The First Day in Passover Passion-Week – Palm-Sunday – The Royal Entry Into Jerusalem
At length the time of the end had come. Jesus was about to make Entry into Jerusalem as King: King of the Jews, as Heir of David’s royal line, with all of symbolic, typic, and prophetic import attaching to it. Yet not as Israel after the flesh expected its Messiah was the Son of David to make triumphal entrance, but as deeply and significantly expressive of His Mission and Work, and as of old the rapt seer had beheld afar off the outlined picture of the Messiah-King: not in the proud triumph of war-conquests, but in the ‘meek’ rule of peace.
It is surely one of the strangest mistakes of modern criticism to regard this Entry of Christ into Jerusalem as implying that, fired by enthusiasm, He had for the moment expected that the people would receive Him as the Messiah. And it seems little, if at all better, when this Entry is described as ‘an apparent concession to the fevered expectations of His disciples and the multitude . . . the grave, sad accommodation to thoughts other than His own to which the Teacher of new truths must often have recourse when He finds Himself misinterpreted by those who stand together on a lower level.’ ‘Apologies’ are the weakness of ‘Apologetics’ – and any ‘accommodation’ theory can have no place in the history of the Christ. On the contrary, we regard His Royal Entry into the Jerusalem of Prophecy and of the Crucifixion as an integral part of the history of Christ, which would not be complete, nor thoroughly consistent, without it. It behoved Him so to enter Jerusalem, because He was a King; and as King to enter it in such manner, because He was such a King – and both the one and the other were in accordance with the prophecy of old.
It was a bright day in early spring of the year 29, when the festive procession set out from the home at Bethany. There can be no reasonable doubt as to the locality of that hamlet (the modern El-‘Azariye, ‘of Lazarus’), perched on a broken rocky plateau on the other side of Olivet. More difficulty attaches to the identification of Bethphage, which is associated with it, the place not being mentioned in the Old Testament, though repeatedly in Jewish writings. But, even so, there is a curious contradiction, since Bethphage is sometimes spoken of as distinct from Jerusalem, while at others it is described as, for ecclesiastical purposes, part of the City itself. Perhaps the name Bethphage – ‘house of figs’ – was given alike to that district generally, and to a little village close to Jerusalem where the district began. And this may explain the peculiar reference, in the Synoptic Gospels, to Bethphage (St. Matthew), and again to ‘Bethphage and Bethany.’ For, St. Matthew and St. Mark relate Christ’s brief stay at Bethany and His anointing by Mary not in chronological order, but introduce it at a later period, as it were, in contrast to the betrayal of Judas. Accordingly, they pass from the Miracles at Jericho immediately to the Royal Entry into Jerusalem – from Jericho to ‘Bethphage,’ or, more exactly, to ‘Bethphage and Bethany,’ leaving for the present unnoticed what had occurred in the latter hamlet.
Although all the four Evangelists relate Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, they seem to do so from different standpoints. The Synoptists accompany Him from Bethany, while St. John, in accordance with the general scheme of his narrative, seems to follow from Jerusalem that multitude which, on tidings of His approach, hastened to meet Him. Even this circumstance, as also the paucity of events recorded on that day, proves that it could not have been at early morning that Jesus left Bethany. Remembering, that it was the last morning of rest before the great contest, we may reverently think of much that may have passed in the Soul of Jesus and in the home of Bethany. And now He has left that peaceful resting-place. It was probably soon after His outset, that He sent the ‘two disciples’ – possibly Peter and John – into ‘the village over against’ them – presumably Bethphage. There they would find by the side of the road an ass’s colt tied, whereon never man had sat. We mark the significant symbolism of the latter, in connection with the general conditions of consecration to Jehovah – and note in it, as also in the Mission of the Apostles, that this was intended by Christ to be His Royal and Messianic Entry. This colt they were to loose and to bring to Him.
