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration would walk into the city. Jesus rides into the city as a king. Matthew explicitly tells us that Jesus does this in order to fulfill what the prophet wrote, “Your king is coming to you.”
Second, as Jesus enters the city riding on a donkey this tells us something about the nature of what he comes as a king to accomplish. He does not enter Jerusalem on a mighty war horse. This would show that he comes into the city intending to conquer or as a returning king who has conquered. Instead he comes on a donkey because the purpose of his kingship is to speak peace. Zechariah follows this verse by writing that Yahweh “will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off and he will speak peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:10a-b) Jesus comes into Jerusalem as the King whose rule is from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth (Zech. 9:10c) but he does so in order to speak peace to all the nations.
Third, Matthew, by the line he omits, leaves us looking for how Jesus will also be the victorious king from Zechariah. The triumphal entry builds the anticipation of the ultimate victory that Jesus accomplishes in his death and resurrection. He comes as king to speak peace to the nations but he will only do this by first waging war against Satan, sin, and death and his method of waging war is by his perfectly righteous obedience to the Father in dying for the sins of his people. The songs of the pilgrims heighten this anticipation as they cite Messianic prophecies about the promised Davidic King, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:9b citing Psalm 118) Jesus comes in the name of Yahweh, wielding the very power of Yahweh, and in his person Yahweh is present. Jesus comes having salvation and accomplishing it in the events that mark the end of his first advent with his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Palm Sunday is a time where we draw our attention to Jesus as the coming and triumphant king who accomplishes peace, as, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1)