The Triumphal Entry: Israel’s New King’s Counterpoint to the Maccabean Triumph — An Intertextual Meditation

April 2006

It is now frequently observed by scholars that the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with its procession of palms and laudatory praise, echoes the entry of the Maccabees into Jerusalem following their triumph over the Seleucids. (See, for example, Witherington's summary of the material in John's Wisdom, p. 221.) Simon entered Jerusalem "with a chorus of praise and the waving of palm branches" (1 Macc 13.51). All of this, of course, in the context of a grand temple cleansing - just as Jesus' entry will be followed by a temple cleansing of His own.

But the power of this reminiscence, particularly in John's Gospel, is not recognized until the full interplay of resonance between the two events are fed carefully through the interpretive framework established by the two principal biblical texts informing Palm Sunday: Psalm 118 and the context of Zechariah 9.9-10.

Translation of John 12.12-19

On the morrow, the great crowd which was coming unto the Feast, hearing that Jesus comes unto Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and were crying out, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord!" and "The King of Israel!"

Now Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat upon it, just as it is written, "Fear not, daughter of Sion; behold, your king comes, sitting upon the foal of a donkey." His disciples did not understand these things at first - but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written concerning Him, and they did these things to Him.

Therefore the crowd bore witness - the ones who were with Him when He called Lazarus from the tomb, and raised him from the dead. On account of this the crowd went to meet Him: because they heard He had done this sign.

Therefore the Pharisees said to one another: "See, you are not helping anything; look, the world has gone out after Him!"

Echoes of Scripture and history in the actions of Palm Sunday

Jesus approaches Jerusalem for entry in 12.12. Once the connections to Psalm 118 are opened up, this entry becomes a fulfillment of Ps 118.19-20: "Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, and I will praise Yahweh. This is the gate of Yahweh, through which the righteous shall enter."

But at least initially, the entry has a clearer precedent. As we've noted, it appears to be a self-conscious recapitulation of the Maccabean triumphal procession.

It is appropriately noted, however, that Jesus provides contrast inside the parallel, by mounting a donkey as His processional beast, in fulfillment of Zechariah 9.9-10:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem; the battle bow shall be cut off. He shall speak peace to the nations; His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (NKJV)

The significance of the Zechariah text must not be misunderstood. Some people focus upon the word lowly and imagine that the issue at hand is particularly Jesus' humility, in not entering upon a more regal animal. But this is not correct; donkeys and mules were customary royal beasts, as borne witness by numerous Old Testament texts, including that of the accession of Solomon (see 1 Kg 1.33).

The "humility" involved here, therefore, is not that Jesus is failing to "carry Himself like a king." The point being made in Zechariah is the contrast between the peaceable coming of this King, symbolized in the contrast between two sorts of steeds: He comes riding on a royal donkey, while the warhorses and chariots will be "cut off" from Ephraim and Jerusalem.

Still, the easy explanation won't quite make itself comfortable. The contrast is not as simple and straightforward as one may suppose at first glance. In fact, Zechariah 9 itself invites the Maccabean interpretation. "For I have bent Judah, My bow, fitted the bow with Ephraim, and raised up your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and made you like the sword of a mighty man" (Zech 9.13). And despite the "cutting off" of horse and chariot, Yahweh continues by promising that He will make the flock of the house of Judah as His royal horse in the battle (Zech 10.3).

The raising up of Judah against the sons of Greece is a picture that could scarcely be better fitted for a description of the Maccabean conflict against the (Greek) Seleucids. Thus the allusion to Zechariah 9 is not quite as off-putting with the Maccabean parallel as one might suppose.

But the resonances between these various points (Psalm 118, Zechariah, the Maccabean entry, and that of Jesus) bounce around a whole lot more by the time we get through John's account.

This opens up by something in John 12 that is easy to overlook, since it belongs to the following pericope - but nonetheless follows immediately upon the text we are looking at. In verse 20, we read, "Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast..."

Now, can that be accidental? Maccabean echoes immediately followed by a reference to Greeks? And to tighten the net more, this procession of the nations to Jerusalem in 12.20 also fits squarely within the context of Zechariah:

Peoples shall yet come, inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, "Let us continue to go and pray before Yahweh, and seek Yahweh of armies.... Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek Yahweh of armies in Jerusalem and to pray before Yahweh. (NKJV; for accuracy's sake, I have substituted LORD with Yahweh, and hosts with armies.)

