Behold, Your King
Since October, you’ve heard a slogan repeated in the news: “From the River to the Sea.” It comes on the heels of war between Hamas and Israel. Its meaning depends on who you ask. Activists say it’s simply a call for peace and equality in Palestine. But that so-called “peace” comes on terms that not all would agree are based on truth and, in some cases, grow from ideologies that cause more division not less.
Ask Hamas and they will say it’s a call “to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine,” even if that means obliterating the Jews. This is more blatantly wicked and murderous. On the other side is the ruling party in Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu. He built his platform that once touted, “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” Anything less “frustrates the prospect of peace.” Largely, the international community has backed this plan and developed the two-state solution. Still, lasting peace from these man-made political solutions is fleeting.
Broken people always produce broken solutions. The Israel/Hamas war is but another display of the sin that affects all humanity. Left to ourselves, peace will never prosper—from the River to the Sea or anywhere else. Even where societies experience some measure of law and order, it’s far from perfect and often short-lived. On the grand scale of world history, peace and justice feel like fleeting things. It only further proves that humanity needs a Savior. We need someone to deliver us.
Today, Matthew quotes from a passage in Zechariah 9, a prophecy about a King whose rule will extend not “From the River to the Sea” but “from the River to the ends of the earth.” He will free people from their oppression. He will govern with righteousness. He will bind a new humanity together in unity. But contrary to human expectations, he saves us not by threat of sword but by willingly, humbly coming to give his life on our behalf. Let’s read together, beginning in verse 1…
1 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” 4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, 5 “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8 Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11 And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Time plays an important role when discerning a story’s focus. When an author uses more text to cover less time, that often alerts you to the story’s focus. Such a change in narrative time happens when we hit chapter 21. The Gospel began slowly, recounting Jesus’ genealogy and birth. But from chapter 3 to 20, Matthew covers about three years. With eight chapters left, you’d expect another year at least. But that’s not what happens. These final chapters cover only one week—more text, less time.
Matthew’s story draws nearer to its climactic moment. By writing this way, Matthew (or better, the Holy Spirit) grabs our attention, pausing at length on this final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But with that shift also comes more blatant acts in which Jesus reveals his identity as Messiah, God’s special King. One of those acts, we study today as Jesus sits on a donkey’s colt and rides into Jerusalem. Whereas before he would’ve hushed people from declaring him King, now he welcomes their praises.
Why? What sort of man does this? Is he just plain crazy? Or are we meant to see something of profound significance in Jesus? Is Jesus really who he says he was—Lord, Savior, King? What does Jesus want us to see when he rides on a donkey’s colt?
Jesus Acts Out a Sign to Reveal His Identity
Jesus does want us to see something about his identity. He’s being intentional. He planned this event. He initiates it by sending two disciples in verse 1. He tells them exactly what they must do, step by step. “Go into the village…immediately you’ll find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”
Perhaps Jesus prearranged things with the donkey’s owner, the owner likely being another disciple. Or perhaps Jesus is acting on his omniscience. He just knew the donkey was there and how the owners would respond. Either way, Matthew’s focus is Jesus’ lordship over the entire situation. People aren’t controlling him. They’re not forcing him to become king. There were times before when some had tried that, but Jesus wouldn’t let them. When he chooses to enter Jerusalem, he does it on his terms in his timing and in his special way. He is Lord over these events.
It’s also clear that he didn’t need a donkey to make the rest of the trip. The Gospel has him traveling hundreds of miles on foot with the others for three years. His legs aren’t tired; it’s how you got around. What, he’s got like a mile left and he wants a donkey? Mark’s Gospel says Jesus would make use of it and then “send the donkey back here immediately.” He borrows it for a few minutes. Jesus is being deliberate. He’s acting out an important sign. Before, he calmed the sea to prove he’s God of the Exodus. He healed to prove he’s Lord of the Sabbath. He changed water to wine to prove he brings the messianic banquet. So also here, Jesus has another sign to reveal his identity.
Matthew Interprets Jesus’ Sign from Zechariah 9
That identity becomes clearer with the interpretation of this sign in verses 4-5. This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” That comes from Zechariah 9:9; and I want to spend some time there, so that we understand more fully who Jesus is claiming to be.
