“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is just, and having salvation;
lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”
The above quoted prophecy is commonly referenced during the Advent season and on Palm Sunday. (Its recorded fulfillment in Matthew 21:1–9 is the historic Gospel lesson for Palm Sunday as well as the first Sunday in Advent.) Its application for Palm Sunday is obvious, since the exact event of the lowly Savior-King riding upon an ass’s colt took place on that day. However, its Advent application may not be as readily recognized. The word “Advent” means a “coming,” or an “arrival.” At this time of year our main focus is the coming (advent) of the Lord Jesus as a Baby in Bethlehem; but other “advents” of the Savior are also touched upon during this season (such as His coming into our hearts by faith, His second coming at the end of the world, as well as His coming into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday). Certain parallels can be found between the coming of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas and His coming that we commemorate on Palm Sunday—both were advents that prompted the rejoicing of some (Luke 2:15–20; Mark 11:8–10), and both instances were also strikingly paradoxical in that the King of kings and Lord of lords came in such marked humility and lowliness.
As Christmas approaches each year, the anticipated celebration of our Redeemer’s coming into the world provides us Christians with cause for much rejoicing. Certainly not restricted to the Advent/Christmas season, the hearts of true Christians rejoice in the “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10) that the Second Person of the Trinity came into the flesh to be our Savior from sin. Similarly, for the believers in the Old Testament, the promises of the Messiah’s advent moved them to great joy and excitement. Very appropriately, therefore, the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 begins: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout [for joy], O daughter of Jerusalem.” (The expressions “daughter of Zion” and “daughter of Jerusalem” are synonymous—both referring to the believers in that Old Testament time period.) Those who looked forward in faith to the future advent and saving work of the Messiah were exhorted to rejoice on the basis of the good news that the prophet set forth in his following words. The word “behold” is then used to call attention to the importance of the message, which was to be carefully noted and taken to heart.
What is here announced is the advent of a King—the King of the believers. “Thy King cometh unto thee.” The fact that this King’s coming should prompt His subjects to “rejoice greatly” shows that He is not a cruel tyrant but a kind and gracious King, whom His true people love and adore. But was it proper for the Jews to be expecting the Savior to be a king—considering how Jesus’ appearance was not king-like and how He resisted an attempt to make Him a king (John 6:14–15)? Yes, it was absolutely appropriate for the Jews to expect the promised Messiah to be a King; after all, various passages of Old Testament prophecy describe Him as being a King (Isaiah 9:7; 32:1; Jeremiah 23:5; etc.). As God over all (Romans 9:5), Christ is “the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (I Timothy 6:15). Tragically, at the time of Christ’s first visible advent, many of the Jews were expecting and hoping for the Messiah to be an earthly king—having an earthly kingdom that would dominate all others and usher in a time when the true followers of God would be treated like nobility in this world. And when Jesus “failed” to fulfill their false expectations and manifested His to be a spiritual and heavenly kingdom, His own people rejected Him. (Sadly, this worldly expectation, which has absolutely no basis in Holy Scripture, is what millennialists preach, teach, and focus upon still today as their hope at Christ’s second visible advent.)
The description that follows in Zechariah 9:9 shows that this is no ordinary king. In the first place, He is called “just,” or righteous. Certainly every earthly king should strive to be “just;” and according to the sense of purely “civic righteousness,” rulers are “just” when they carry out, in fairness according to the laws of the land, the duties committed to them by God in His establishment of temporal governments (Romans 13:1), namely, in summary,“the punishment of evil doers” and “the praise of them that do well” (I Peter 2:14). But no mere human king is perfectly just or completely righteous in all of his doings because of the total corruption of man’s nature since the fall of Adam. However, the King whose coming is foretold by the prophet Zechariah is completely “just” in the fullest sense of the term, being perfectly just and perfectly righteous in His very essence (Deuteronomy 32:4). And this is, indeed, something in which we should rejoice because it is on account of the righteousness of Christ, His perfect keeping of God’s Law as our Substitute, that we sinful human beings are counted righteous before God (Romans 5:19). That this righteous King would be righteous for us was proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah, saying: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (23:5–6).
One of the most compelling reasons for the believers to “rejoice greatly” and “shout” for joy at the advent of this King is given when Zechariah says that He comes “having salvation.” He Himself is and is the source of a far greater salvation than mere temporal deliverance from the persecution of earthly enemies. The “King of glory” (Psalm 24:7–10), whose coming is here foretold, is the only-begotten Son of God, who, by His perfect active and passive obedience, purchased and won eternal salvation in heaven for all mankind. This righteous King does not require His subjects to earn or merit the salvation that He offers—for this no sinful human being could ever do; but He offers this salvation freely to all (Titus 2:11). And it is His earnest desire that all men truly repent of their sins (II Peter 3:9b) and confide in that salvation which He has prepared before the face of all people (Luke 2:30-31; cf. Mark 1:15). All true believers are His subjects in the Kingdom of Grace and have the assurance of His eternal salvation as their own heritage and sure hope (Ephesians 2:8-9; I Peter 1:3-9; etc.). This is what prompted Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, to rejoice in the approaching advent of the Messiah, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an Horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David” (Luke 1:68–69).
