Commentary on Matthew 21:1-11

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



A. Bethphage.

Jesus and his companions "approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives" (v. 1). The company approaches Jerusalem from the east; between the Mount of Olives and the city lay the Kidron Valley. Bethphage was a village near Bethany (both parallels, Mk 11:1 and Lk 19:29, mention both places), on the eastern side of the mountain, about two miles from Jerusalem. "The village ahead of you" (v. 2) is probably Bethphage, not Bethany; for Bethphage alone is mentioned in v. 1, and it lay nearer to Jerusalem than did Bethany (cf. Lane, Mark, 394).

B. Jesus the Lord.

1. Jesus' insight, v. 2. Whether "the village ahead of you" is Bethany or Bethphage, Jesus' instructions may rest on prior arrangements. On the other hand, the words of v. 2 may reflect extraordinary - which in Jesus' case means divine - insight, and Jesus' mastery of the entire situation. Cf. Filson, Matthew, 220.

2. Jesus' commands, vv. 2-3. The instructions are issued with full authority:

"Go [present imperative poreuesthe]..., and at once you will find [future indicative heurssete, perhaps used volitionally].... Untie [aorist participle lusantes, perhaps used imperativally] them and bring [aorist imperative agagete] them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell [future indicative ereite, used volitionally] him that ..." (NIV).

3. Jesus' ownership, v. 3. NIV renders the middle of v. 3, "the Lord needs them" (for ho kyrios aut姊 chreian echei). This is a defensible rendering. However, it is preferable to translate, "Their Lord has need [of them]"; for the reasons, see Gundry, 407-8. As Jesus is Lord of all, he is the supreme and ultimate owner of the mother donkey and her colt. At the same time, Jesus respects the one who, under his Lordship, is entrusted with the animals' care; cf. Mk 11:3b, "The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly."

4. The human response. Jesus' commands are immediately, unquestioningly and completely obeyed, both by the animals' owner (v. 3b) and by the disciples (vv. 6-7).


A. The Introduction. 21:4.

"This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet."

1. The placement of the quotation. While vital for understanding the Entry itself, the quotation is placed before the event. The opening "this" of v. 4 directs attention back to Jesus' instructions and shows their relevance for bringing the prophecy to fulfillment.

2. The source of the prophecy. The Word is spoken through (dia) the prophet, so (it is implied) by (hypo) Yahweh. See 1:22.

B. The First OT Passage: Isaiah 62:11.

The larger part of 21:5 is devoted to Zech 9:9. Yet Matthew replaces the opening words of this verse ("Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!") with Isa 62:11b, "Say to the Daughter of Zion." The proclamation of Isa 62 is universal in scope (Yahweh "has made proclamation to the ends of the earth," v. 11a) and saving in character ("See, your Savior comes!" v. 11c). Gundry suggests that Matthew's replacing Zech 9:9a ("Rejoice") with Isa 62:11 ("Say"), makes the following quote from Zech "an evangelistic challenge to unconverted Israel" (p. 408).

C. The Second OT Passage: Zechariah 9:9.

1. The prophecy in its original setting.

a. The preceding context. Following the visions of 1:7-6:15 and the oracles on fasting in 7:1-8:23, 9:1 introduces the third major division of Zech, the "prophetic apocalyptic" of chs. 9-14. 9:1-8 speaks of Yahweh's future judgment upon, and victory over, a host of Gentile nations (such as the Philistines) that formerly oppressed and disinherited Israel.

b. Verse 9. Responding to the glad tidings of 9:1-8, v. 9 exclaims:

"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."

Yahweh's coming victory is cause for great joy! "Your king" is the expected Messianic king of David's line (thus Joyce Baldwin, TOTC, 163), the One by whom Yahweh conquers the nations.

c. The following context, 9:10. V. 10a reads, "I [Yahweh] will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken." Yahweh envisages a reunited Israel, whose shalom will forever end the warfare between Northern Kingdom (Ephraim) and Southern (whose capital was Jerusalem). But the peace of Yahweh's reign is broader still. "He [the Messiah whom Yahweh appoints] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River [i.e., the Euphrates] to the ends of the earth" (v. 10). The very nations to whom Yahweh announced judgment (vv. 1-8), now hear his proclamation of peace! Cf. the sequence in Gen 6-12. This peace is assured "by the righteous king ruling over a world-wide empire" (Baldwin, 166).

