Jehu is one of those hyper-violent Old Testament characters who make Christians uncomfortable. Anointed by Elisha’s servant to carry out Yahweh’s vengeance against the house of Ahab, Jehu does his business with relish.
A captain of the Israelite army, he leads a coup against sick King Jehoram. King Ahaziah of Judah is caught up in the slaughter, and Jehu orders the execution of forty-two members of the Davidic royal house. When he rides into Samaria, Queen Jezebel greets him with painted eyes. He’s not seduced. At his instruction, Jezebel’s servants toss her from a window, and Jehu then tramples her to death in the street, leaving her body for the dogs. He arranges for the slaughter of seventy sons of Ahab, but does it so cleverly that he retains a sliver of deniability.
No one seems more un-Jehu than Jesus, or vice versa. When Jesus comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he’s not riding a warhorse or leading an army. He sets up a drama familiar to any Jew, drawn from Zechariah’s prophecy of a conquering king arriving in Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech. 9:9–10). Donkeys and mules are comical animals nowadays, but they served as royal transport in ancient Israel. Solomon rides to his coronation on a mule that belonged to David (1 Kings 1:33–44), and all David’s sons ride mules (2 Sam. 13:29). Jesus’s entry is a royal advent, but there’s no slaughter or trampling. His arrival is the parousia of the Prince of peace.
But there are complicating details. John’s Gospel tells us that people cut palm branches and spread them in Jesus’s way, but Luke adds that the crowds spread garments before him. It’s an act of homage, an ancient version of the red-carpet treatment. Clothes make the man, so laying down a robe before a king is a symbolic prostration. The crowds elevate Jesus on the shoulders of their discarded robes.
This gesture happens only one other time in Scripture. When Elisha’s servant anoints Jehu and dashes away, Jehu’s fellow soldiers ask what happened. He hems and haws, then announces he has been anointed king: “Then they hurried and each man took his garment and placed them under him on the bare steps, and blew the trumpet, saying ‘Jehu is king’” (2 Kings 9:13).
The similarities between Jehu and Jesus don’t stop there. One of Jehu’s signal achievements is to dismantle the house of Baal in Samaria. He assembles Baal worshipers by telling them he will host a great sacrifice to Baal. It’s a ruse. Once the idolaters are gathered inside the temple, Jehu locks the doors and sends his men in for a bloodbath. Then he reduces the temple of Baal to rubble, good for nothing but a sewer.
Jesus marches into Jerusalem, not Samaria, but like Jehu he has a temple on his mind. By the first century, Baal is a distant memory, but Jesus immediately heads to Herod’s temple, which he condemns as a den of thieves, repeating the words of Jeremiah against the first temple. According to Luke, Jesus weeps over the city, sorrowful that Jerusalem did not “recognize the time of your visiting.” Because the city doesn’t receive her king, “your enemies will throw up a bank before you and surround you … and will level you to the ground” (Luke 19:43–44).
We might think: Jehu takes the vengeance himself; Jesus only predicts a catastrophe. That is too facile. Revelation also rings changes on this typology of Jesus and Jehu. After the 144,000 are sealed, John sees an innumerable multitude with palm branches celebrating the salvation achieved by the Son of David who is both Lion and Lamb (Rev. 7:9). When the horns of the beast attack the Lamb, he turns their hatred against the harlot, so that the horns fulfill the purpose that God puts into their hearts (Rev. 17:13–18). By the end of the book, the Lamb has proven to be a Jehu who overthrows the painted harlot who, whether Jerusalem or Rome, is a temple-city that drinks the blood of prophets, another Jezebel (Rev. 2:20).
Jesus brings peace, but he uses a sword to do it. He brings a new world by sweeping away the old one. We won’t grasp Palm Sunday, or the good news of God’s justice, unless we hear these reverberations of ancient tales of vengeance. We don’t know the Jesus of Palm Sunday until we know him as Jehu on a donkey.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.