Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

Jesus arriving on a donkey - Palm Sunday

Jesus entering on a donkey – Palm Sunday

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.

The Branch: Sprouting Exactly in time to be … ‘cut off’

We have been exploring the Branch theme that extends through the writings of several of the Old Testament prophets. We saw that Jeremiah in 600 BC had picked up the theme begun by Isaiah 150 years earlier in declaring that this Branch would be a King. In our previous post we saw that Zechariah, following from Jeremiah predicted that this Branch would be named Jesus and that he would combine the roles of King and Priest into one – something that had never occurred previously in Israelite history.

Daniel’s riddle of the scheduled arrival of the Anointed One

But it did not end there. Daniel, sandwiched in time between Jeremiah and Zechariah, directly picked up the title of ‘Anointed One’ (which we saw here = ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah), at the same time alluding to the Branch theme in a fascinating riddle that predicted when the Messiah would be revealed. Around 538 BC he wrote the following:

“From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. … After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:25-26)

Since Anointed One = Christ = Messiah, as we saw here, we know that Daniel was writing about the coming Christ. Daniel specifies a start time (“issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”) and a specific time interval (“seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’”) which will culminate in the revealing of the Christ (= Anointed One) who will then mysteriously be ‘cut off’. The overall structure of this prediction seems clear enough. But can we understand the specifics so that we can actually track this revealing of the Christ? Let’s begin by looking at what triggered the ticking of this prophetic clock.

The Issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem

About 100 years after Daniel, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes. As such he was a man who had access to the very highest power in the Persian Empire. In that context he asks for and receives a royal decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem. Here is how he states it.

In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes… I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favour in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.’…

7 I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors …”. [And] the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors … and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me. (Nehemiah 2:1-9)

So here we see a royal decree, backed with letters and the military of the Persian Empire to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. Since the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes is known in secular history, and since this decree specifies the start of this period in terms of Artaxerxes’ reign (20th year of reign in the month of Nisan), we can determine when this was. Artaxerxes ascended to the Persian throne immediately after the death of his father Xerxes in December 465 BC. (1) and since this decree was issued in Nisan 1 (March/April) of his 20th year this would put the issuing of the decree at March 5, 444 BC (1).

Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’

But what are these ‘sevens’ that Daniel was using to track the passing of time? In the Law of Moses there was a cycle of seven years whereby the land was to be rested from agricultural cultivation every seventh year. It was stated in the following way

When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. 3 For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4 But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. (Leviticus 25:2-3)

The context of Daniel’s statement is ‘years’, and using this line of reasoning, by ‘sevens’ he is writing along these cycles of seven years. In that case the Seven ‘Sevens’ and Sixty-two ‘Sevens’ can be stated arithmetically as (7+62) * 7 = 483 years.

A 360-Day year

Complicating things somewhat is the length of year used. Today we use the solar year (=365.24219879 days per year) because we can precisely measure the revolution of the earth around the sun. In those days it was common to base the year from revolutions of the moon (as the Islamic calendar does still today) giving 354 days/year or by using 12 30-day months giving 360 days per year. In all cases there is some adjusting done to ‘fix up’ the differences in revolutions. (In our Western calendar we use the leap year – 366 days – to adjust for the fractional day, with some leap years being skipped.) In ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek civilizations a 360 day calendar was common. This seems to be the basis for these years in Daniel. Further reasons for using a 360 day year are given here.

The Scheduled Arrival of the Christ

With this background information it is now fairly simple to calculate when the Christ was to arrive as per Daniel’s riddle. 483 years with 360 days/year will give us:

483 years * 360 days/year = 173 880 days

In terms of our Western calendar this would give us 476 solar years with 25 days left over. (173 880/365.24219879 = 476 with 25 as remainder)

The start point for this calculation was Artaxerxes’ decree which was issued on March 5, 444 BC. Adding 476 solar years to this date brings us to March 5, 33 AD. (There is no year 0, the calendar going from 1BC to 1 AD in one year so arithmetically it is -444 + 476 +1= 33).

If we now take the 25 remaining days and add them to March 5, 33 AD we come to March 30, 33 AD, illustrated in the timeline below. Or as Hoehner (whose calculations I have been following) states

“By adding 25 days to March 5 (444 BC) one comes to March 30 (33 AD), which was Nisan 10. This was the day of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem…

Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ Part VI, pg. 16 1977

The Timeline of Daniel's prophecy of 'sevens' culminating in Jesus Triumphant entry

The Timeline of Daniel’s prophecy of ‘sevens’ culminating in Jesus Triumphant entry

 

Triumphant Entry of Jesus – That Day

Today as I write this post, it is Palm Sunday, the very day we remember the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Making the assumptions that we have done above and using some basic arithmetic we find that this is the day that Daniel’s riddle of the ‘sevens’ lands us on. This is the day that Jesus was presented as the King or Christ to the Jewish nation. We know this because Zechariah (who had predicted the name of the Christ) had also written that:

Rejoice greatly! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

The long awaited King would be revealed riding into Jerusalem on a colt with an attending crowed of shouting and rejoicing people. On the day of the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem – that very same day predicted by Daniel in his riddle of the ‘sevens’ – Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a colt. Luke records the account.

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’…

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:37-42)

In this account Jesus weeps because the people did not recognize the very day predicted in tandem by Zechariah and Daniel. But because they did not recognize this day that the Christ was revealed something totally unexpected would happen. Daniel, in the very same passage where he laid out the riddle of the ‘sevens’, predicted that:

… After the sixty-two ‘sevens’ the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing…” (Daniel 9:26)

Instead of taking the throne to rule, the Christ would be ‘cut off’ and would have ‘nothing’. In using this phrase ‘cut off’ (some Bibles just translate it ‘will die’) Daniel alludes to that theme of the Branch, that shoot from the stump of Jesse, begun long before by Isaiah, elaborated by Jeremiah, the name predicted by Zechariah and now the time and signature foreseen by Daniel and Zechariah in tandem. This Branch would be ‘cut off’. But how would this Branch be ‘cut off’? We return to Isaiah in our next post to see a vivid description.

1) Reference used throughout is Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ
Part VI: Harold W. Hoehner