The disciples found all as He had said. When they reached Bethphage, they saw, by a doorway where two roads met, the colt tied by its mother. As they loosed it, ‘the owners’ and ‘certain of them that stood by’ asked their purpose, to which, as directed by the Master, they answered: ‘The Lord [the Master, Christ] hath need of him,’ when, as predicted, no further hindrance was offered. In explanation of this we need not resort to the theory of a miraculous influence, nor even suppose that the owners of the colt were themselves ‘disciples.’ Their challenge to ‘the two,’ and the little more than permission which they gave, seem to forbid this idea. Nor is such explanation requisite. From the pilgrim-band which had accompanied Jesus from Galilee and Peræa, and preceded Him to Jerusalem, from the guests at the Sabbath-feast in Bethany, and from the people who had gone out to see both Jesus and Lazarus, the tidings of the proximity of Jesus and of His approaching arrival must have spread in the City. Perhaps that very morning some had come from Bethany, and told it in the Temple, among the festive bands – specially among his own Galileans, and generally in Jerusalem, that on that very day – in a few hours – Jesus might be expected to enter the City. Such, indeed, must have been the case, since, from St. John’s account, ‘a great multitude’ ‘went forth to meet Him.’ The latter, we can have little doubt, must have mostly consisted, not of citizens of Jerusalem, whose enmity to Christ was settled, but of those ‘that had come to the Feast.’ With these went also a number of ‘Pharisees,’ their hearts filled with bitterest thoughts of jealousy and hatred. And, as we shall presently see, it is of great importance to keep in mind this composition of ‘the multitude.’ If such were the circumstances, all is natural. We can understand, how eager questioners would gather about the owners of the colt (St. Mark), there at the crossroads at Bethphage, just outside Jerusalem; and how, so soon as from the bearing and the peculiar words of the disciples they understood their purpose, the owners of the ass and colt would grant its use for the solemn Entry into the City of the ‘Teacher of Nazareth,’ Whom the multitude was so eagerly expecting; and, lastly, how, as from the gates of Jerusalem tidings spread of what had passed in Bethphage, the multitude would stream forth to meet Jesus.
Meantime Christ and those who followed Him from Bethany had slowly entered on the well-known caravan-road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It is the most southern of three, which converge close to the City, perhaps at the very place where the colt had stood tied. ‘The road soon loses sight of Bethany. It is now a rough, but still broad and well-defined mountain-track, winding over rock and loose stones; a steep declivity on the left; the sloping shoulder of Olivet above on the right; figtrees below and above, here and there growing out of the rocky soil.’ Somewhere here the disciples who brought ‘the colt’ must have met Him. They were accompanied by many, and immediately followed by more. For, as already stated, Bethphage – we presume the village – formed almost part of Jerusalem, and during Easter-week must have been crowded by pilgrims, who could not find accommodation within the City walls. And the announcement, that disciples of Jesus had just fetched the beast of burden on which Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem, must have quickly spread among the crowds which thronged the Temple and the City.
As the two disciples, accompanied, or immediately followed by the multitude, brought ‘the colt’ to Christ, ‘two streams of people met’ – the one coming from the City, the other from Bethany. The impression left on our minds is, that what followed was unexpected by those who accompanied Christ, that it took them by surprise. The disciples, who understood not, till the light of the Resurrection-glory had been poured on their minds, the significance of ‘these things,’ even after they had occurred, seem not even to have guessed, that it was of set purpose Jesus was about to make His Royal Entry into Jerusalem. Their enthusiasm seems only to have been kindled when they saw the procession from the town come to meet Jesus with palm-branches, cut down by the way, and greeting Him with Hosanna-shouts of welcome. Then they spread their garments on the colt, and set Jesus thereon – ‘unwrapped their loose cloaks from their shoulders and stretched them along the rough path, to form a momentary carpet as He approached.’ Then also in their turn they cut down branches from the trees and gardens through which they passed, or plaited and twisted palm-branches, and strewed them as a rude matting in His way, while they joined in, and soon raised to a much higher pitch the Hosanna of welcoming praise. Nor need we wonder at their ignorance at first of the meaning of that, in which themselves were chief actors. We are too apt to judge them from our standpoint, eighteen centuries later, and after full apprehension of the significance of the event. These men walked in the procession almost as in a dream, or as dazzled by a brilliant light all around – as if impelled by a necessity, and carried from event to event, which came upon them in a succession of but partially understood surprises.