2. The prophecy in Mt 21:5: "See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

a. The omission. Why does Matthew exclude the words "righteous and having salvation"? (1) Matthew obviously believes these words are suitably applied to Jesus; fundamental to his Christology is that Jesus is the righteous Savior. (2) But given the present rejection of Messiah, especially by the religious leadership in Jerusalem, these words are deliberately omitted (or at most, left to be inferred). Messiah has already (in his prior ministry) offered salvation; Israel will not receive salvation until she is ready to take the offer seriously. Cf. Gundry, 408-9.

b. The animals. The latter part of Zech 9:9 reads, "gentle and riding on a donkey [Hebrew hamor], on a colt ['ayir], the foal [bsn] of a donkey ['atonot, plural of 'aton]." How are these words, quoted in Mt 21:5, to be related to Mt 21:2, "a donkey...with her colt by her"?

(i) Zech presents a case of synonymous parallelism; the first donkey is the colt. This is clear from the Hebrew: the donkey on which the king rides is a hamor, or "male donkey," identified further as an 'ayir, which also means a "male donkey," and yet further as bsn, "son." The second donkey is an 'aton, "female donkey," the mother of the donkey on which the king rides.

(ii) Matthew is sometimes accused of reading Zech 9:9 as though the first donkey (hamor) and the colt ('ayir) were two different animals. To my mind, this accusation is misguided, not to say incredible. Unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary, we may assume that Matthew - supremely Matthew - will be responsive to the literary features of Hebrew poetry. (Here, as a matter of fact, his quotation depends on the Hebrew where the MT differs from the LXX.) To be sure, there is a notable linguistic parallel between 21:5 and 21:2. V. 5b reads, "gentle and riding on a donkey [Greek onon, accusative of onos], on a colt [p始on, accusative of p始os], the foal [huion, "son"] of a donkey [hypozygiou, "beast of burden"; the only other NT instance is 2 Pet 2:16, where it again denotes a donkey - Balaam's]." V. 2b reads, "you will find a donkey [onon] tied there, with her colt [p始on] by her." Yet in Greek the masculine forms onos and p始os served for both male and female animals. Matthew's intention in 21:5 is not to distinguish the onos from the p始os (he readily recognizes the parallelism and knows that these are one and the same animal), but to distinguish the onos from the hypozygion (the Hebrew's distinction between the hamor and the 'aton is reflected in Matthew's change of nouns).

(iii) Matthew speaks of both the mother donkey and the colt, because Jesus' instructions embraced both animals. Here, as with the use of Isa 7:14 in ch. 1, Matthew's purpose is not to make the events of Jesus' life conform to OT prophecy, but rather to examine the OT in light of the actual events of Jesus' life. That Jesus would instruct the disciples to bring both the colt and its mother, is quite understandable in view of the fact (reported by the other Synoptists) that this is a colt "which no one has ever ridden" (Mk 11:2, par. Lk 19:30); see Carson, 438. But it is Jesus' intention to ride upon the colt alone; and it is in accord with this intention that Matthew quotes Zech 9:9.

(iv) We read in 21:7, "They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them." This verse is sometimes taken (in agreement with the view that Matthew thinks the first donkey and the colt of Zech are different animals) to mean that Jesus - somehow - sat on both animals. A much simpler, and far more realistic view, is that Jesus sat on the garments that had been placed on the animals. (The genitive aut姊 applies as easily to saddle garments as to animals.) So also Gundry, 410.

c. The fact of Jesus' kingship. The prophecy's reference to Israel's ("your") king, accords with Mt's portrait of Jesus as "the Messiah, the Son of David" (1:1), the "king of the Jews" (2:2). Messiah's riding on a donkey colt is not a rejection of kingship. As a donkey was a fitting mount for royalty in OT times (Baldwin, 165-66), so it is appropriate for Jesus the King.

d. The character of Jesus' reign. If Jesus was not rejecting kingship as such, he was just as surely repudiating a certain concept of kingship. For a king leading a march into war, a horse would be the right mount. But for a king embarking on a mission of peace, a lowly beast of burden was the eminently correct choice; cf. Baldwin, 166.

