Matthew 21:1–11, Psalm 118
1-7 The King Enters Jerusalem
Jesus had visited Jerusalem many times before, but this was to be his last visit prior to his arrest. And when he entered, he entered on the back of a donkey, in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.
It is important to understand that in biblical literature the donkey was actually a sign of kingship. This goes all the way back to Jacob’s dying prophecy over Judah (Gen. 49:10-11). And throughout Scripture we continually see kings riding donkeys. Remember when David publicly announced that his son Solomon was to be the new king of Israel, he demonstrated this by parading Solomon through Jerusalem on the back of the king’s donkey (1 Kings 1:38, for other examples of rulers riding on donkeys see Judges 5:10, 10:4, 12:14). So it make sense that Zechariah would prophesy that the new king of Israel would arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey, a king who would exercise universal dominion (Zech. 9:9-10).
This next bit gets particularly hard to understand. The people lay branches in the road before Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, and they cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” This seems like a bizarre way to behave. But to understand what is happening here, you need to understand Psalm 118 and that is not easy.
Psalm 118 is like a confused dream if you just read it by itself. But when you hold it up to the rest of Scripture, especially to the life of Christ, and especially to his triumphal entry, then instead of being this confused dream, it turns into an answer key that helps to make everything else make sense.
Feast of Booths
Remember that in Old Testament Israel there were three pilgrim feasts – Passover, Pentecost, and Booths. At all three of these celebrations, the Jews would sing the Hallel – Psalms 113-118. And as part of the Feast of Booths, the Jews would bring their lullavim, made from the branches of the fruitful trees of Israel, and cast their lullavim onto the altar, while reciting Psalm 118:25. The cry “save now” in Hebrew is Hosanna!
So the people were taking the pieces of their celebration of the Feast of Booths and were applying this ceremony to Jesus. What they had celebrated as a type and a shadow they were now able to actually celebrate in its reality.
In verses 22-24, the Psalmist describes a rejected cornerstone, describing the very humble beginning of a building project. This is likely why bits of this Psalm are picked up to celebrate the laying of the foundation of the second temple (Ezra 3:11-13). But in a very early Jewish tradition this passage is understood as referring to David’s selection as king over all his brothers. And so you see all of these elements picked up in Jesus’ triumphal entry.
Over the next several chapters the Jewish leaders (Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, the chief priests, and the scribes) all make clear their final rejection of Jesus’ teaching. He makes this the point of his parable of the wicked vinedressers (21:42-45, quoting Ps. 118:22-23). And again, after completing denunciation of the Jewish leadership in Matthew 23, he concludes with 23:38-39 (quoting Psalm 118:26).
One of the greatest vices of the evangelical church over the past century has been our bad habit of attempting to read our Bibles in light of our current events, instead of the other way around, which is to read our current events in light of our Bible. In Scripture you have a firm and certain word. In the world around you, as we have right now, you have a raucous multitude driven by whatever emotion has worked its way to the top of their esophagus. If you go from that raging emotion to Scripture you will have no end of confusion. But if you start with the clear testimony of Scripture you will find that you suddenly have your feet on an immovable rock.
So let’s start with Scripture and the promises of Psalm 118. These things have been promised to us and for us to be obedient means reading our current situation in light of this text.