J.R.R. Tolkien’s last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is entitled Return of the King. One of the final chapters in the book portrays this episode—where the ranger Strider finally claims his destiny as Aragorn Elessar, the long-awaited king of Gondor. Tolkien describes his crowning like this:
“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.” (Tolkien, Return of the King, 246).
Tolkien constructs Aragorn as the ultimate messianic king. He is not just a monarch, but an idealized figure who rules with almost supernatural qualities of wisdom, justice, and mercy. He is a healer, a sage; he is both a prophet and a subject of prophecy, promised to return at a crucial time. Aragorn is not the sole possessor of these characteristics in English literature; Tolkien, a medievalist, was thoroughly familiar with the legends of King Arthur. Of course, the lord of the Round Table and its mighty warriors, is said to be not dead but sleeping on the Isle of Avalon to return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need (apparently neither the Blitz nor Brexit).
Behind both of these figures and broader character of the messianic monarch in Western Literature is King David. He represents an ideal figure because he simultaneously embodies three deep archetypes: the king, the priest, and the prophet.
As king, David was the ultimate warrior. Slayer of Goliath and a mighty war leader, David became the target of Saul’s wrath because of the people’s celebration in song: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:8). David was responsible for defeating the Philistines and taking Canaanite cities. While Saul had favored his fellow Benjaminites, David unified the tribes of Israel into a coherent unit around the tribally-neutral city of Jerusalem where he centralized both political and sacred power. This unification was a difficult task, almost proving too much for him, exploited as it was by the revolt of Absalom. Nevertheless, David was able to pass a united kingdom on to his son Solomon after whom it would splinter again into the two nations of Israel and Judah.
As priest, David was responsible for bringing the worship of Yhwh to Jerusalem and centralizing the worship of the God of Israel around the ark of the covenant. While he did not suppress the old shrines like Gilgal and Shechem, he identified the ark with the presence of God and tied its presence in Jerusalem to the royal court. In his day, royalty retained some priestly functions as it had in former days—remember that Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem) was both a king and a priest (Gen 14:17-24). Thus, when David brings the ark into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 he does so with dancing and sacrifice, performing the sacrifices himself while wearing an ephod, the distinctive garment of the priests (2 Sam 6:13-14, 17-19). Similarly, David offers atoning sacrifices to avert a plague from his people in 2 Samuel 24:18-25. The materials in 1 Chronicles further ties David himself to the Jerusalem Temple. David is identified as the mind behind the entire project and Solomon just the hands that carry it out, contradicting the Kings account where Solomon has the larger role.
As prophet, David’s is identified as a vessel of God’s Spirit twice. The first time is in connection with his anointing as king; Gods favor is transferred from Saul to David. When Saul was first anointed as king Samuel told him “the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with [a band of prophets] and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). After Saul did not follow God’s directives Samuel was told to find and anoint David. As in Saul’s case, the anointing with oil is tied to the coming of the Spirit (as it is today in traditions that follow baptismal chrismation):
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him… (1 Sam 16:13-14)
Thus the giving of the spirit to David went hand-in-hand with its removal from Saul; it proceeded from the king-making ritual. In David’s case, though, it did not depart from him. While the Spirit operates in a prophetic frenzy for Saul on several occasions (1 Sam 10:10-13, 19:18-24), David never displays this kind of behavior. Rather, his oracular last words connect it with his poetry: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,/ his word is on my tongue…” (2 Sam 23:2). Later interpreters would pick up this theme. Second Temple literature including both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament routinely refer to David as a prophet or to the psalms as prophetic documents (see Matt 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:25; 2:31; 4:25; etc.).
As if all of this weren’t enough, there’s one more important piece of David’s legacy: the covenant that God makes with his house. In 2 Samuel 7, just after David brings the ark into Jerusalem with dancing and sacrifice, he considers building a house for the Lord. However, God sends a message through the prophet Nathan that completely flips this. David is not going to build a house for God; rather, God is going to build a house for David! A promise to place one of David’s sons on the throne becomes a covenant:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established” (2 Sam 7:12-16).
From a narrative perspective the initial lines of this passage refer to Solomon. As time went on, though, they were interpreted more broadly. David represents a godly king who rules a restored people of Israel with justice. God’s covenant with the house of David became both a challenge to the throne’s current incumbent (does he measure up?) and a promise that God would restore Davidic rule if this succession was ever broken. The Zion theology of Isaiah emphasizes this point: God will raise up and protect godly kings and, conversely, all kings of Judah are vassals of the true King, Yhwh. This brings us back to those psalms we discussed above, Psalms 45, 72, and 89 that sketch out the lines of an aspirational messianic figure.
The exile to Babylon and eventual restoration caused a theological crisis: how was God remaining faithful to the promise with David? How would God make good on this promise in the present situation? Thus, this post-exilic period became one of intense messianic expectation. The victories of Judas Maccabeus and the restoration of a line of priest-kings in Israel described in the books of the Maccabees seemed an initial answer, but the Roman occupation crushed the people’s hopes once again.
At the turn of the millennium and at the time of the birth of Jesus, this is what the faithful of Israel were hoping for: God’s Messiah (anointed one) who, like David, would be anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship, receive the Spirit of God with power, and act in a Davidic way by driving out the foreign oppressors, restoring the house of David, and ruling with justice and equity from Jerusalem. This is what it meant to be “Son of David” in the world that would birth the New Testament.