Yahweh is described by the nations in terms of His "military" nature (Yahweh of armies, often translated hosts), but He has apparently conquered them, as they go up to Jerusalem to seek Him, and specifically to pray before Him. Recalling that the second temple cleansing (recorded by the Synoptics, but not by John) occurs in precisely this historical context, and focuses upon the temple being "a house of prayer for all nations," the intertextual alarms are going off every which way. But at the heart of it all is the interesting fact that the Gentiles in question are Greeks.

In Zechariah, the fitting of Judah and Ephraim as bow and arrow against "the sons of Greece" results in a sort of sacrificial triumph: Judah and Ephraim "shall drink and roar as if with wine; they shall be filled [with blood] like basins, like the corners of the altar" (Zech 9.15).

Does this tie back to the other biblical text in view at the triumphal entry, that quoted by the crowds? They are chanting from Psalm 118.26: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of Yahweh!" The next verse of the Psalm goes on to say, "God is Yahweh, and He has given us light; bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar." The horns, of course, were on the corners or the altar, and along with the altar's base, were the object of blood placement (Ex 29.12; 30.10 etc). Thus the strange intertextual mix - apparently incongruously - speaks of atoning blood and the blood of judgment.

But is this juxtaposition so strange, after all?

The nations and indeed, the kosmos will be judged in Jesus' death, Jesus goes on to say in response to the query of the Greeks who have come to see Him (Jn 12.31). And yet precisely in that act of judgment, in being "lifted up" on the cross, He will draw all peoples to Himself (12.32). As it turns out, He is the sacrifice that is "tied with cords to the horns of the altar" (Ps 118.27).

One point of this intertextual stew seems to be that the mysterious dynamic of judgment and salvation that is present over the course of several chapters in Zechariah comes to its head in Jesus' own depiction of the cross. The bloody judgment of Israel over her enemies is undertaken by the King of peace who rides on a donkey - and in that very act of judgment, we draws the nations to flow to Zion, just as promised. He becomes the protective blood-covering of Passover, not only for Israel now, but for the nations.

And so the apparent conundrum of Zechariah is resolved: the bloody triumph and the peaceful worship of the nations, the warhorse and the donkey, all come together in the battle of the kosmos: the death of Jesus the Messiah.

In closing, we must revisit the juxtaposition of Jesus and the Maccabees. It is readily seen that Jesus' triumph is very different from theirs - the cross, not the sword, is His triumphal weapon, just as his regality is ensconced upon a donkey rather than a warhorse.

And His goals are different. The Maccabees were aimed at liberating Israel from the nations, focused upon the pollution of the temple by the Greeks (Antiochus's slaughter of a pig in the temple had occasioned the uprising). But without countenancing the terrible and idolatrous actions of the Seleucids, Jesus' liberation of the temple is a fine counterpoint to that - a liberating of Israel and temple for the nations, not least these Greeks who have come up to the Feast to pray after the manner promised in Zechariah 8.

Ultimately, the Maccabees became "kings like the nations," but the Messiah is Yahweh's King, and His Lordship of peace transcends the national motivations of the kings of the earth. For His kingdom is "not of this kosmos" (Jn 18.36), and He is what the Maccabees could never be.

A footnote on Matthew 23.39

It is somewhat beyond our scope here, but the usage of Psalm 118.26 at the triumphal entry, it cannot be doubted, is connected to Jesus' warning a few days later, as recorded in Matthew 23. After lamenting over Jerusalem's hardheartedness (keying especially upon her representative leaders), Jesus pronounces this judgment: "See! Your house is left to you desolate - for I say to you, you shall see Me no more until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Mt 23.38-39)

It becomes clear that Jesus is castigating Jerusalem's rulers for not joining in with the praise of the crowds, giving voice to that same chant from Psalm 118. But they have not recognized the Day of the visitation of their King. As a result, Israel's representative leaders will no longer be granted opportunity to see Him until they make that same confession for themselves. Jerusalem's blessing - and therefore Israel's - rests upon the confession of Jesus as Messianic Lord.

— Tim Gallant

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