On a Donkey, Not a War Horse

Do we think like the Jews of Jesus’ day, hoping that our King would ride into Jerusalem on a war horse instead of a humble donkey?

Consider the story of Jesus’ celebrated entry into Jerusalem.

11 And as they approached Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples, and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied there, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it here. And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it’; and immediately he will send it back here.” They went away and found a colt tied at the door, outside in the street; and they untied it. And some of the bystanders were saying to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them just as Jesus had said, and they gave them permission. They brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks on it; and He sat on it. And many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. And those who went in front and those who followed were shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David; Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:1-10, NASB)

On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus didn’t choose to enter Jerusalem riding a stallion carrying the symbols and standards of battle and rule. He chose a humble donkey instead. That choice is interesting because riding a donkey had long been seen as a sign of royalty in ancient near-Eastern cultures, and the Old Testament is loaded with such examples, both historic and prophetic.

And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities in the land of Gilead that are called Havvoth-jair to this day. (Judges 10:4)

He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys; and he judged Israel for eight years. (Judges 12:14)

And the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. (1 Kings 1:33)

And the king said to Ziba, “Why do you have these?” And Ziba said, “The donkeys are for the king’s household to ride, the bread and summer fruit are for the young men to eat, and the wine, for whoever is weary in the wilderness to drink.” (2 Samuel 16:2)

In other non-Jewish cultures, donkeys were closely connected to royalty. For example:

“Rulers in the ancient Near East were carried, or drawn in carts, by donkeys at a time when these animals were essential for the long-distance transport of exotic goods, roles which gave them a semi-divine status. … Cuneiform tablets from the Bronze Age city of Mari in Syria show how donkey carts were considered appropriate transport for kings, and the famous royal Standard of Ur shows royalty being drawn in carts pulled by donkeys or onagers. The Mari tablets also show that only a pure bred donkey was acceptable for important sacrifices, and a foundation deposit beneath a temple at Tel Haror in Israel (1500-1400 BC) consisted of a sacrificed donkey together with the oldest bridle bit yet recovered.”

(from https://www.berksarch.co.uk/index.php/the-donkey-in-human-history-an-archaeological-perspective/)

Of course, the most well-known Bible verse about a donkey is in Zechariah, which prophesied Jesus’ choice of steed on the first Palm Sunday:

Rejoice greatly, daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is righteous and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Everyone watching the scene unfold on that Sunday would have immediately recognized Jesus’ implicit claim to be a king.

Entering a city upon a donkey also proclaimed a king’s rule in a peaceful, not warlike, way – if anything, it made it quite clear that the king had already conquered the city, and had no need of a battle horse. So Jesus’ careful choice of a donkey was proclaiming not only His kingship, but also His soon-to-be-completed victory, and His rule of peace.

However, by choosing a donkey, Jesus also starkly defied the Jewish cultural expectations of the Messiah being an earthly conqueror who would rout the Roman oppressors. After His arrest, just a few days later, Jesus said to the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate that “My Kingdom is not of this world.” Earlier that evening Jesus had even told Peter to put away his sword.

So consider the very next verse in Zechariah:

And I will eliminate the chariot from Ephraim
And the horse from Jerusalem;
And the bow of war will be eliminated.
And He will speak peace to the nations;
And His dominion will be from sea to sea,
And from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9:10)

Clearly, Jesus was addressing several aspects of prophecy in His choices that day.

Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, hoping for an authoritarian and even militant solution, there is an increasingly strident chorus of calls for American Christians to take over the nation “for God,” to take dominion of the “seven mountains” of society, including education, religion, family, business, military and government, arts and entertainment, and media. (See these descriptions of the “seven mountains mandate” or “seven mountains dominionism.”)

In our desire to see righteousness in America, we want to see King Jesus ride into town on that white stallion, laying waste to His enemies and our opponents, just like the Jews of His day wanted.

The problem with dominionism is the belief that we can reshape the world into God’s image by incrementally taking control of it. However, this ignores the fact that the very world dominionists hope to claim is unholy; it’s made in the image of the beast of Daniel and Revelations – the “kosmos” which was constructed and empowered by the “kosmokrator,” Satan himself. And we know that the beast will overpower the saints for a time; Revelations 13:7 says “It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority was given to him over every tribe, people, language, and nation.” It seems foolish to assume that we know better than God how strong this opponent is, and what God needs to do to truly refine His people into a pure and spotless Bride.

There’s no doubt that the image of King Jesus riding a powerful horse, carrying a sword and a scepter, is Biblical.

11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many crowns; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. 13 He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. 15 From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. 16 And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written: “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Revelations 19:11-16)

But that is a future vision, once His Kingdom has been established on the earth in all its fullness, after the Lord has cast down the kosmos Babylon in Revelation 18, and when the time arrives for the final judgement over the demonic realm in Revelation 19 and Revelation 20.

Only then, as detailed in Revelation 20:4-6, will we rule and reign on this earth with Christ.

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their foreheads and on their hands; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with Him for a thousand years.

Undeniably, given the current state of our world, that day is not yet come. And it is silly to assume that we could hasten that somehow by trying to take over the world, the kosmos, the systems of Satan, for God. In fact, to do so would be to assert that we want to take control over something that Satan himself has established and given his power, rather than take Christ’s example of defeating him by humility and surrender and dying to our own desires.

This dominionism approach sounds remarkably like the second of the three temptations of Jesus in Luke 4.

And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory, for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I want. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.”

Notice that Jesus’ response didn’t challenge Satan’s claim of ownership of the world, or his right to offer it to Jesus. Jesus simply reminded Satan that the Lord was the only proper target of worship. But are we tempted to take Satan’s bargain ourselves, gaining control over the world which Satan designed, as if we could stay pure and resist trying to rule it by our strength?

I suggest that our answer should be to remember what the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (NIV) We need to remember that Jesus chose to enter Jerusalem on the donkey instead of the stallion.

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