They had now ranged themselves: the multitude which had come from the City preceding, that which had come with Him from Bethany following the triumphant progress of Israel’s King, ‘meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.’ ‘Gradually the long procession swept up and over the ridge where first begins “the descent of the Mount of Olives” towards Jerusalem. At this point the first view is caught of the southeastern corner of the City. The Temple and the more northern portions are hid by the slope of Olivet on the right; what is seen is only Mount Zion, now for the most part a rough field.’ But at that time it rose, terrace upon terrace, from the Palace of the Maccabees and that of the High-Priest, a very city of palaces, till the eye rested in the summit on that castle, city, and palace, with its frowning towers and magnificent gardens, the royal abode of Herod, supposed to occupy the very site of the Palace of David. They had been greeting Him with Hosannas! But enthusiasm, especially in such a cause, is infectious. They were mostly stranger-pilgrims that had come from the City, chiefly because they had heard of the raising of Lazarus. And now they must have questioned them which came from Bethany, who in turn related that of which themselves had been eyewitnesses. We can imagine it all – how the fire would leap from heart to heart. So He was the promised Son of David – and the Kingdom was at hand! It may have been just as the precise point of the road was reached, where ‘the City of David’ first suddenly emerges into view, ‘at the descent of the Mount of Olives,’ ‘that the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen.’ As the burning words of joy and praise, the record of what they had seen, passed from mouth to mouth, and they caught their first sight of ‘the City of David,’ adorned as a bride to welcome her King, Davidic praise to David’s Greater Son wakened the echoes of old Davidic Psalms in the morning-light of their fulfilment. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. . . . Blessed the Kingdom that cometh, the Kingdom of our father David. . . . Blessed be He that cometh in the Name of the Lord. . . . Hosanna . . . Hosanna in the highest . . .Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.’ They were but broken utterances, partly based upon Ps. cxviii., partly taken from it – the ‘Hosanna,’ or ‘Save now,’ and the ‘Blessed be He that cometh in the Name of the Lord,’ forming part of the responses by the people with which this Psalm was chanted on certain of the most solemn festivals. Most truly did they thus interpret and apply the Psalm, old and new Davidic praise mingling in their acclamations. At the same time it must be remembered that, according to Jewish tradition, Ps. 118:25-28, was also chanted antiphonally by the people of Jerusalem, as they went to welcome the festive pilgrims on their arrival, the latter always responding in the second clause of each verse, till the last verse of the Psalm 118:25-28 was reached, which was sung by both parties in unison, Psalm 103:17 being added by way of conclusion. But as ‘the shout rang through the long defile,’ carrying evidence far and wide, that, so far from condemning and forsaking, more than the ordinary pilgrim-welcome had been given to Jesus – the Pharisees, who had mingled with the crowd, turned to one another with angry frowns: ‘Behold [see intently], how ye prevail nothing! See – the world is gone after Him!’ It is always so, that, in the disappointment of malice, men turn in impotent rage against each other with taunts and reproaches. Then, psychologically true in this also, they made a desperate appeal to the Master Himself, Whom they so bitterly hated, to check and rebuke the honest zeal of His disciples. He had been silent hitherto – alone unmoved, or only deeply moved inwardly – amidst this enthusiastic crowd. He could be silent no longer – but, with a touch of quick and righteous indignation, pointed to the rocks and stones, telling those leaders of Israel, that, if the people held their peace, the very stones would cry out. It would have been so in that day of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. And it has been so ever since. Silence has fallen these many centuries upon Israel; but the very stones of Jerusalem’s ruin and desolateness have cried out that He, Whom in their silence they rejected, has come as King in the Name of the Lord.