e. The extent of Jesus' reign. Zech 9:9 was directed to Israel, represented (in Hebrew idiom) as "the Daughter of Zion" and "the Daughter of Jerusalem." Correspondingly, Jesus' offer of peace is directed first to Israel (cf. above comments on Zech 9:10a). Jesus the Messiah offers Israel her only hope of shalom (Mt 10:13), of rest (11:28-30), and of security (23:37). But here, as in Zech 9:10b, Yahweh's proclamation of peace extends beyond the borders of Israel to embrace the Gentile nations. The quotation of Mt 21:5 does not extend through Zech 9:10. Yet such is the thrust of Mt from the opening chapter, that we are meant (I am convinced) to read Zech 9:9 as a pointer to the following verse. Jesus the Messiah of Israel has assuredly come to "proclaim peace to the nations" (Zech 9:10; LXX, ethn姊, as in Mt 28:19). Following the account of the Entry in Jn 12, the Pharisees exclaim, "Look how the whole world [kosmos] has gone after him" (12:19b). Then "certain Greeks" seek an audience with Jesus (v. 20); soon afterwards he declares, "I will draw all men to myself" (12:32).


A. The Crowd's Visible Homage. 21:8.

1. The cloaks. Both the garments on which Jesus sits and those which the crowd spread on the road (the word himatia is used in both vv. 7 and 8), signal his royalty.

2. The branches. Jn 12:13 identifies them as palm branches. Some argue that these are signs of Jewish nationalism (see R. E. Brown, John, 1: 461), here expressive of the hope that Jesus will fulfill their expectations. We are (I believe) on firmer ground if we associate the branches with the following quotation from Ps 118:26. 118:27 reads, "With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar" (but see NIV mg., where "ropes" replaces "boughs"). On the pilgrims' use of Ps 118, see further below.

B. The Crowd's Verbal Homage. 21:9.

1. The use of Ps 118. The crowd voices its jubilation in words drawn from Ps 118:25-26. This in turn makes it probable (as just suggested) that the crowd's use of branches is traceable to 118:27. That a Jewish crowd should shout the words of this Psalm on this occasion (a fact recorded in all four Gospels), is not in the least surprising. For 118 is the concluding Psalm of the "Egyptian Hallel" (Pss 113-118), a series sung at Passover season in celebration of Yahweh's victory at the Exodus and in anticipation of other victories yet to come. Note further:

a. The Hebrew hallel means "praise." Cf. the exclamation hallelu Yah, "Praise Yah[weh]!" (hallelu is a Piel imperative of the verb hll).

b. Concerning the "Egyptian Hallel" Derek Kidner writes: "Only the second of them (114) speaks directly of the Exodus, but the theme of raising the downtrodden (113) and the note of corporate praise (115), personal thanksgiving (116), world vision (117) and festal procession (118) make it an appropriate series to mark the salvation which began in Egypt and will spread to the nations" (Psalms, 401).

c. It was customary for Pss 113 and 114 to be sung before the Passover meal, and 115-118 afterwards. Cf. Mt 26:30a.

2. The original meaning of Ps 118:25-27. The Psalm speaks of a festal procession to the Temple as part of the Passover celebration. During the procession the pilgrims praise Yahweh for his great saving acts on their behalf, vv. 1-18. The worship is climaxed with the throng's arrival at the temple, vv. 19-29. Having entered the temple gates (vv. 19-20), the pilgrims continue to thank Yahweh for restoring and exalting his downtrodden people (vv. 21-24, 28-29), and implore him to rescue them from present perils (v. 25, "O LORD, save us [hoshiana, transliterated into the Greek h孟anna]...").

In turn, the temple priests (i) give their blessing to the Davidic king who leads the procession ("Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD...," v. 26a) and to all who accompany him ("From the house of the LORD we bless you," v. 26b, where "you" is plural); and (ii) summon the throng to their appointed goal ("With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar," v. 27b).