The next attribute listed in Zechariah 9:9 does not seem to be consistent with the advent of one who is a mighty King. He is described as being “lowly.” According to the Hebrew original, the word here translated as “lowly” not only means “poor, meek, mild,” but also includes being “afflicted” (Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon). The same word (translated as “poor”) is used in Psalm 10:2, 9 to describe those who are unjustly persecuted. The combination of humility and affliction in the word “lowly” is certainly an appropriate description of Christ in His first visible advent—considering the afflictions and persecution He would humbly endure even as a little child, and particularly in His passive obedience (His suffering and death for our redemption). In other passages as well, the Scriptures connect Christ’s humility with His suffering, as, for example, when He said: “The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto [not to be served], but to minister [to do the serving], and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Being the one true God with the Father and the Holy Ghost, Jesus certainly had the right to require all men to serve Him when He came into the world. But, instead, this King, as was prophesied, came in great lowliness. He humbled Himself (placing Himself under the demands and condemnation of the Law as our Substitute) and endured extreme affliction in order to secure salvation for all mankind as the vicarious Redeemer prophesied of old (Isaiah 53; etc.). “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).
In His coming, the King’s lowliness could readily be observed. The circumstances of His first visible advent show that Jesus was not born into earthly wealth nor into a life of comfort and ease. Similarly, the circumstances attending His coming into Jerusalem also exhibited His meekness and humility; for He came riding upon the young colt of an ass. Now an earthly king who is interested in demonstrating his wealth and power would surely choose to enter into a city in a more spectacular manner. But Christ was not interested in putting on an impressive worldly display for His supporters; nor was He seeking to intimidate His enemies. The exact way that He entered Jerusalem in humble meekness was purposefully chosen—having been specifically prophesied approximately 500 years before His birth. By inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Zechariah foretold that the Messiah would come “riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” Now these words of prophecy should not be taken as meaning that the King would ride both the adult ass and the young colt. According to the Hebrew, the phrase “upon a colt, the foal of an ass” gives further information about the ass upon which Christ rode. In Matthew 21:5, where the Holy Ghost Himself quotes Zechariah 9:9 in Greek, the Greek conjunction “kai” is used, which usually means “and,” but can also mean “even.” So it could also be translated as “upon an ass, even a colt the foal of an ass.” Where such options appear for the translator or exegete, the surest way of resolving them is to go to the very clear passages for the authoritative answer. For example, in Mark 11:7, Luke 19:35, and John 12:14–15 it is specifically stated that Jesus rode upon the colt (not upon the adult donkey), even though both had been brought to Jesus according to His instructions (Matthew 21:2, 7). In choosing to ride the young colt, Christ opted for the more humble of the two humble beasts, demonstrating His own lowly, meek, and mild character.
While the lowliness of His advent might seem unbefitting for a king of any kind, it was, in fact, completely appropriate for Christ with respect to His work of redeeming lost and condemned mankind by His humble, substitutionary obedience to both the requirements and punishment of God’s Law (Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:8), and, in connection with His great passion and death, also involved suffering in humble meekness the contempt, hostility, and persecution of His enemies (Psalm 22:7, 12–13, 16a; Matthew 27:39-44). It is important to remember that the lowliness demonstrated by Jesus in His entry into Jerusalem was not a mere outward show or clever artifice —as politicians might try on occasion in an effort to make themselves seem more likeable or approachable. No, His lowliness was genuine. Though God and Lord over all (Romans 9:5), Christ made Himself the servant of all (John 13:4–15; Mark 10:45). According to His human nature, the Son of God withheld from Himself the full and constant use of the divine attributes that were communicated to His human nature. This is what is known as Jesus’ state of humiliation, which He willingly endured to save us from our sins.
Interestingly enough, though Christ entered Jerusalem in such a humble manner, He was received by the people of the city as a true king! His appearance gave no indication that He was a king—no beautiful clothes, no crown, no horse. Though He appeared to be a commoner, a peasant riding a young donkey’s colt, the people still treated Him as a highly respected king. They took off their outer garments (their coats and cloaks) and put them on the ground in front of Him—making a royal carpet for the donkey to walk upon. In this way the people both welcomed their humble King and showed Him great respect. Others took down palm branches from the trees and laid them down on the ground to continue the carpet. The common people did not ridicule or mock Jesus for coming to them in such meekness and lowliness, riding upon an ass’s colt. Rather, they treated Him with great honor, like royalty. And this was certainly an appropriate reception for the gracious King of His Church (His Kingdom of Grace), to whom they cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David!” — literally, “Save now, we pray to the Christ, the Son of David” (cf. Matthew 22:42). Sadly, Jesus’ own disciples did not understand at the time how the prophecy of Zechariah was being fulfilled before them (John 12:16); and given the sudden change of mood among the people of Jerusalem between their songs of praise on Palm Sunday and their cries for Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday (Luke 23:20ff.), one wonders how many of them realized it!
The strange combination of Christ’s humble entry into Jerusalem with the royal reception that He received mirrored the paradoxical, wonderful, and profound personal union of the glorious Son of God (John 1:14b) with a true human nature in a state of self-imposed humiliation. “The Lord of glory” (I Corinthians 2:8) “made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:7–8).
In addition to the fact that Christ’s state of humiliation was essential to His work of redeeming fallen mankind from their sins, He also provided us His humility as our example. As the followers of Christ (I Peter 2:21), we Christians are bidden to follow His pattern of lowliness in our loving service of one another (Mark 10:43–45; John 13:13–15; Philippians 2:3–7). Motivated by His loving, humble service to us for our salvation, we should love one another and serve one another as evidence of our faith in Him as our Redeemer. For our entire life of sanctification as new creatures (II Corinthians 5:17), our walk in the spirit (Galatians 5:25) according to the precepts of God’s Law (John 14:15), is the fruit of our redemption (John 13:34). And, as He, who is God over all things, so humbled Himself in His dealings with His rebellious creatures in order to save them, we should follow His example by putting on true humility in our dealings with one another. Because we are truly grateful for the marvelous salvation that Christ secured for us in His humiliation, we should “put on…as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another…even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And, above all these things, put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness; and let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Colossians 3:12–15).
— P. E. B.