Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur claims that on the tombstone of King Arthur was written the phrase “Rex quondam, Rexque futurus”—Latin for “Once and future King.” As the legend goes, King Arthur had ushered in a golden age of unprecedented prosperity with his Camelot and retinue of valiant knights. But his kingdom was usurped by the evil Mordred, resulting in civil war and widespread destruction. Arthur eventually kills his enemy in combat, but in doing so receives a wound that proves fatal. Accompanying the king’s death is the end of the golden age that his rule had brought to England. And yet, the story ends with every expectation that one day King Arthur will return, and with him will come the thriving of his people.
The Arthurian mythology is merely one example of a theme that pervades the literature and narrative of virtually every culture mankind has ever produced. Arthur himself is just one incarnation of a common pattern: the good king whose reign has been interrupted. He once presided over the flourishing of his people, but he has now gone and his return is anxiously anticipated. Spend any amount of time studying the literature of nearly any people, and this story arc is bound to come up. The American reader in 2015 might be inclined to say that modern man has left this narrative behind, but I’m not so sure.
2016 is an election year (in case you hadn’t heard!). Presidential races have a funny way of picking up on the kingly narrative, effectively pulling back the curtain of the human heart. The passion with which so many argue for their favorite candidate is born of a belief that the right president will solve all of the problems in our society. Some golden age of our history (for some, Reagan, for others, Clinton) will be ushered back in, not by the same man but by someone who carries on the same legacy. And if you think this is an exaggeration, pause for a moment and consider the promises that candidates make, and that we always expect to hear.
Presidential hopefuls declare that they will lower taxes, reform education, protect civil liberties, end wars, solve unemployment, and perform any number of other amazing feats. And they make their promises as though fulfillment will be simple, straightforward, and dependent only on unilateral authority that the president doesn’t actually have. So why do we love it when they do that? I would submit that our hearts are hardwired to be attracted to the role that they’re playing. The part of the heroic king is one we all love to see acted out, not because we love the acting but because we’re all looking for the one they’re pretending to be.
Pastor Timothy Keller is fond of the term “the King above the kings, the King behind the kings.” In his analysis of human cultures, he believes there to be a “memory trace” in our hearts that looks for and expects to find heroic kings in our culture precisely because we were designed to live under one such figure. C.S. Lewis continues unpacks this phenomenon saying, “Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters.” The truth of his statement is self-evident. We live in a democratic republic founded upon the principle that we will have no king, and yet we try to make heroes and kings out of everyone and anyone of notoriety. This is because, Lewis states, democracy is medicine, not food. It is an imperfect solution to the problem of sin that corrupts men’s hearts and makes kings into monsters. But it is not the final solution.
The deep longing that the human heart possesses for a heroic king actually points to a king who exists not in mythology or legend, but in history. Psalm 22:27-31 reads:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
David, the psalmist and a king himself, prophetically writes of a time when the whole world will be united under the rule of a greater king. The king he alludes to is not a new one, but a returning one. This is why he writes that all will “remember” and turn to the Lord, rather than “learn” or “discover.” So when was he here the first time and what will they remember? Verse 1 of the same Psalm tells us as it begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are the words that Jesus cried out in Aramaic while he hung on the cross, with a mocking crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him that ironically read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” There hung the king that we all long for. As soon as he actually showed up, we murdered him.
The scandal of King Jesus is that he knew he would be killed, and he came to us regardless. Poetically, he died at the hands of sinful men for the very purpose of saving them from death at the hands of their sin. That is why Jesus is the king we need. Unlike all other kings, all that he demands from his subjects he has already given. He commands love, but greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. He commands obedience, but he was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. He commands service, but he came not to be served but to serve.
What Jesus asks of his own are merely faint echoes of what he has accomplished for them. And all he promises, he does indeed accomplish, for “kingship belongs to the Lord.” In him are both the power and the will to bring about the flourishing of his own. And in following him, we find the abundant life that we long for. The king who came and died also rose and departed, but he’s coming back. And with him will come the flourishing of his people, experienced now in part but when he comes it will be made perfect.
Over the next 12 months, we are bound to hear much in the way of political rhetoric. We will scarcely be able to go throughout a single day without talk of the coming elections. But for the Christian, we can understand that all those impassioned words are driven by an innate desire to meet the king who will bring fulfillment to a longing heart. May we be bold in introducing the world to him.