‘Again the procession advanced. The road descends a slight declivity, and the glimpse of the City is again withdrawn behind the intervening ridge of Olivet. A few moments and the path mounts again, it climbs a rugged ascent, it reaches a ledge of smooth rock, and in an instance the whole City bursts into view. As now the dome of the Mosque El-Aksa rises like a Ghost from the earth before the traveller stands on the ledge, so then must have risen the Temple-tower; as now the vast enclosure of the Mussulman sanctuary, so then must have spread the Temple courts; as now the grey town on its broken hills, so then the magnificent City, with its background – long since vanished away – of gardens and suburbs on the western plateau behind. Immediately before was the Valley of the Kedron, here seen in its greatest depth as it joins the Valley of Hinnom, and thus giving full effect to the great peculiarity of Jerusalem, seen only on its eastern side – its situation as of a City rising out of a deep abyss. It is hardly possible to doubt that this rise and turn of the road – this rocky ledge – was the exact point where the multitude paused again, and “He, when He beheld the City, wept over it.”’ Not with still weeping (ͺδͺκρυσεν), as at the grave of Lazarus, but with loud and deep lamentation (ͺκλαυσεν). The contrast was, indeed, terrible between the Jerusalem that rose before Him in all its beauty, glory, and security, and the Jerusalem which He saw in vision dimly rising on the sky, with the camp of the enemy around about it on every side, hugging it closer and closer in deadly embrace, and the very ‘stockade’ which the Roman Legions raised around it; then, another scene in the shifting panorama, and the city laid with the ground, and the gory bodies of her children among her ruins; and yet another scene: the silence and desolateness of death by the Hand of God – not one stone left upon another! We know only too well how literally this vision has become reality; and yet, though uttered as prophecy by Christ, and its reason so clearly stated, Israel to this day knows not the things which belong unto its peace, and the upturned scattered stones of its dispersion are crying out in testimony against it. But to this day, also do the tears of Christ plead with the Church on Israel’s behalf, and His words bear within them precious seed of promise.
We turn once more to the scene just described. For, it was no common pageantry; and Christ’s public Entry into Jerusalem seems so altogether different from – we had almost said, inconsistent with – His previous mode of appearance. Evidently, the time for the silence so long enjoined had passed, and that for public declaration had come. And such, indeed, this Entry was. From the moment of His sending forth the two disciples to His acceptance of the homage of the multitude, and His rebuke of the Pharisee’s attempt to arrest it, all must be regarded as designed or approved by Him: not only a public assertion of His Messiahship, but a claim to its national acknowledgment. And yet, even so, it was not to be the Messiah of Israel’s conception, but He of prophetic picture: ‘just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass.’ It is foreign to our present purpose to discuss any general questions about this prophecy, or even to vindicate its application to the Messiah. But, when we brush aside all the trafficking and bargaining over words, that constitutes so much of modern criticism, which in its care over the lesson so often loses the spirit, there can, at least, be no question that this prophecy was intended to introduce, in contrast to earthly warfare and kingly triumph, another Kingdom, of which the just King would be the Prince of Peace, Who was meek and lowly in His Advent, Who would speak peace to the heathen, and Whose sway would yet extend to earth’s utmost bounds. Thus much may be said, that if there ever was true picture of the Messiah-King and His Kingdom, it is this, and that, if ever Israel was to have a Messiah or the world a Saviour, He must be such as described in this Prophecy – not merely in the letter, but in the spirit of it. And as so often indicated, it was not the letter but the spirit of prophecy – and of all prophecy – which the ancient Synagogue, and that rightly, saw fulfilled in the Messiah and His Kingdom. Accordingly, with singular unanimity the Talmud and the ancient Rabbinic authorities have applied this prophecy to the Christ.
Nor was it quoted by St. Matthew and St. John in the stiffness and deadness of the letter. On the contrary (as so often in Jewish writings, two prophets – Isa. 62:11, and Zech. 9:9 – are made to shed their blended light upon this Entry of Christ, as exhibiting the reality, of which the prophetic vision had been the reflex. Nor yet are the words of the Prophets given literally – as modern criticism would have them weighed out in the critical balances – either from the Hebrew text, or form the LXX. rendering; but their real meaning is given, and they are ‘Targumed’ by the sacred writers. according to their wont. Yet who that sets the prophetic picture by the side of the reality – the description by the side of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem – can fail to recognise in the one the real fulfilment of the other?
