Memories of Olivet: Bethphage on the Mount

As has been noticed in an earlier meditation, the name of Bethphage is mentioned only three times in our Bible and the three references are all related to the same incident (Matt 21:1; Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29). Although it is mentioned several times in the Jewish Talmud, it is never mentioned in the Old Testament. John does not mention the name Bethphage at all, but, with the other three Evangelists he does record the majestic scene in which the village figures so prominently (John 12:12-15).

Bethphage was a neighboring village of Bethany. It was situated between Bethany and the summit of the Mount of Olives, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and is today identified with the village of Abu Dis. The name means “The House of figs,” and this may be reminiscent of earlier, more fertile days. The approach to the Mount of Olives from Jericho is through desert country, so that the fig trees and olive groves of the mount would have been a pleasant sight indeed. However, the otherwise quiet village of Bethphage was about to become associated with the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, and will ever be remembered for this reason (Zech 9:9).

As the little company, Jesus and His disciples, made their way to the Mount of Olives from Jericho, the Savior sent two of the disciples on to Bethphage. He was about to display both His omniscience and His omnipotence. “Go into the village,” He commanded, “and ye shall find an ass tied, and a colt with her: Loose them, and bring them unto Me.” In His all-knowledge He knew that the animals were there, He knew just where they were to be found, at the entering in to the village. He knew that no man had yet sat upon that colt, it was unbroken, untrained, and He knew too that someone would query the disciples taking the animals. It was exactly as He had said, for they found the ass with its colt, and when they began to loose them someone did indeed ask, “Why loose ye the colt?” They answered as they had been instructed, “The Lord hath need of him,” and there was no objection. It was, says Matthew, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. It was to be an historical day and a momentous event.

Jerusalem was crowded. Pilgrims would be arriving from all parts of the country for the feast of the Passover. Soon the news spread that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and multitudes went out to meet Him. They waved branches of palm trees and spread them in the way. Others spread their garments on the donkey for Him to sit upon, and on the rough pathway in preparation for His approach. The crowds rejoiced. In the words of Psalm 118:25-26 they cried, “Hosanna to the Son of David: blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” (Matt 21:9).

From the humble village of Bethphage the great procession ascended the Mount. The ancient prophecy of Zechariah was being fulfilled literally, “Behold thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass” (Matt 21:5; Zech 9:9). It was a memorable hour as they slowly wended their way up the Mount. Nearer the summit of the Mount they turned around its shoulder and began the descent, suddenly arriving at that point on the road where the whole city comes into view, shining golden in the sun. It is a panorama of splendor, but the scene was soon to be shrouded in the tears of the King Himself. The multitudes might rejoice. They might, exultantly, praise God. But the King would weep. He knew what they did not, and, says Luke, “When He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it (Luke 19:41).

In that same omniscience which had directed the disciples to the ass at the entering in of the village, He looked forward, and He knew. How sadly He cried through His tears, “If thou hadst known.” They had not recognized their day of visitation while He had ministered among them. They did not appreciate the things that belonged to their peace. Even now, as the people rejoiced, their proud leaders were complaining, demanding that He should rebuke them. In less than forty years from that day, forty years from the commencement of His ministry, the favored city of Jerusalem would be razed to the ground. The Savior could envisage the siege, like a trench around them. City and sanctuary would be destroyed. Titus and his legions would sit on these very hills, watching the siege of the city and plotting its final demise. Not one stone would be left upon another. He knew. It was the city of the great King, and He was that King, but Jerusalem had no place or time for Him. Bethphage and Bethany might give Him welcome, but not the great city, and now it was doomed.

Yet again Olivet was wet with His tears, but these tears were different to the silent weeping of John 11:35 at Bethany. Now He wept aloud. His weeping might be heard now, and this day of a rejoicing which began at Bethphage was to be crowned with sorrow as they made their way into the city. He entered the courts of the Temple and with royal authority He began to purge it as He had done on an earlier occasion (John 2:13-17). Mercenaries had turned the Temple court into a market-place. With their dishonest dealings they had made it a den of thieves. He overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and cast out those who were making merchandise out of divine things.

Now it was evening. An eventful day was drawing to a close. What now? He made His way, with His disciples, back over Olivet to Bethany. They would welcome Him there and provide hospitality even though it was a “House of the poor.” They appreciated Him and He appreciated their appreciation! It is so today. We must give Him a large place in our gatherings, in our ministry, in our hearts, and in our homes. The world has cast Him out and He looks to His people for a place in their midst.