As Jesus prepared to enter Jerusalem the week before His death, He told His disciples to bring Him a donkey and a colt to ride upon. And as He entered the Holy City, the people cried out “Hosanna!” and called Jesus “the Son of David.” What was it about those donkeys that caused the crowds to identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah who had come to deliver them from their Roman occupiers?
Matthew tells us that Jesus made this request “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, …’Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” (Matthew 21:4, 5)
That seems pretty straightforward. Some prophet said something about a colt and a donkey, so Jesus rode those animals to satisfy this prophecy. But there’s more to the story.
The prophet in question is Zechariah, who proclaimed these words in the winter of 518 BC, two years and two months before the second temple was completed. This donkey prophecy comes shortly after God rebukes the nations of Tyre and Sidon, and soon after Zechariah adds that “He shall speak peace to the nations,” “set your prisoners free from the waterless pit,” and “restore double to you” (vv. 11-12).
To fully understand what these prophecies meant—and how they were understood by first-century Jews—we need to consider if these phrases appear anywhere else in scripture. And it turns out, they all show up in only two places in scripture.
Joseph in Egypt
All the way back in Genesis, we are introduced to Joseph, the eleventh and favored son of Jacob. Joseph has received prophetic dreams that he will reign and have dominion over his brothers. His brothers’ response?
“They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Genesis 37:4)
Some time later, Joseph’s brothers find him out in the desert and decide to throw him into a waterless pit (Genesis 37:24)—a phrase that only appears in scripture here, in Zechariah 9, and one other place. Shortly thereafter, Joseph is taken as a slave to Egypt.
After spending years in slavery and prison, Joseph is eventually freed, becomes a leader in Egypt, and is given the Egyptian title, “Savior of the World” (Genesis 41). His brothers eventually travel to Egypt in search of food and, when framed for stealing, attempt to restore double to Joseph (Genesis 43:12).
Jeremiah in Egypt
Other than Joseph, Jeremiah is in the only other person in scripture who spends time in a waterless pit:
“They took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon (Hebrew bor, same word translated “pit” in Genesis 37 and Zechariah 9) of Malchiah the king’s son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon (bor) there was no water, but mire.” (Jeremiah 38:6)
After being thrown in the pit by his countrymen, Jeremiah is forced into exile in Egypt, where he lives out the rest of his life.
And Jeremiah also used the other two phrases as well. In Jeremiah 16, God declares that He “will repay double for their iniquity and sin” (v. 18); and in Jeremiah 23, God criticizes the false prophets who have falsely claimed that the LORD has spoken peace (v. 17). Once again, all three phrases that appeared in Zechariah 9 and the story of Joseph also appear in Jeremiah.
But maybe you’re not as impressed with the supposed pattern of Jeremiah. His book is 52 chapters long, after all. Is it really a pattern to find three sentences in chapters 16, 23, and 38 of a book? Is there anything else that ties them together?
And as it turns out, there is. Chapters 16 and 23 both contain a matching prophecy, a prophecy not found anywhere else in Jeremiah:
“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,” but, “As the LORD lives who brought up and led the seed of the house of Israel from the north country and from all the countries where I had driven them.”’” (Jeremiah 16:14-15, 23:7-8)
Just as these prophetic utterances in the story of Joseph all revolved around exile and delivery from Egypt, so too do these prophetic utterances in the story of Jeremiah all revolve around exile and delivery in Egypt. To the average Jewish reader, the words of Zechariah 9 would call them back to the story of Joseph in Egypt, and to the astute Jewish reader they would call to mind Jeremiah’s words concerning Egypt.
But what did those words mean, and how were they fulfilled as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey?
You and Me in Egypt
Joseph and Jeremiah weren’t the only ones who ended up exiled in Egypt. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers—jealous that Joseph was their prophesied ruler—and a few years later his brothers had relocated to Egypt as well, where they ended up spending 400 years in slavery. Jeremiah was also forcefully taken to Egypt by his countrymen—led by a military rebel angry with Jeremiah’s prophecy—and soon after his Jewish captors were exiled in Egypt as well. The captors of Joseph and Jeremiah ended up suffering the same fate.
And just over 500 years after Zechariah’s prophecy, the true King of the Jews was also forced into exile in Egypt by His own people—an imposter king and his Jewish advisers who were troubled by the prophetic fulfillment of the long-awaited Messiah.
But this wasn’t the only exile Jesus faced. Before heading for Jerusalem (in a chapter filled with references to the Book of Exodus), Moses and Elijah (two prophets associated with Mount Sinai) visited Jesus and “spoke of his ἔξοδον which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). They spoke of His exodus. They spoke of His exile. They spoke of His prison sentence in a waterless pit.
And who were His brethren who sold Him out? Who were the ones responsible for His spiritual exile into Egypt?
You and me.
We are the ones who threw him in the pit. We are the ones who despised the prophesied King and Messiah. We are the ones who wouldn’t speak peace to the Prince of Peace.
And yet, just as Joseph rose out of the pit and became the savior of the world, so too did Jesus rise from the pit and become the Savior of the World. On the anniversary of the deliverance of God’s people from geographical Egypt, Jesus the Messiah delivered us from spiritual Egypt—in a magnificent way that overshadowed the deliverance through the Red Sea, just as Jeremiah predicted.
When the crowds saw Jesus riding upon that donkey, they didn’t just see a fulfillment of Zechariah 9; they saw freedom from slavery. They saw a return from exile. The saw the crossing of a bigger Red Sea. It’s no wonder they cried out “Hosanna”: “Save now, I pray, O LORD!” (Psalm 118:25).
And rather than having our sins repaid to us double what we had committed, instead we are restored double (Zechariah 9:12). Instead of being unable to speak peace and fearing revenge, He Himself has become our peace, He who came and preached peace to His own kin and to the nations (Ephesians 2:14-17).
So this week, as we prepare to celebrate the Passover of our Lamb…
“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 a donkey,
A colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)