Kings, do not usually ride on donkeys. Neither do dictators, prime ministers, or presidents. But try to imagine it. Truly, such would be a most hilarious site. When was the last time you saw any political leader riding into town on a donkey? Although, since it is the symbol of the Democrat Party, maybe that would be appropriate! (Just kidding!)
Back in ancient days—say, in Bible times—no one would have thought twice about seeing a person of royalty or ruling authority riding a donkey, especially in times of peace. And leaders—whether they be kings, princes, or judges—were no exception. For example, Jair, the eighth judge or ruler of Israel, rode on thirty of them, but not all at once, of course (Judges 10:4). Abdon, Israel’s twelfth judge, “…had forty sons and thirty nephews, going upon threescore and ten (70) ass colts (donkeys)…” (Judges 12:14, King James Version, KJV).
Speaking of these beasts of burden, those who rode on “white donkeys” were usually of the upper, wealthy class (Judges 5:10). These white or nearly white animals were rare and costly, according to sources. The ones who could own them were rich and influential in the community. In fact, even in more modern times, it’s reported that in Persia (Iran) “…the Mollahs, or men of the law, consider it a dignity suited to their character to ride on white asses [donkeys],” (Manners and Customs of the Bible, James M. Freeman).
The people’s dependency on donkeys as a major mode of transportation can be observed in the many examples of scriptures. In his book, The Complete Book of Bible Trivia, J. Stephen Lang asks 10 quiz questions about “The Lowly Donkey,” mentioned in the Scriptures. See how many you can answer correctly (answers at the end of this post):
1. What prophet of Moab had a talking donkey?
2. What future king was looking for lost donkeys when he ran into Samuel?
3. Who gave his irate brother 20 donkeys as a goodwill gesture?
4. What prince was riding a mule (that’s half donkey, half horse) when he got his head caught in an oak tree?
5. Who took his wife and sons and set them on a donkey when he returned to Egypt, his boyhood home?
6. What future wife of David rode out to meet him on a donkey when she was pleading for her husband’s life?
7. Who used a donkey to carry the wood he was using to sacrifice his son on?
8. Who sent her servant on a donkey to inform Elisha that her son had died?
9. What prophet predicted that the Messiah would enter riding on a donkey?
10. What is the only gospel to mention Jesus’ riding on a donkey?
These last two questions are relevant as we approach Palm Sunday and the beginning of Passion Week. It was at the “Triumphal Entry” of Christ into Jerusalem that Jesus entered the city riding on a young donkey. And a large crowd of people began honoring him—waving palm branches, spreading their garments in the road, and hailing him as King, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD; Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-19, New American Standard Bible, NASB).
The fact that Jesus came into the city riding on a donkey is significant. He didn’t come marching into Jerusalem in pomp and circumstance on a white horse like some super action hero. He wasn’t donning a sword, shield, and armor in conquering fashion. He didn’t come to fight against the powers of Rome. He didn’t even declare war. Rather, it was just the opposite.
Riding on a donkey signified peace. And it indicated humility or meekness. Therefore, Jesus’ royal entry was of a lowly manner, “…humble and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal [Lit., son of a female donkey] of a donkey,” (Zechariah 9:9, NASB).
Just think of it: A lowly king on a lowly donkey. Matthew must have thought this so remarkable in terms of prophetic fulfilment that he was sure to reference it in his gospel:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold your King is coming to you,
Gentle, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” (Matt. 21:4-5, NASB)
This prophecy is quoted partly from Isaiah 62:11 (“Say to the daughter of Zion….”) and partly from Zechariah 9:9:
…Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (NASB)
Matthew omits “he is just and endowed with salvation” from Zechariah’s account, perhaps to stress more emphasis on his first coming in humility, and because his being “just and endowed with salvation” is more reflective of his future mission as King when he returns in majestic power to bring righteousness and salvation for his people.
This point has added validity in the fact that the very next verses, Zechariah, 9:10ff., jump forward to the return of Christ when he literally reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords on the earth. That’ll be the day he DOES come on a white horse as our conquering hero (Revelation 19:11-16).
In addition to prophecy, Matthew probably had another reason for mentioning a lowly donkey in his account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He likely wanted to show how the donkey typified the lowly character of Jesus our Savior. Remember that he quoted Jesus to say, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” (Matthew 11:29, NASB).
Jesus is our primary example of humility (Philippians 2:3-11). He rode into Jerusalem as a Servant though he was hailed as King. What a contrast to political leaders today who ride into cities in their special limos, looking for applause, boasting of their accomplishments, and desiring more and more power. All Jesus had was a donkey, yet an important one, at that. For it proved his willingness to lower himself for the sake of our salvation by dying for our sins.
We, too, carry on that lowly attribute as imitators of Christ. Humility is among the list Paul includes concerning “those who have been chosen of God,” (Colossians 3:12). If we, his chosen followers, do not mirror his meek and lowly nature, then we are missing the perfect opportunity to put on love, live in peace, and be thankful for our many blessings in Christ (Colossians 3:13-17).
This is the mark of a true servant of the Lord.
The lowly king gives us the incentive to look for a brighter future, and better tomorrow. When he humbly rode into Jerusalem, we could say that his triumphal entry stands as a triumph for us. For he who rode that beast of burden into the city will carry our burdens on his shoulders along our pathway of life. And with that blessed assurance, we have the expectation that just as he overcame his adversity, we will also overcome on that day he rules as King (Revelation 3:21).
And now, here are the answers to the “Lowly Donkey” quiz (ibid., Lang):
1. Balaam (Numbers 22:21-33)
2. Saul (1 Samuel 9:1-6)
3. Jacob (Genesis 32: 13-18)
4. Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9)
5. Moses (Exodus 4:20)
6. Abigail (1 Samuel 25:20)
7. Abraham (Genesis 22:1-3)
8. The Shunemite woman (2 Kings 4:18-32)
9. Zechariah (9:9)
10. Matthew (21:1-9)
Good News to YOU!
P.S. Here’s a neat little number titled, “Jesus Rode a Donkey (Palm Sunday)”: https://youtu.be/slhT2GZSzYA