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Lowly and Riding on a Donkey?

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Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," January-February 2015

As we quickly approach the Passover season, it may be helpful for us to consider the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, one whose fulfillment is recorded by all four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The event they chronicled is called “The Triumphal Entry,” the ride of Jesus Christ on a donkey into Jerusalem just before He was crucified. Here is Zechariah’s prophecy:

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.

Matthew witnessed Jesus doing just this and recorded what he saw:

Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.” All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying:

Tell the daughter of Zion,
“Behold, your King is coming to you,
Lowly, and sitting on a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.”

So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. (Matthew 21:1-7)

Zechariah 9:9 seems to be one of those places in the Bible where the repetition of an idea should make us sit up and take notice. He writes, “Rejoice. . . . Shout. . . . Behold”! This tells us something significant is about to happen, and we would do well to pay attention! The scribes and Pharisees, well-versed in Scripture, undoubtedly knew this prophecy, but they failed miserably to make the proper connection. As Luke’s account reveals, they were more interested in rebuking the disciples for “making a scene” and perhaps getting the Roman authorities involved.

In Matthew 21:2, Jesus instructs His disciples to go into a nearby village, and there they would “find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.” This agrees with Zechariah’s prophecy, but the accounts in Mark, Luke, and John mention only one animal. Mark and Luke both indicate that Christ rode the colt, adding that the colt had never before been ridden. John, on the other hand, just says Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it and then quotes Zechariah 9:9. To them, this was yet another fulfillment of an Old Testament sign that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Few others, it seems, understood it or believed it.

A Misunderstood Beast

Why was a donkey the chosen means of transport? How much planning and forethought did God give to this one seemingly insignificant detail?

“Donkey” is a recent word, as the first known usage dates only to about 1785, and it probably originated as a description of the dun color of the animal’s hide. Before that time and for some time thereafter, the word “ass” was the normal word used to refer to this animal, but it is believed that the British and American slang term for a person’s rear end promoted the wider acceptance and usage of “donkey” for the horse-like animal. A similar process occurred with the word “jackass,” which refers to a male donkey, but once it began to be used as negative slang, “donkey” was more acceptable.

It is possible that the improper or negative connotation of the word “ass” has given many people a wrong perception of the actual animal. In modern times, the ass or donkey has perhaps been judged unfairly, as many think them to be stupid, stubborn, or just a beast of burden. However, that is not the case.

They are anything but stupid. In fact, once their owner gains their trust, they can be willing and companionable partners and very dependable. It is said that they actually do not work their best unless they trust the one they are working for. Once they feel comfortable with the owner, donkeys will do almost anything within their limits, and as a bonus, they need minimal training.

Being surefooted and having excellent eyesight, they are able to navigate rocky desert terrain and find paths that the human eye may not even be able to see. They will actually lead the way without having to be guided.

Another trait the donkey possesses is an acute predator-detection instinct. For this reason, many modern farmers are adding them to their herds as “guard donkeys”! Having a keen sense of smell along with excellent hearing and the aforementioned exceptional eyesight, they are quick to sense predators and sound the alarm, baying wildly. Even more, they will position themselves between the predator and the other animals they are protecting. They have been known to kill foxes, coyotes, and even mountain lions with their sharp hooves and powerful kicks.

The donkey has been perceived as a stubborn animal, but many experts believe that it is because the donkey has such a strong survival instinct that it is difficult to get them to do something they perceive to be dangerous. Recall Balaam’s donkey, which saw the angelic danger ahead, but Balaam, ignoring God’s instruction and being spiritually blind, tried to force the donkey to move on (Numbers 22:22-33).

We would do well to learn the lesson Balaam’s donkey teaches. It is praiseworthy to be stubbornly against going forward with an activity when doing so is spiritually dangerous!

A Long History of Use

Researchers estimate that the donkey was domesticated around 3000 bc, well before the camel. The donkey is more efficient than the camel or the horse when used in transport duties because a donkey eats only about one-quarter of the oats that a horse does, and unlike the camel, its owner does not have to wait for it to chew its cud.

By 2500 bc, wealthy Egyptians owned over a thousand donkeys, and the Greeks and Romans later used them as well. More recently, they were used in World War I to carry wounded soldiers, and even as recently as the war in Afghanistan, they were employed as pack animals. In poorer countries, they are a common sight on the roads and in the fields.

Donkeys were used throughout the times of the Bible. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, the riding of a donkey was a sign of royalty. From the archives dug up in the Babylonian city of Mari, it was learned that the riding of a donkey for entry into a city was an act of kingship. The donkey and the mule were a staple in the Near Eastern royal ceremonies as well.

