“Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.’” (Matt. 21:1–2). However trivial this errand may have seemed, it was full of biblical and theological significance. The prophet, Zechariah, had said: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
When Jesus mounted the donkey—not just any donkey, but specifically a purebred colt, as Zechariah promised—he was presenting himself as Israel’s promised king. Many would have remembered the words of Zechariah and recognized what Jesus was doing. Some may have even remembered that when Solomon became Israel's king, he was presented on the donkey of his father David (1 Kings 1:38–39). When they saw Jesus riding on the foal of a donkey, they said, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt. 21:9) By using that title, they were acclaiming Jesus to be their rightful king.
There is an even older prophecy that explains why Jesus rode a donkey. Long before Zechariah, Jacob pronounced this blessing on his son Judah: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch” (Gen. 49:10–11). Jacob's prophecy meant that Israel's true king would come from the tribe of Judah and that in some way he would be associated with the colt of a donkey. What is only hinted at in Genesis is made plain in the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus, the Son of David, from the tribe of Judah, rode into Jerusalem as Israel's rightful king.
If Jesus is the king, then all his loyal subjects must recognize his kingship. The Jews did this by calling him the Son of David and by spreading their cloaks before him. This was the ancient custom; people threw down their garments to make a carpet for the royal procession. We recognize his sovereignty by laying our hearts before him, throwing down our wills in absolute surrender, and asking Jesus to govern everything we think and say and do.
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.