Zechariah 9:9, Part II

Zechariah 9:9 says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (NRSV).

So why does Zechariah present the king coming into Jerusalem on a donkey?

At school, I have heard a couple of times that a donkey was a sign of royalty in the ancient Near East. According to this view, the king is demonstrating his royal status when he enters Jerusalem on a donkey.

I have a problem with this view because the passage seems to connect riding on a donkey with humility. In addition, the KeilDelitzsch commentary argues that a donkey was not always a sign of royalty; rather, its status declined over the years. The commentary states:

“[I]t is also a fact that in the East, and more especially among the Israelites, it was only in the earlier times, when they possessed no horses as yet, that distinguished persons rode upon asses (Jdg 5:10; Jdg 10:4; Jdg 12:14; 2Sa 17:23; 2Sa 19:27), whereas in the time of David the royal princes and kings kept mules for riding instead of asses (2Sa 13:29; 2Sa 18:9; 1Ki 1:33; 38:44); and from the time of Solomon downwards, when the breeding of horses was introduced, not another instance occurs of a royal person riding upon an ass, although asses and mules are still constantly used in the East for riding and as beasts of burden[.]”

So, seeing that the donkey became a sign of humility, why does Zechariah emphasize that the new king of Israel will enter Jerusalem riding one? I can think of at least three reasons:

1. The king is showing his desire to bring peace to Israel. Zechariah 9:10 stresses the king’s role as an inaugurator of peace, and Christian commentators are quick to contend that the king of Zechariah will bring it through words rather than force. This allows them to view Zechariah 9:9-10 as a prophecy about Jesus, who preached peace and meekly laid down his life instead of leading an armed revolt against Rome.

The king of Zechariah 9 may very well influence the Israelites to stop hating one another. “This is a new beginning,” I can envision him saying. “Accept me as king, put the past behind you, and let us unite.”

But, if the king is to bring peace to the Gentiles, then he will probably use more than words, as far as Zechariah is concerned. V 13 talks about God using Judah and Ephraim as a weapon against Greece. Zechariah 10:3-7 portrays the Israelites with war-like imagery. Zechariah 9-10 seems to contain a theme that appears in other prophets: Israel will successfully fight her Gentile oppressors after her restoration. So the king who enters Jerusalem on a donkey is not completely anti-war, nor does he rely on words to the exclusion of force. Consequently, there may be others reasons for his animal of choice.

2. The king is showing that he’s a better ruler than the others Israel has had. Israel had a lot of oppressive rulers, from her own ranks and also from the Gentiles. Samuel warned the Israelites that even an Israelite king could take their property and children whenever he wished (I Samuel 8). In Jeremiah 22, the prophet accuses the king of forcing Israelites to build his luxurious house for free, of murder, of oppression, and of violence. And Ezekiel 46:18 states that, after Israel’s restoration, “The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their holding; he shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own holding, so that none of my people shall be dispossessed of their holding.”

So there was a clear prophetic concern about royal authoritarianism. For many prophets, the king’s oppressive use of power was a contributing factor to Israel’s fall and exile. For Zechariah, the king after the restoration would not fall into the same trap. He would not be a person of violence, oppression, exorbitance, and pride, but rather of peace and humility. And how would he demonstrate this before Israel? By riding into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey.

And Israel would also find rest in the message that she would have her own king, not an oppressive Gentile ruler. For years, the Israelites were controlled by Gentile powers, who stripped them of their dignity and subjected them to tribute, intimidation, mockery, and devastation. Even under the Persians, who gracefully allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple and city walls, the Jews still felt like slaves (Ezra 9:9; Nehemiah 9:36-37). They desperately desired an Israelite ruler who would sincerely care about their well-being. And Zechariah assured Israel that God would send her such a humble (yet effective) leader.

3. The king is demonstrating God’s favor. The Israelites had just experienced God’s wrath, as God had used Gentile oppressors as a weapon against Israel on account of her sins. But, after their restoration, God wanted to show his people that he was giving them a new beginning, one of happiness, peace, prosperity, and divine favor (Zechariah 9:15-27; 10:6). His message to them was that their affliction was a thing of the past. And how did God communicate this? He sent them a king in the most non-intimidating way possible: riding on a lowly donkey. He sought to sooth them after their intense punishment.

Many Christians appeal to Zechariah 9:9 for apologetic purposes. For them, the passage demonstrates the Messiahship of Jesus and the fulfillment of prophecy (and, consequently, the Bible’s divine inspiration), since Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey years later.

Christians also find homiletical value in Jesus’ fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, for Jesus demonstrated humility rather than pomp, pride, or a desire for acquisition. In The Great Controversy, Seventh-Day Adventist founder Ellen G. White tells about a painter in the Middle Ages who painted two pictures: one of the pope riding a noble steed with pomp and glory, and another of humble Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. The goal of the painter was to challenge authority with the character and virtue of Jesus, something that many (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, etc.) have done throughout history. For many Christians, Jesus’ act exemplified his meek and lowly character, in which the burdened can find rest for their souls (Matthew 11:29).

While these are important issues, my post focuses on something additional, which (in my opinion) often gets ignored: How does the king’s riding on a donkey speak to Zechariah’s original audience, within the context of Zechariah 9-14 itself? I’m sure there are plenty of scholarly evangelical commentaries that tackle this issue quite well, but I rarely hear it addressed in a lot of evangelical circles (e.g., church, Bible study groups, etc.). And they should work more at reading biblical passages in light of their immediate contexts, for doing so can uncover jewels about God’s character. In the case of Zechariah 9:9, a contextual reading reveals God’s encouragement to his restored people, in the midst of a difficult, discouraging time.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Bible, Daily Quiet Time, Religion, Zechariah. Bookmark the permalink.