Each of the Gospels describes Jesus entering Jerusalem as a “triumphal entry.” This is an event which Christians typically celebrate a week before Easter as “Palm Sunday,” at least in my youth by letting little kids wave fake palm branches and retelling the story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. As is usual, the pop-Christian even misses the significance of the palm branches and the other imagery in the story. There are several important symbols of Jewish nationalism in the Triumphal Entry. (See this post on the Triumphal Entry in John 12)
First, palm branches were a part of Jewish nationalism since the time of the Maccabees. When Judas Maccabees brother Simon defeated the Syrians in 141 B. C.., the people celebrated with great music and the waving of palm branches (1 Macc. 13:51). Palms also appear on the coins dating to the first Jewish revolt against Rome in A.D. 66-70. Images of palm branches will be used later in the coinage of the Bar Kohkba revolt in A.D. 132.
Second, the cry of “Hosanna” is drawn from Psalm 118:25-25. The word means “save us, O Lord!” The psalm was one of the pilgrim Psalms, sung by those who were going up to the Temple during a feast. Psalm 118:26 was often taken as a reference to the Messiah, when the true the King of the Jews he will save his people.
The rest of Psalm 118 is important as well. Verses 10-13 describe the writer as in the middle of his enemies, nations which surround him on every side. Verse 17-18 says that the Psalmist has been disciplined severely, but has not been handed over to death. “I shall not die,” he says, “but I shall live.” Verse 19 describes the gate of righteousness through which the pilgrims must enter, Jesus has already described himself as the gate through which the sheep must pass. Verse 22 the psalm refers to the stone the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone, a verse Jesus applies to himself in the parable of the Vineyard.
Third, that Jesus rides a donkey is an allusion to Zechariah 9:9, another text associated with the coming messiah. John does not give the details since they are likely well-known by the time he writes his book. He does emphasize the fact that Jesus deliberately chose to ride a donkey, intentionally evoking the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9.
The point of this sign is often missed since it is thought riding a donkey is a sign of humility and peace. It is true that David came to Jerusalem after his son’s revolt “in peace,” riding a donkey instead of a war horse. A better explanation of the donkey is to see that after Solomon was anointed king, he was placed on a donkey and led up to the city of Jerusalem, through the Kidron valley. The anointed son of David, the king named “Peace,” enters the city of Jerusalem to begin the most peaceful and prosperous period in Israel’s history.
Zechariah 9:9 is alluding to that story in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is the true Son of David who will bring ultimate peace and prosperity, but only after he destroys the enemy of his people. Rather than the Romans, Jesus will enter Jerusalem and offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin.
What other events of the final days of Jesus ministry hint at his messianic role?