Palm Leaves and the Branch Print
Theology
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 14 April 2011 20:24

All four gospels explicitly state that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem fulfills Old Testament prophecy. “This took place that what was spoken by the prophet might be fulfilled,” Matthew writes (21:4), just before citing Zechariah 9:9: “Say to Daughter Zion, behold your king is coming to you.” And John follows suit (12:15).  Zechariah 9 describes an advancing conquest tearing down from the north (Hamath, Tyre, Sidon), scattering the cities of Philistia (Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod), before riding peaceably into Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. Jesus comes to Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace, but He is so only because He has already subdued His enemies.

The other explicit citation in the accounts of Palm Sunday is from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the crowds shout as Jesus approaches (cf. Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13). Like Zechariah 9, the Psalm celebrates the triumph of Yahweh and his king. Israel is exhorted to give thanks to the Lord because the nations that surrounded the king like bees have been burned like thorns (vv. 10-12).  It is like a new exodus, as Yahweh again proves Himself to be Israel’s strength and song and salvation (v. 14; cf. Exodus 15:2). Victory is followed by a triumphal procession into the city (vv. 19-20), where the joyful assembly of people rescued from danger bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord (v. 26). The marvel is all the greater since the deliverer who serves as the foundation stone of the Lord’s new house is a stone rejected by the builders (vv. 22-24; cf. Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17).

So much, so obvious. But the event of Palm Sunday also fulfills other multiple types and shadows from the Scriptures.

Think of the scene: Jesus rides into the city surrounded by people holding branches cut from the fields or trees (Matthew 21:8; Mark 11:8). The synoptics tell us that the people lay the branches before Jesus, but John’s account suggests the picture you find in all the Sunday School pamphlets: The people surround Jesus waving branches (John 12:13). The people have become trees with leafy branches, breaking out in joy at the coming of the Lord, and more specifically at the release from exile: “You will go out with you, and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Jerusalem waves palm branches to greet the coming of the Branch, the stem from Jesse’s stump (Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15).

We’ve seen this scene before, right at the beginning of the Bible. History begins in a grove of trees, which Adam is called to guard and cultivate, whose fruits Adam is invited to eat. Jesus comes as the new Adam among the living trees that constitute the new Eden. Jesus is the righteous tree beside streams of water, His people the leafy boughs (Psalm 1:3). But the scene also strikes a more ominous note, because Yahweh comes also in the Spirit of the day, walking among the trees of the garden, calling Adam to account (Genesis 3:8).  Jesus is coming to judge, and it’s no surprise that He, Yahweh incarnate, goes directly to the temple (still riding the donkey, it seems!) to toss around the tables of the money changers and cast Israel out of her garden. 

John alone tells us the branches are from palm trees (12:13), and that conjures up a different, though related, setting. Palms are mentioned explicitly in Leviticus 23’s description of the feast of booths; they are among the leafy trees from which Israel was to construct their temporary huts (v. 40; cf. Nehemiah 8:15). Though Jesus enters the city at the beginning of Passover, the celebration reaches ahead to the final, eschatological feast of ingathering. Palms also are carved into the temple walls (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35; cf. Psalm 92:12), and Jesus passing through a gauntlet of palms is Yahweh re-entering His house.

The beloved of the Song of Songs grows to be tall as a palm tree (Song of Songs 7:8), which the lover longs to climb to gather fruit at her breasts. The beloved is also the wooden, palm-lined temple, and the lover desires to enter the inner court of the house of the Lord to drink the joyful fruit of the vine. As He passes through the palm branches, Jesus is the passionate lover climbing to unite with His beloved, climbing the tree to consummate the joy set before Him. Once harlot Israel sought lovers beneath the leafy trees (Ezekiel 6:13; 20:28), but now her true lover has come to her bower under the leaves.

Jesus not only rides through waving branches, but across the branches strewn upon the road. He rides like the glory-army of the Lord who moves in the tops of the trees and leads David to victory (2 Samuel 5:24).  He rides on a carpet of garments (Mark 11:8), a new Jehu coming to announce the destruction of an idolatrous temple (2 Kings 9:13).

All these Scriptures, and more, reinforce and enrich Palm Sunday’s explicit declaration that Jesus is the triumphant King, the rejected but chosen cornerstone.



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