The Triumphal Entry is a well-known story from the Christian celebration of Palm Sunday, but this familiarity often obscures the strong messianic expectations in the Triumphal Entry. As E. P. Sanders said, “the entry was probably deliberately managed by Jesus to symbolize the coming kingdom and his own rôle in it.… [It was] an intentionally symbolic action, performed … for the sake of the disciples … [and] it did not attract large public attention.” (Jesus, 308).
Passing through Bethpage (Matthew omits Bethany) Jesus arranges to ride a donkey from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. Bethpage (“house of figs”) and Bethany (“house of dates”) are small villages along the way into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives. Bethany is about 1.8 miles from Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is on the east side of the Kidron Valley. It is part of a ridge with three peaks, Mount Scopus is the highest at about 3000 feet.
Why does Jesus choose to enter Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives? There are several practical reasons for this approach, but since he evokes Zechariah 9:9, perhaps the location was chosen to allude to Zechariah 14:4, the “one who is coming” will walk on the Mount of Olives. Although the mountain does not “split in two” as Zechariah says, the coming of the messiah from the east is associated with the Mount of Olives.
The triumphal entry is rich with Jewish nationalism and messianic expectation. Jesus arranged to ride to Jerusalem on a donkey, intentionally fulfilling the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.
Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9, a prediction of the Messiah’s coming into Jerusalem on a new colt, Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey which has never been ridden. (How was this all arranged? Did Jesus send a message to his Jerusalem disciples to put the donkey there? Is this divine knowledge?)
A king riding a donkey is a sign the king comes in peace. Some relate this to the story of David coming in peace to Jerusalem after Absalom’s rebellion (although 1 Samuel 19 does not mention David rode a donkey into Jerusalem). It is more likely Jesus intended to evoke the story of the anointing of Solomon in 1 Kings. He is anointed, placed on a donkey, and led up the valley into Jerusalem as the Son of David who will rule over a kingdom if peace and prosperity.
There are other “triumphal entries” in recent Jewish history. Judas Maccabee led a procession to Jerusalem and entered Zion “with joy and gladness” (1 Macc 5:54; Josephus, Ant. 12:348–9). When Simon recaptured the citadel in Jerusalem, “the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel (1 Macc 13:43-53). In 2 Maccabees 4:21-22 Antiochus entered Jerusalem with “the blaze of torches and with shouts.”
The crowds greet Jesus as the coming king (Matt 21:7-9). When his disciples place cloaks on the donkey and the road, they are enacting a coronation (1 Kings 1:38-40). In 2 Kings 9:13, when Jehu is anointed as king, people spread out their cloaks on the ground.
Others spread branches they had cut from the fields (v. 8, στιβάς refers to leafy branches, but also straw or reeds), Matthew explains these included branches cut from trees (κλάδους ἀπὸ τῶν δένδρων). Presumably palm branches were used. When Judas Maccabees entered Jerusalem, he was given a hero’s welcome (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7).
2 Maccabees 10:7 (NRSV) Therefore, 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.
The triumphal entry is therefore designed to evoke imagery from the Old Testament and or the restoration of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt.
As Jesus rides the donkey into the city the people begin to shout “hosanna” and “hosanna in the highest heaven.” Hosanna is “save now” in Psalm 118:25 (הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה, LXX ὦ κύριε, σῶσον). In 2 Sam 14:4 the phrase is used by a woman who has lost her son; she appeals to Absalom (the son of David) for justice (although this is a rouse, it does demonstrate the use of the phrase in the Old Testament).
They also shout, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” is from Psalm 118:25. This verse refers of the restoration of a Davidic king to Jerusalem. As is often observed, Jesus never taught that he was going to restore a Davidic kingdom to Israel, but rather that the Kingdom of God has arrived. Evans points out the Targum on Psalm 118:22-29 identifies David as the speaker, the one who is “worthy to the ruler and king” (Mark 8:27-16:20, 140).
It is important to hear the original Psalm clearly, since the blessing to the one who comes in the name of the Lord comes from the “house of the Lord,” the Temple. The psalm was associated with Temple worship and may have been something the pilgrims were already singing as they went up to the Temple. Jesus therefore intentionally puts himself into this worship as the one who is coming in the name of the Lord.
What would Peter, James and John make of this scene? They were told they would see the Kingdom of God coming with power (Matt 16:28). Peter rebuked Jesus when he predicted his suffering and death (Matt 16:21-23; James and John thought the kingdom was about to be restored in glory (Matt 20:20-28). Perhaps some of the disciples exchanged glances, nodding with approval at this reception of Jesus as the King of the Jews.