This is one of those well-worn stories that we’ve heard every year until we think we have it down. Stay with me here.
It’s a feeding frenzy. The people have for centuries been expecting a political king. Jesus has been bucking this trend since the beginning. Isn’t he just pouring gas on the fire by entering Jerusalem this way? Isn’t he creating a problem of expectations by entering Jerusalem as a messianic king?
There are at least two sensible pictures behind Jesus’ dramatic action. This is, of course, going to be the week of his crucifixion and resurrection, and if there’s ever a time to proclaim that he truly is the messiah and “call the question,” so to speak, this is it. There is a prophecy in Zech. 9.9 that the Messiah will do exactly this, so he makes it deliberate and obvious.
The second one is just as important. Back in the 150 BC, a Roman named Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple altar by slaughtering a pig on it. The Maccabean Revolt ensued, Jerusalem was retaken, and the desecrated temple was restored, purified and rededicated. The people rejoiced with palm branches and the singing of psalms. Jesus entered Jerusalem in the same spirit, determined to clean God’s house (which is where he went next, and is exactly what he did). He may well be saying, in dramatic symbol, not only that he was the Messiah, but also that he had come to cleanse the House of God from defilement.
The city was swollen with people. Jesus procures a donkey, which was a sign of a kingship of peace. He started his journey at the Mt. of Olives, where the prophecy told that the Messiah would come. There was an instant flurry of activity, as people grabbed palm branches to lay before the “king.” They thought Jesus was coming as a political king, to raise an army and defeat Rome. And yet, his was NOT going to be a kingdom of blood. Oh, wait a minute—yes it was. And he wasn’t going to raise an army. Oh wait a minute—yes he was. Hm.
They sing Ps. 118—a psalm of the Messiah. Their political activist had come, so they thought. They praise him with words usually reserved only for Caesar: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” The Pharisees are offended, because in their minds Jesus doesn’t fit the requirements for messiah, and he hasn’t fulfilled the prophecies as they understand them. They ask Jesus to silence the crowds. He says it’s not a day for silence; if the people are quiet, the stones themselves will cry out his praises. Stones in scripture are often symbolic of the spiritual presence of a deity. Even in this shrouded reference he is claiming to be God.
Jesus weeps, knowing the rejection by the people that lies ahead. He will be a king of blood (sacrifice), not of blood (warfare). He will gain his throne by the victory of dying, not the victory of killing. While plenty of war awaits them, it won’t come this day, or this week.