3. The present meaning of Psalm 118:25-27.

a. Signs of continuity. Here too the procession ends at the temple (21:12); also, the crowd identifies Jesus as Yahweh's representative ("Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" v. 9b) and as the heir of David's crown ("Hosanna to the Son of David!" v. 9a). V. 9c, "Hosanna in the highest!," speaks of heavenly jubilation answering to human jubilation on earth (cf. Ps 148:1; Gundry, 411).

b. Signs of deeper understanding. Matthew employs the shouts of the crowd in the service of his theology, and gives their words a far deeper meaning than the crowd intended. Ps 118 itself now comes to a deeper level of realization than was possible within its original context (cf. comments on plsro? "fulfill," in 1:22). Reading the present passage in light of Mt as a whole, we may draw the following conclusions:

(i) The crowd rightly declares Jesus to be "the Son of David" (v. 9a; cf. 1:1); they rightly identify him as the One "who comes in the name of the Lord" (v. 9b; cf. 11:3). Yet we may be sure that the crowd's concept of Davidic Messiahship is vastly different from that of Jesus. He has come as the Servant Messiah (3:17; 20:28), not as the Warrior Messiah - or at least he has not come to wage his war in the manner envisaged by the crowd ("He will be victor and victim in all his wars, and will make his triumph in defeat," wrote Dorothy L. Sayers). The deficiency of the crowd's awareness is confirmed in v. 11, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee," words closer to 16:14 than to 16:16 (pace Gundry, 411, who sees the crowd here as "disciples representing the worldwide church to come").

(ii) The Son of David who comes in Yahweh's name is also Yahweh himself. This is an aspect of Truth not fully revealed with the writing of Ps 118. That Psalm bears witness to the (true) distinction between the Messiah and God. What was not fully revealed until the Incarnation, was Messiah's deity (cf. comments on 16:16). It is now disclosed that there is both a distinction of person between Father and Son, and also an identity of character (as in Jn 1:1). The name "Yahweh" rightly applies to both.

(iii) God is about to give his supreme answer to the perennial cry "Hosanna." Jesus has come "to save his people from their sins" (1:21) by giving his life as a ransom for the many (20:28). By Jesus' day the utterance's original meaning "Save now!" had changed (we might almost say "degenerated") into an exclamation of praise (cf. the shift from "God, save the king!" to "God save the king!"; and Gundry, 411). Were Israel aware of her true condition - both politically and (especially) spiritually - she would have more readily reverted to the original intention of "Hosanna."

(iv) Thus, despite the genuine excitement that attends Jesus' entry (v. 10), the crowd still shows itself to be lacking in the spiritual insight needed for rightly understanding Messiah's person and work. Yet among those to whom this insight has been given (13:11), there is cause for the greatest possible jubilation. For Christian believers who look back on the great eschatological Exodus, who praise God for his great victory over Sin and Death in the Cross of His Son, who on that basis repeatedly approach the place of worship and celebrate the Passover of the New Age (26:26-28), Ps 118 still provides a marvellous vehicle for praise. But as for the original pilgrims, the Psalm is still more than a song of thanksgiving. It is also a means of our shouting "O LORD, save us!" - to implore Him to complete his saving work and to bring his kingdom to full realization (6:10) - to hasten the day when the Savior will come again (23:39).

C. The Intention of Jesus.

1. Jesus and prophecy. We now reach the conclusion to which the whole foregoing discussion has led, namely that Jesus the Messiah enters Jerusalem in conscious and deliberate fulfillment of Zech 9 and Ps 118. Matthew's theological declarations rest upon Jesus' own "acted quotation" of OT prophecy (the quoted phrase comes from R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament, 205; see ibid., 188-89, and his whole discussion of "the originality and influence of Jesus' use of the OT," 172-226).

2. Jesus and Passover. Jesus enters Jerusalem on Sunday, the 10th of Nisan - just four days before the preparations for the Passover Meal (see Appendix B.). The Mosaic Law required (1) that Passover (or "the Feast of Unleavened Bread") be celebrated in Jerusalem, (2) that every Jewish male participate in the festival every year, and (3) that each worshipper come prepared to offer animal sacrifice (Deut 16:1-8, 16-17). Thus in coming to Jerusalem at Passover, Jesus acts in obedience to the requirement of God's Law for Jewish males. He had done so twice before during his ministry: see Jn 2:13; 5:1, together with 6:4 (and Leon Morris, John, 299). Jesus also comes (in keeping with the law) to offer sacrifice - not an animal (which would not suffice for the purpose, as Heb 10:1-10 explains) but himself (Mt 20:28). In obedience to his mission, Jesus would die as the supreme - and the final - Passover sacrifice (Mt 26:17-30; 1 Cor 5:7).

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