The A-Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Part 1)
This coming Lord’s Day is “Palm Sunday,” the Christian liturgical day we celebrate the “Triumphal Entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem. But some have alleged that the title “Triumphal Entry” is something of a misnomer. Some say that we should speak of the Lord’s “A-Triumphal,” or non-triumphal entry (e.g., Blomberg 1997, 314–16; Kinman 1999, 279–94). As we prepare our hearts to celebrate the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem near the climax of his earthly ministry, I would like to explore this idea that our Lord’s entry was less than “triumphant.” I begin by setting his entry within the cultural matrix of royalty being welcomed into a city.
Royal entries into capital cities have been taking place for thousands of years. During the Middle Ages, it became popular to pull out all the stops for a royal coronation. In fact, there is a 15th-century poem of over 500 lines called “Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London.” The poem, written by the celebrated poet-monk John Lydgate (c. 1370 – c. 1451), marked the occasion of Henry VI’s entry into Paris to assume the throne of France during the Hundred Years’ War. The date was December 2, 1431, and Henry was only 10 years old. But his entry was greeted with magnificent pomp and circumstance. Henry was borne along in a magnificent litter, supported by servants. The mayor of Paris was there to welcome Henry along with all of the city officials and members of the French Parliament, dressed in their finery. Henry was presented with the French coat of arms, and with large, red hearts from which doves were released. As he made his way through Paris, people lined the streets and cheered, and a rain of flowers continually fell upon him. The procession passed under a temporary archway embroidered with gold lilies, then paused along the way now and again so that young Henry could watch the dozens of pageant dramas being performed.
Now, none of this display meant that the people of France actually wanted Henry, the English monarch, to be their king. But this is how city officials behaved in order to show show submission and favor to their rulers. If you were in a political position, you made a great show of your honor and support. If a conquering king entered a city where political figures refused to receive him, on the other hand, executions could follow.
But the practice of welcoming new kings goes back much further than the 15th century. In fact, we find an account of a magnificent coronation in 1 Kings 1, which is one of the OT passages that serves as a backdrop to Jesus’s Jerusalem entry. Moreover, in 1 Kings 1 there are actually two coronation accounts. First, an account of a foiled attempt at a coronation followed by an account of an actual coronation. The contrast between these two coronations is instructive. The foiled coronation takes place when David the king is about to die and his son, Adonijah assumes that he is in line for the throne. So what does he do? 1 Kings 1:5 says that he “exalts” himself. He commandeers fifty chariots and horsemen and fifty men to run before him. He employs the services of Joab, the captain of the king’s army, and Abiathar the priest. He sacrifices sheep and oxen and cattle and throws himself a big party. He invites all of his friends and important leaders of the city and several members of the royal family.
While the unsuspecting Adonijah is celebrating, however, David chooses Solomon to be the next king, and another coronation begins. Solomon’s coronation is different in kind than Adonijah’s revelry. Solomon rides upon the king’s mule, down to the tabernacle on the edge of Jerusalem, to be anointed with oil. Then Solomon enters Jerusalem on a donkey and makes his way to the royal house to assume the throne of his father. Yet, despite these humble symbols, there is such a tumult! The shofar sounds, the people make music and there is much shouting and rejoicing. 1 Kings 1:41 says that the earth is split by the noise.
When Adonijah and his guests hear the tumult and learn what is taking place, realizing they could be charged with treason they suddenly develop a case of indigestion and excuse themselves in a hurry from the feast. Adonijah, in turn, runs to plead for his life (1 Kings 1:50–53). For Solomon’s entry has confirmed the fact that he, not Adonijah is king. That is why there was a royal entry. It was a declaration, an important occasion to establish authority and give people a chance to show allegiance.
Now fast-forward to the first century AD, to the time of Jesus. The Romans always celebrated their public leaders with magnificent fanfare whenever one of them entered a city. Several descriptions of these types of city entries have survived.
Here is what you would have observed if the emperor—or a representative of the emperor—had entered your city in that time. With few exceptions, everyone would go outside the city gates to greet the dignitary. First, the rulers of the city would go, followed by the priests and priestesses, those who had won in the games with their wreaths on their heads, and finally all of the citizens with their wives and children, wearing festive clothing. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus wrote, “Wherever the king appeared the cities poured forth bodily to meet him, their people clothed in festive garb and rejoicing greatly” (Fragments 37.26). There would be dances and singing. And there would be a welcome speech which would always begin with the confession that words were inadequate to express the honor that the city wished to bestow upon their royal visitor. Then the orator would pour forth accolades of praise for the visitor’s character and works. The flattering commendations would go on and on. Finally, the imperial guest would be escorted back into the city by all of the people in celebration. Depending on the purpose of his visit, the emperor or royal official would have soldiers and horsemen before and behind him.
Notably, the year Jesus was crucified, on a day prior to the Passover feast, Pontius Pilate would have entered the city of Jerusalem in some similar way. Pilate ruled the region from the coastal city of Caesarea, and would come down to Jerusalem from time to time, especially during important events like Passover. His presence served to remind the people that they were under Roman authority, thus quelling any idea of revolt. In fact, we do not know for certain, but it stands to reason that in the background to Jesus’s entry, Pilate would have recently entered Jerusalem, riding a war horse or being borne on a litter, in some measure of Roman pomp. But even if he had not yet come, Pilate was about to do so. And the Jewish leaders and other people who wanted to keep Rome on their side would have come out to greet Pilate and welcome him.
With this brief overview of the cultural expectations in mind, we can begin to appreciate why Jesus’s entry might be considered a-triumphant. Jesus does not style himself after the fashion of Abijah, but of Solomon; not after the manner that we would expect of the Roman Pilate, but after the manner that we would expect of a true, Jewish king.