If you’re a newer to the Christian faith, perhaps someone told you to start with one of the Gospels. Maybe you’re reading the New Testament books and finding yourself learning all kinds of wonderful things about Jesus. But you also need to know how that New Testament didn’t rise in a vacuum. There’s a whole lot that happens before Matthew 1; and you will not fully understand Jesus until you start connecting things in the New Testament to the rich storyline of the Old Testament. The things you’re already loving about Jesus—they will become even clearer, greater, more beautiful as you delve into the Scriptures of old. I think our vision of Jesus’ identity here is helped tremendously when we turn to Zechariah 9 and look at a few of his promises.
In Zechariah 9, the first six verses show how God will eventually cut down the arrogant nations—he will judge the world. Verses 7-8 promise that God would also show mercy to a remnant among the nations. And he would do this by taking away their idols, making them a part of his people, and bringing them into his presence. But the question becomes, how can God just welcome them so freely? When the remnant is guilty like the rest, how can he still be righteous and not punish them too? Verses 9-11 supply the answer: God’s special King was coming for a unique work.
Verse 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
Verse 9 begins with a call to rejoice: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!” For years they’ve known only oppression from their enemies. God’s hand of judgment has rested on their nation. They are weary from the consequences of sin. They are much like us, not only as we observe the brokenness around us but feel the brokenness within us. Yet here God’s people are called to rejoice. Why? What makes all the difference?
“Your king is coming to you.” What king? Over the centuries, God’s people have seen lots of kings. Why should this one lead us to rejoice? We’re told first in verse 9 that he is righteous. Israel’s kings didn’t have the greatest track record. Even guys like David and Josiah had their own rebellious moments.[i] But this King differs from all the others. No impulse to do anything other than please God. He would uphold God’s moral standard. He would obey God’s will fully. 2 Samuel 23:4 says, “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” The righteous rule of this King will dawn like the morning light.
He is also victorious. Verse 9 in the ESV describes him as “having salvation.” There’s a passive idea in this word, implying that the King himself would be saved.[ii] That’s not to say he needed saving from sin; we just saw that he’s righteous. Rather, it’s like saying that God would vindicate him. Because he obeys God completely, God chooses to vindicate him. We might also think of Psalm 22 where the Davidic king is crying out for God to save him from his enemies. The King is faithful even in the face of affliction. As a result, God rescues his King, giving him authority over the nations.[iii] Salvation comes with this King because he’s the only one God is pleased to vindicate.
This King is also humble, verse 9 says. Other translations have “poor” or “afflicted.” We find the same word in Zechariah 7:10 used alongside widows, orphans, and sojourners. He doesn’t come for his people while clinging to the privileges of royalty. He trades his riches for rags. The same word also appears in the Psalms where the Davidic King is afflicted for his obedience.[iv] Likewise, this king’s obedience leads him to become poor and experience affliction. He chooses the uncomfortable road of suffering if it means showing his people favor.
When it says, “Behold, your king is coming to you,” the Hebrew idiom means for you. He doesn’t come like other kings, who just want power at the people’s expense. He comes for your benefit. He goes low to identify with your state, to know your sufferings, and to pursue your best interest.
He’s also a peacemaker. It says that he comes “mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Often in Scripture, kings would ride on donkeys. But the language here seems unique to Genesis 49:11. A king from Judah’s line would bind his colt to the choicest vine—meaning his coming would establish an abundant kingdom on earth. That King of Genesis 49 seems to be this King of Zechariah 9.
But also notice the contrast between verses 9 and 10. The horse in verse 10 is an instrument of war, not the donkey. The point in verse 9 is that this King comes not for the purpose of war, but to bring peace. That’s observed even by him riding the foal of donkey. Luke 19:30 tells us it was a colt “on which no one has ever yet set.” It’s untrained, not yet tame. Yet, as D. A. Carson puts it, “in the midst…of this excited crowd, an unbroken animal remains calm under the hands of the Messiah.” He’s righteous. He’s victorious. He’s humble. He’s a peacemaker.
But what’s his mission? Zechariah explains that too. He will bring peace to all nations. Verse 10 says, “I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations.” His mission includes removing war from the people. But his peace includes more than just the absence of war. His presence creates new realities like unity. Israel was once divided against itself, represented here by Ephraim and Jerusalem. But notice how these two names now stand parallel to one another. God’s covenant people would no longer be divided but one. And this peace wouldn’t be limited to Israel—“he shall speak peace to the nations.” But notice, he doesn’t silence them with the sword, but with his word.