Many of the heroes of the Bible are mentioned in connection with donkeys. Abraham rode a donkey, as did Moses. Jacob’s sons rode donkeys. In the book of Judges, judges rode on donkeys as well. David was a king, perhaps the greatest in Israel’s history, and he rode a donkey. Sons of kings rode donkeys.

It is a traditional belief that Joseph, husband of Mary, had a donkey, and Mary rode it to Bethlehem while she was pregnant with Jesus. If this is true, then quite possibly Jesus’ first and last rides as a human were on a donkey!

Incidentally, the wealthy in those days tried to breed a pure white donkey for themselves as an indication of their high social status. They were only partially successful. They were able to produce a white donkey, but they were unable to breed out the gray spots.

In the giving of the laws concerning Sabbath observance in Exodus 23:12, God instructs that the donkey should be able to rest the same as the ox. The tenth commandment prohibits a person from coveting his neighbor’s donkey (Exodus 20:17). In the laws of consecrating the firstborn (Exodus 13:1-2, 11-13; 34:19-20), clean animals belonged to God, but the only unclean animal mentioned is the donkey. If an Israelite planned to keep the firstborn, it had to be redeemed by sacrificing a lamb in its place, and if it were not redeemed, it was to be killed by breaking its neck! In this instance as well, the donkey is the only unclean animal mentioned alongside the ox.

Near the end of their journey in the wilderness, the Israelites went to war against the Midianites (Numbers 31). Among the spoils of victory, they took 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys (verses 32-34). Again, the only unclean animal listed alongside the clean animals was the donkey, and God provided His people 61,000 of them! So much for the wealthy Egyptians with their measly thousand.

An Animal of Peaceful Pursuits

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem while riding on a donkey was not just an afterthought, using whatever beast was available. This was a well-considered part of God’s plan for a specific purpose. Although the use of the donkey was widespread in those times, Jesus’ riding on the donkey did not show Him to be a poor or common man but a King, just as the Mari archives show was commonly understood across the Middle East.

The New Testament Commentary makes an interesting observation on John 12:14-15:

The ass or donkey is commonly associated with the pursuits of peace (Judg 10:4; 12:14; 2 Sam 17:23; 19:26; Isa 1:3); the horse, with warfare (Ex 15:1,19,21; Ps 33:17; 76:6; 147:10; Prov 21:31; Jer 8:6; 51:21; Zech 10:3; and Rev 6:4). This king is meek (prautes), peaceful, gentle. He comes to bring salvation.

So Jesus, riding on a donkey, fulfills the characterization shown in Zechariah 9:9, that the King would be “lowly.” The symbolic character of the donkey as an animal used for peaceful purposes stands in marked contrast to a horse, whose imagery associates with war. A man riding on a donkey is not looking for war, and in Jesus’ case, He came instead to save, carried on perhaps the lowliest of animals.

That Jesus chose a donkey that had never been ridden was yet another miraculous part of this prophecy. Given what we have learned about donkeys—that they will not work until they trust the one they work for—we would think that the colt would have balked. But when the disciples brought the colt to Jesus, the colt immediately trusted Him and instinctively carried Him down the path into the city. Would we be surprised if he did not even need to be guided?

With the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 certainly being fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, we should take a moment to consider another one as we close:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. . . . Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. (Revelation 19:11-13, 15)

In this prophecy, as heaven opens the first thing we see is a white horse. Unlike how the Bible refers to the donkey as animal of peaceful purposes, the horse’s only association is with war. On this white horse, the “Faithful and True” Jesus Christ rides to earth, and this time it is to judge and make war! God’s purposes in the two comings are quite different.

The Bible mentions many animals that we can learn spiritual lessons from, and the donkey is one that we do not think much about in our day. When we do think about donkeys, we tend to judge them unfairly. Now that we understand them a little better, we can see that God made them part of His Word so we can understand ourselves a little better:

» Do we trust our Master and work willingly and pleasantly for Him?

» Do we conduct our lives in meekness, gentleness, and peace?

» Are we surefooted and know the path to our destination, or do we ignore the warnings signs and blunder into areas we should avoid, getting ourselves into trouble?

» Do we guard and protect the sheep of God’s pasture, or do we ignore their plight—or worse, prey on them?

Just like the donkey, we were unclean things living in sin, but the Lamb of God sacrificed Himself so we could be redeemed and be God’s firstfruits! We have to learn and display the characteristics of the lowly donkey before we are qualified to ride with Him the next time He comes: “And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean followed Him on white horses” (Revelation 19:14).




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