Jesus was the Messiah, but he was not the Messiah the Jews were looking for.
When the Jews interpreted messianic passages like Psalm 118, which they quoted on the original Palm Sunday, they concluded that the Messiah was going to be a king of the line of the great king David. This new king would rescue the people of Israel and restore their land to the prominence it had during the days of King David and David’s son King Solomon. Those were the days when Israel was independent, its own sovereign nation, as it had won victory over its enemies. There was peace and prosperity. People came from all over the known world to see the wonders of Solomon’s kingdom. Sadly, it didn’t last.
We know the story of how Israel’s fortunes changed because of our recent study through the book of Ezekiel. Soon after Solomon died, Israel had a civil war, splitting into North and South, and both Kingdoms eventually turned away from God, breaking the covenant between God and his people. Because of their rebellion against God, God allowed the foreign powers of Assyria and Babylon to defeat the Jews, carrying many of them into exile, far away from home, like Ezekiel.
Eventually, though, the people were allowed to return, they rebuilt the temple and slowly the nation got back on its feet. But the nation was severely weakened. It was nothing compared to what it was during those long-gone days of David and Solomon. Whatever the regional superpowers wanted to do with Israel, they could do. And they did. After the Babylonians, there was a succession of powerful nations that ruled the region. The Medes and Persians, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans controlled the land, except for the 100 years of independence when the Maccabees ruled.
During Jesus’ lifetime, Israel was a conquered people. The Jews hated living in a land that was once their own independent nation but now had been occupied by foreign nations for hundreds of years. They longed for a new day. They wrote about that new day. They sang songs about that new day. They searched their Scriptures for God’s promises of a new day, and they found many promises in books like Ezekiel, which we studied in recent months on the blog. God had promised to send a great leader to rescue his people, such as what we learned here. They called this leader the Messiah, which means “deliverer” or “savior.” The Jews believed the Messiah would be a great ruler, of the lineage of David, who would lead the people to freedom in the land. They envisioned a great politician, a warrior king.
When Jesus came along amassing huge crowds, doing astounding miracles, and speaking with authority to all, he seemed to be a very good candidate to be the promised Messiah. So after three years of a growing ministry, he enters the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey. You and I read about the donkey, and we can easily think to ourselves, “What a poor choice for a king. Shouldn’t he be riding on tall regal white stallion?” The people in the crowd that day, being good Jews, knew their prophecy. They saw what Jesus was doing, riding on a donkey, and their brains did the rest of the work, reminding them of a famous messianic prophecy.
Turn to Zechariah 9 and read verses 9-17. This was written some 400 years before the time of Jesus.
Doesn’t it seem like verse 9 describes exactly what is happening that original Palm Sunday in Jerusalem? “Rejoice Jerusalem! Your king comes to you…riding on a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 is another messianic prophecy. To the people watching Jesus, that prophecy was unfolding before their very eyes! In the rest of the passage in Zechariah 9, the prophecy says that this messianic king will save his people, and the prophecy describes the work of the messiah in military terms. You can see why the Jewish people believed the Messiah was going to be a military political ruler.
What this means is that they were correct. Zechariah 9 is about the messiah, and the messiah is Jesus. They were correct to apply this passage to Jesus on that day he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Go back to Mark 11, and look at how the crowds explain themselves in verse 10, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” They believed that Jesus was, at that moment, about to start a military movement to oust the Romans from the land and restore the land to Israel. Jesus, in their view, would then become the new Davidic king, sitting on a throne, in a palace in Jerusalem.
While they were right, the Jews were also wrong. Jesus was the king, but not that kind of king. Jesus is the king of God’s Kingdom. The people were right to shout “hosanna” which means “save!” from Psalm 118 verse 25, “Lord save us!”, but the people misunderstood the kind of salvation the king would bring. They were focused on themselves, as we all can be. Jesus is the king, and he brings salvation, but Jesus’ salvation is not about freeing a geographical area in the ancient near east so the Jews could have their own land. Jesus is the king of a very different kind of kingdom.
In the next post we’ll learn more about Jesus’ Kingdom.