He will also cover the earth with God’s rule. Verse 10 says that “his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” His rule advances beyond the Promised Land to encompass all peoples. The same language appears in Psalm 72:8. Psalm 72 is a prayer, asking God to give justice to his anointed King in David’s line. Every request speaks to a future King so exercising God’s righteousness on earth that everything prospers, the poor are lifted up, the arrogant are destroyed, and all nations come to worship this King till the earth is filled with God’s glory.
Right in the middle of Psalm 72 we get the same sentence we see here—only it’s spoken as a prayer: “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” That prayer was written in Solomon’s day, over 400 years before Zechariah’s prophecy. Imagine crying for centuries, “God send this King! Bring him to us!” and then God answers, “Your king is coming”—spoken like it’s already in the process of happening. That’s how certain his coming will be.
Further, he will liberate prisoners based on the blood of God’s covenant. Verse 11, “As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.” A waterless pit refers to the empty cisterns that nations would use to put someone in captivity.[v] Zechariah uses the pit as a symbol of exile; it’s a reminder of their captivity under God’s judgment (Isa 42:7). By this point, they’ve returned to the land. But that was just the first stage in their rescue. You see, other enemies still held them captive—enemies far worse than pagan nations. Babylon might’ve put them in a pit; but it’s their own sin that would put them in hell.
God promises here their final and full deliverance; and he will do this through the blood of my covenant with you. Our sin before God brings about death. The only way that God could relate to sinful people was through a death in our place, through the shedding of blood. So, on several occasions, he sealed covenants with blood. This is especially the case in Exodus 24:8, where this same expression appears. Moses ratifies the law-covenant by sprinkling the people with blood.
The only problem is that Israel couldn’t keep their end of the covenant. Repeatedly, they fail. They deserve God’s curse of death, not his blessing. Yet he still says he’s going to free them based on the blood of my covenant. How? God’s commitment to save these captives presses us forward to another and more permanent covenant. Zechariah seems to envision a day when better blood would be spilt in association with this King’s coming. Only then would the shackles of sin and death be shattered once and for all. Only then would people know true freedom.
The King Is Jesus Christ
These are his reasons for Zion’s children to rejoice at the King’s arrival. He comes for their benefit to bring peace to the nations, to cover the earth with God’s rule, to liberate them through the blood of the covenant. There’s only one King who fits this bill, only one man who has the character to accomplish all this.
When Jesus sits on that colt, he’s saying, “I am that King.” Was he lying? Was he crazy for saying so? No. Read the eyewitness accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, and you will see that Jesus is righteous. Nobody can find any wrong in him. At every turn he pleases God.[vi] Read and you will find that Jesus is a peacemaker. Jesus brings us both peace with God and peace with one another.
Read and you will find that Jesus is humble. As Immanuel, as God incarnate, he has rights to be seen as glorious. Yet he set them aside and becomes poor for our sake. He enters Jerusalem not like Muhammed entered Mecca with a sword and army. He enters to give his own life for others. He becomes afflicted, even to the point of death on a cross in our place. The curse of death we deserved—he took upon himself. His blood is better than what Moses sprinkled on the people, because his blood truly liberates from the power of sin and establishes a new covenant with better promises (Matt 26:28).
Read and you will find that Jesus is also victorious. Yes, a few days after these events, his earthly ministry ends in a bloody Roman crucifixion. But given the rest of Matthew’s Gospel we also know God saved this King by raising him from the dead. God vindicated Jesus. God gave Jesus all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus is the King who brings peace to the nations. Already he’s establishing God’s rule from “the River to the ends of the earth,” and he welcomes people into his reign through the blood he gave.
True, not everything mentioned by Zechariah has been accomplished yet. The ultimate fulfillment awaits Jesus’ second coming. But the coming of his final kingdom in glory is just as certain as his first coming in humility. His first coming is evidence that God is faithful to his word. He sent his King just as he said he would. The same will be true of him extending God’s rule from sea to sea. Jesus is the King of Zechariah 9. Jesus is the King who deserves our allegiance and praises.
How Will You Respond to Jesus?
