Why did Jesus ride a donkey instead of a horse when He entered into Jerusalem just before His death?
In the East, the ass (donkey) has always played a much more important part than among us Westerners, and on that account we find it so frequently mentioned in the Bible. In the first place it is the universal saddle animal of the East. Among us the donkey has ceased to be regularly used for the purposes of the saddle, and is only casually employed by some as a beast of burden. Some persons certainly ride it habitually, but they almost invariably belong to a line of work with which they make money doing so and are content to ride without a saddle, balancing themselves in some extraordinary manner just over the animal's tail. In the East, however, it is ridden by persons of the highest rank and is decorated with saddle and harness as rich as those of the horse. In the west we should be very much surprised to see a royal prince, a judge, or a government official travelling habitually on a donkey, but in Palestine it is the animal which would be considered most appropriate for that purpose. For example, we find that Abraham, an exceptionally wealthy man, and a chief of high position, made use of the donkey for the saddle. It was on a donkey that he travelled when he made his three days' journey from Beersheba to Moriah when he was called to prove his faith by sacrificing Isaac.
Genesis 22:3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
In the book of Judges we find that riding upon the donkey (ass) is actually mentioned as a mark of high rank.
Judges 3-4 And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years. And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havothjair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
Here we have the curious fact the sacred historian thinks is worthwhile mentioning, that great men, the sons of the chief man in Israel, each of them being the ruler over a city, rode upon a colt of a donkey. We see this same anomaly occur just two chapters away.
Judges 12:13-14 And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel. And he had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.
Hence we see the use of a donkey as a saddle animal was not a mark of humility. It instead is a mark of prestige. The Scriptures are essentially Eastern in all their allusions and tone of thought. In consequence of the very natural habit of reading Scriptures according to our Western ideas, many persons have totally perverted the sense of one very familiar passage, the prophecy of Zechariah concerning the future Messiah.
Zechariah 9:9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.
Now this passage, as well as the one which describes its fulfilment so many years later, has often been seized upon as a proof of the meekness and lowliness of our Saviour in riding upon so humble an animal when He made His entry into Jerusalem. The fact is, there was no humility in the case, neither was the act so understood by the people. He rode upon an Ass as any prince or ruler would have done who was engaged on a peaceful journey, the horse being reserved for war, as indeed is shown very clearly in the context of this verse. For after writing the words which have just been quoted, we read:
Zechariah 9:10 And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth. Meek and lowly was He, as became the new character hitherto unknown to the warlike and restless Jews, a Prince, not of war, as had been all the other celebrated kings, but of peace. Had He come as the Jews expected their Messiah to come (despite so many prophecies to the contrary), as a great king and conqueror, He would have ridden the war horse and been surrounded with countless legions of armed men. But He came as the herald of peace, not of war, and though meek and lowly, yet a Prince, riding as became a prince, on a colt of a donkey which had borne no inferior burden. That the act was not considered as one of lowliness is evident from the manner in which it was received by the people, accepting Him as the Son of David, coming in the name of the Highest, and greeting Him with the cry of "Hosanna!" This is quoted from Psalm 118:25-26: Save now, I beseech thee, O LORD: O LORD, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD. The palm-branches which they strewed upon the road were not chosen by the attendant crowd merely as a means of doing honour to Him whom they acknowledged as the Son of David. They were necessarily connected with the cry of "Hosanna!" At the Feast of Tabernacles it was customary for the people to assemble with branches and palms and willows in their hands, and for one of the priests to recite the Great Hallel (Psalms 113 and 118). At certain intervals the people responded with the cry of "Hosanna!," waving at the same time their palm-branches. For the whole of the seven days through which the feast lasted they repeated their Hosannas, always accompanying the shout with the waving of palm-branches, and setting them towards the altar as they went in procession around it. Every child who could hold a palm-branch was expected to take part in the solemnity, just as did the children on the occasion of the triumphal entry. By degrees, the cry of "Hosanna" was associated with the palm-branches themselves, as well as with the feast, the last day being called the Great Hosanna. The reader should now see the importance of this carrying of palm-branches, accompanied with Hosannas, and that those who used them in honour of Him whom they followed into Jerusalem did not see it as a lowly or humble act. Again, the action of the disciples, putting their mantles on the donkey and setting their Master upon them, was one that signified their acknowledgement of Him as their Prince. The same idea was typified by the laying of the clothes upon the road, together with the palm-branches. Compare this with the account of Elisha, when he sent the young prophet to call Jehu from among the council and to anoint him King of Israel, the act of anointing being performed in a private chamber. Jehu, scarcely realizing the importance of the act, seemed to think it a trick played upon him by some of his companions, the commanding officers of the army. When, however, they heard of the account of his meeting with the prophet, they at once accepted him as their King, and, as a token thereof, they did the following:
2 Kings 9:13 Then they hasted, and took every man his garment, and put it under him on the top of the stairs, and blew with trumpets, saying, Jehu is king.
Hence, we see that donkeys were selected for persons of high rank, especially for those who exercised the office of a judge.
Judges 5:10 Speak, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgment, and walk by the way.
All this points to the infallibility of Scripture. We should all be extremely grateful that Christ riding an Ass is recorded in Scripture. When this is properly understood, it points to the reality of His being Israel's Messiah, the King of Rightousness, who was to execute justice.