REJOICE greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
ON 16 November 1940, the mayor of Coventry, John Moseley, was only just getting up and dressed when there was a knock at the door. He groaned, blearily making his way down the stairs. He had been mayor for only five days, but he had been awake for most of the previous 48 hours since the devastating blitz on Coventry on 14 November. He had spent long hours inspecting the terrible bombsites and helping with support and emergency planning.
The mayor’s wife, Nell, was still picking pieces of glass out of the carpet where their own windows had blown in, and she shouted out to whoever was at the door that they would have to go round the back, as the front door had also been damaged and was jammed shut. John made his way to the back of the house to see who their visitor was — and couldn’t believe his eyes. “Heavens above, it’s the King!” he shouted. “We’d better look sharp!”
King George VI made many tours of the blitzed cities, always dressed in his military uniform (he had served in the British fleet in the First World War) and intent on raising morale. He had not announced this visit publicly, and rumour has it that he even brought his own packed lunch, knowing how precious resources would be on the ground with hundreds of newly homeless people. Mayor John Moseley, still unshaven but feeling much more awake suddenly, led His Majesty around the worst-hit areas, and King George famously stood in the ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral.
His unexpected visit made a huge difference, bringing hope and comfort to the citizens of Coventry (and, presumably, went down in Moseley family history as “the time John nearly met the King in his pyjamas”).
These verses from Zechariah show two contrasting aspects of God as king. They describe a triumphant entry, perhaps a return from battle: a victorious king, a king who has saved and who is righteous and true, rides towards his people, who shout and sing to welcome him. Then, in the same breath, the prophet says that the king is “humble and riding on a donkey”. The verse comes after eight verses of destruction and judgement on all of Israel’s enemies, but after this appearance of the king on the donkey, the mood changes: God the king may have been fighting, but his arrival heralds a rule of peace, a time with no need for chariots or warhorses. That’s what the donkey in this prophecy signifies: the war has already been won, so there is no need for the king to appear in military force. An age of peace and safety is beginning.
The prophecy, like most prophecies, looks forward to more than one point in time. It speaks of the defeat of Israel’s enemies at that time. It also heralds a day that we hope for even now, when the whole world will be peaceful under the reign of God the king. And it points to a familiar moment in between, a moment when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He wasn’t returning from a battle, but about to go into one: a battle he would eventually win against death and sin. The people who waved palms didn’t know or understand that. They were expecting a military hero to overthrow the Roman rule, but Jesus rode a donkey and reminded them of the much bigger picture: a prophecy about a God whose reign would be eternally peaceful, a king who has no need for a warhorse or a chariot, the Prince of Peace.
In some ways, Jesus’s appearance in the world is rather like George VI’s in Coventry. Although the war is still raging, although we suffer and fight, here comes the king unexpectedly: on foot through the vegetable patch because the front door isn’t working, right into the middle of our everyday lives. He comes dressed as someone who has fought alongside us, who knows our battles. He doesn’t mind that we haven’t shaved or that we can’t offer him a meal. He’s brought his own sandwiches; he’ll even share them. He’s here to help. He’ll know what to do. The war goes on, but, when the king stands in the ruins of our lives, we know that we can have hope.
This is an extract from The Bible Reading Fellowship’s Advent book, Image of the Invisible: Daily Bible readings from Advent to Epiphany by Amy Scott Robinson (BRF £8.99; CT Bookshop £8.10).