Another point seems to require comment. We have seen reasons to regard the bearing of the disciples as one of surprise, and that, all through these last scenes, they seem to have been hurried from event to event. But the enthusiasm of the people – their royal welcome of Christ – how is it to be explained, and how reconciled with the speedy and terrible reaction of His Betrayal and Crucifixion? Yet it is not so difficult to understand it; and, if we only keep clear of unconscious exaggeration, we shall gain in truth and reasonableness what we lose in dramatic effect. It has already been suggested, that the multitude which went to meet Jesus must have consisted chiefly of pilgrim-strangers. The overwhelming majority of the citizens of Jerusalem were bitterly and determinately hostile to Christ. But we know that, even so, the Pharisees dreaded to take the final steps against Christ during the presence of these pilgrims at the Feast, apprehending a movement in His favour. It proved, indeed, otherwise; for these country-people were but ill-informed; they dared not resist the combined authority of their own Sanhedrin and of the Romans. Besides, the prejudices of the populace, and especially of an Eastern populace, are easily raised, and they readily sway from one extreme to the opposite. Lastly, the very suddenness and completeness of the blow, which the Jewish authorities delivered, would have stunned even those who had deeper knowledge, more cohesion, and greater independence than most of them who, on that Palm-Sunday, had gone forth from the City.
Again, as regards their welcome of Christ, deeply significant as it was, we must not attach to it deeper meaning than it possessed. Modern writers have mostly seen in it the demonstrations of the Feast of Tabernacles, as if the homage of its services had been offered to Christ. It would, indeed, have been symbolic of much about Israel if they had thus confounded the Second with the First Advent of Christ, the Sacrifice of the Passover with the joy of the Feast of Ingathering. But, in reality, their conduct bears not that interpretation. It is true that these responses from Ps. cxviii., which formed part of what was known as the (Egyptian) Hallel, were chanted by the people on the Feast of Tabernacles also, but the Hallel was equally sung with responses during the offering of the Passover, at the Paschal Supper, and on the Feasts of Pentecost and of the Dedication of the Temple. The waving of the palm-branches was the welcome of visitors or kings, and not distinctive of the Feast of Tabernacles. At the latter, the worshippers carried, not simple palm-branches, but the Lulabh, which consisted of palm, myrtle, and willow branches interwinted. Lastly, the words of welcome from Ps. cxviii. were (as already stated) those with which on solemn occasions the people also greeted the arrival of festive pilgrims, although, as being offered to Christ alone, and as accompanied by such demonstrations, they may have implied that they hailed Him as the promised King, and have converted His Entry into a triumph in which the people did homage. And, if proof were required of the more sober, and, may we not add, rational view here advocated, it would be found in this, that not till after His Resurrection did even His own disciples understand the significance of the whole scene which they had witnessed, and in which they had borne such a part.
The anger and jealousy of the Pharisees understood it better, and watched for the opportunity of revenge. But, for the present, on that bright spring-day, the weak, excitable, fickle populace streamed before Him through the City-gates, through the narrow streets, up the Temple-mount. Everywhere the tramp of their feet, and the shout of their acclamations brought men, women, and children into the streets and on the housetops. The City was moved, and from mouth to mouth the question passed among the eager crowd of curious onlookers: ‘Who is He?’ And the multitude answered – not, this is Israel’s Messiah-King, but: ‘This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.’ And so up into the Temple!
He alone was silent and sad among this excited multitude, the marks of the tears He had wept over Jerusalem still on His cheek. It is not so, that an earthly King enters His City in triumph; not so, that the Messiah of Israel’s expectation would have gone into His Temple. He spake not, but only looked round about upon all things, as if to view the field on which He was to suffer and die. And now the shadows of evening were creeping up; and, weary and sad, He once more returned with the twelve disciples to the shelter and rest of Bethany.
Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, The, WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 1028-1038.