What is your response to Jesus? Have you recognized Jesus as King? Have you welcome his rule into your life? Is his coming something you rejoice in and celebrate? Not everyone responds the way his followers do in verse 9. The crowds from Galilee have witnessed Jesus’ miracles. They’ve recently seen him heal the two blind men, men who were crying, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” They’ve now joined the blind men in seeing as they ought to see: “Hosanna,” they say, “to the Son of David.” In verse 11, others from this crowd recognize him as “the prophet Jesus.” Their understanding isn’t complete. But what they do know moves them to praise Jesus and listen to him.
Others aren’t so welcoming. “Who is this?” they say in verse 10. It’s rather anticlimactic. Daughter Zion should be rejoicing—their King has come. Jesus’ fame had spread well enough that people in Jerusalem knew of his teachings, his miracles. Earlier in the Gospel, Pharisees and scribes had come from Jerusalem to see what Jesus was about. Yet all they can say is, “Who is this?” Perhaps this is why Matthew tweaks the Zechariah quotation slightly. Zechariah said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” Matthew simply has, “Say to the daughter of Zion.” He leaves a question hanging in the air: “Will Zion rejoice? Is she ready for him?”
Indeed, she was not. Religious leaders will soon question Jesus’ authority. They will lead others to reject Jesus as well. They will not welcome his rule with these crowds from Galilee. Jerusalem will despise him and sentence him to death. But again, this too was part of God’s plan. Jesus knew what he was getting into. He’d already been telling the disciples, “See, we’re going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.”
Jesus knew. He knew the uproar it would cause by sitting on that donkey. He knew the offense it would cause. He knew that it would ultimately cost him his life. And still, he went. Humbly, willingly, he chose that path for our sake.
The proper response is, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Notice how Jesus accepts the crowds praise as Israel’s King. This is the true and proper response to Jesus. They’re using words from Psalm 118:25-26 to praise Jesus. We’ll discuss Psalm 118 further when we get to the end of chapter 21. For now, it’s enough to point out that Psalm 118 pictures the same anointed King in David’s line. He represents God’s people in prayer. He fights to deliver God’s people from distress. He’s even willing to lay down his life in battle to see his people singing in God’s presence.
Psalm 118 also compares this king to “the stone the builders rejected [but which] has become the cornerstone.” This king’s suffering and rejection establish God’s work in rescuing his people. And the work is so complete that the king returns from battle with great victory over God’s enemies. He brings all the people he represents in battle right through the gates of righteousness into the very presence of God. And in this great celebratory procession up the temple-mount, all the people are called to bless God’s chosen king: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
This crowd uses the words of Psalm 118 to bless Jesus, as he’s leading a procession up the temple mount. Jesus is worthy of such words. If Jesus is King, you owe him your allegiance and praise. Does his reign make a difference to you? When he speaks in the Scriptures, do you listen? When you look at his righteousness, is that something you desire for your own life? When you look at his humility, are you willing to walk in his steps? How much work do you give to being a peacemaker?
Is it your joy to sing Jesus’ praise? “Hosanna!” means, “Lord, save us! Lord, save me!” Is this your cry to Jesus? Do you confess him as “Son of David”? Does Jesus character and mission lead you to praise him as King? He doesn’t need us to make him King. He’s heaven’s rightful King already. Question is, does that excite you? Or is he so unfamiliar that you say, “Who’s this?” Don’t miss the King. Continue to pray as you sang earlier: “Come Thou Almighty King / Help us Thy praise to sing / Help us to praise, Father all glorious, O’er all victorious / Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days.”
Jesus’ first coming means we can truly rejoice. He has come to bring our peace. Does his coming give you hope? He liberates from the tyranny of sin. He has come to stretch God’s rule from the River to the ends of the earth. Make it known to all. Peace among the nations comes not by another broken national defense—though that may be important to discuss in the short-term. Peace among the nations comes not by the sword. It comes only through people submitting to the reign and rule of Jesus Christ. It will come only through a people following their King in humility, willingly laying down their lives for others while saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
[i] E.g., 2 Sam 12; 2 Chron 35:20-27.
[ii] Cf. same verb form in Deut 33:29; Ps 33:16; Isa 45:17.
[iii] Ps 22:21; cf. Ps 69:1-5, 29-36; 118:5-27.
[iv] Ps 22:24; 25:16; 69:29.
[v] E.g., Jer 2:13; 38:6; Isa 24:22.
[vi] E.g., John 8:46; 18:23; 19:4.
other sermons in this series