By Valerie Jones
The crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” and laid their palm branches at his feet as Jesus made his entry into the town. We imagine the scene so clearly: women, children, and men so aptly attuned to this humble man riding on a donkey. This is the scene and memory we celebrate every spring in our Sunday schools and churches. We celebrate yet also wonder how it could have been just a week later the same crowd which celebrated him pleaded in unity for his murder and crucifixion.
Perhaps there’s more to this story than first meets the eye. Jesus spent his life fulfilling ancient prophecies and building upon an age-old Hebrew story that was still being told. A look into history reveals Jesus was not the first king to travel this path westward into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem, the “city on a hill,” was praised by its inhabitants and feared by its enemies for its high elevation. Steep valleys to the east and west propagated a sense of majesty and defensibility. But what we may not realize is that the western Kidron Valley, adjacent to the Mount of Olives, served not only as a border to the city but also to a region. Beyond that valley, lush rolling hills turned into a bare, dry, and often terrifying wilderness.
A Fearful, Mysterious Wilderness
In this terrifying wilderness, Israelite tribes dared not settle. Before they entered the land, the region was known to be home to fierce nomads. The type of individuals able to survive this harsh setting had to be ruthlessly strong, adopting a lifestyle much different than the Israelites. Rather than planting and sowing, they herded and butchered for their livelihood. Rather than building and settling, they were always on the move. The rough climate and fearsome inhabitants made the place dangerous and unsafe to travel. Anyone who did so entered at their own risk (such as the man attacked on the road to Jericho in the story of the Good Samaritan).
This scary area became a hiding place for thieves, outcasts, exiles. This is where David spent his years in hideout from King Saul. This is where Jesus drew away and was tempted by Satan for 40 days. This is where John the Baptist’s voice called out to the lowest of society that the kingdom of Heaven was near. This is where the Roman “client king” Herod, deeply paranoid and plagued by his unpopularity with the Jews, built forts and even palaces as refuges in case of an uprising. And this is where the last Jewish rebels in the Roman-Jewish wars fled and hid just prior to Jerusalem’s final fall in AD 70.
Prior to all these events, however, the Judean wilderness played an important part in one of the Israelites’ most sacred rituals. Annually on the Day of Atonement, they were asked by Yahweh to give two goats to the high priest for a community sin offering. One goat was slaughtered but the other was to be “presented alive before the Lord,” making purification for the community “by sending it into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:10). Because of this ritual, perhaps there was something in every Israelite’s heart that understood the goat banished out there served as a punishment for their own wrongdoings.
King David’s Heartbreaking Rejection
Perhaps the most heartbreaking story of a Judean wilderness exile involved Israel’s beloved King David. Although he made some mistakes, David united his kingdom, ruled righteously, and brought undeniable blessing to the land. As the years of peace and prosperity progressed, eventually the unthinkable happened: sedition arose against him and ironically from his own household. Eventually David saw that his son Absalom had “stolen the people’s hearts” and he had lost favor with his own people. Although many of his companions encouraged him to fight for his kingship (one that was rightfully his), David made an important decision in Jewish history; rather than force his authority on the people he loved, he voluntarily walked the path of exile.
The sobering and tearful account of David and a few of his faithful men retreating from Jerusalem eastward via the Mount of Olives, weeping as they went is recorded in 2 Samuel 15. Every watching Israelite marveled: This is the path of the goat of atonement. This is the path for criminals and outcasts! This is the journey into the great unknown and the road of exile and perhaps to a dangerous and slow death. Who knew if King David would be able to survive out there? Who knew if they would ever see him again?
But King David’s exile wasn’t the end of the story. Eventually the people saw Absalom for who he truly was and longed for their former king. Eventually David returned to them and lived his final days reigning and living among them.
Something to Celebrate
But how do these stories relate to Jesus’ own Jerusalem entry that Palm Sunday morning?
Although he was aware of the welcoming crowds, Jesus also understood the significance of the path. Our Lord was undoubtedly aware that, like David, he too would be rejected just one week later, and the city that would “kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Matthew 23:37) would soon also turn its back on him. But also like David, rather than enforce his righteous rule by sheer power or manipulation, he chose to let the people have what they desired and so too, in a sense, walk the path of exile.
Maybe we find ourselves in a situation not unlike the ancient Israelites after they had exiled their favorite king. Jesus has gone, in a sense, into the great unknown and perhaps we wonder as the years awaiting his promised return drag on and we get caught up in our day-to-day lives on earth, will we ever see him again? As we see the world fill with more evil, we wonder, will a righteous king ever return? In rejecting him, did we miss our chance at peace?
Just as David’s exile was not the end of the story, neither was Jesus’ death. This season we remember his death but we also boldly celebrate his resurrection. Although after this resurrection he was taken out of sight, we must remember we have been given a promise that this same rejected king will return “in the same way you have seen him go” (Acts 1:9-11). The Scriptures are clear; his feet will again touch down upon the Mount of Olives and this king will walk the path of exile in reverse. As he enters yet again the city of Jerusalem, it will be a sign to the world that this time, he will never leave.
This Easter, let us celebrate the kingdom that will come and “of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
Valerie Jones and her husband live in Colorado Springs and work with international missions and refugee care.