The hero story
Have you heard the ballad of the hoped-for hero? Ancient prophecies foretell his coming. Not altogether clear, shrouded in mystery, but enough to kindle hopes and keep the flickering flame alive. Everything depends on his coming. In fact, if these prophecies aren’t realized, there is no final defense against evil. No ultimate hope. No…
Have you heard the ballad of the hoped-for hero? Ancient prophecies foretell his coming. Not altogether clear, shrouded in mystery, but enough to kindle hopes and keep the flickering flame alive. Everything depends on his coming. In fact, if these prophecies aren’t realized, there is no final defense against evil. No ultimate hope. No redemption. No restoration. Curiously, some think that the veiled and wispy nature of the intimations that he will arise amount to nothing at all. If they are correct, is there any basis for the claims that the prophecies have in fact been fulfilled?
The sprawling, ramshackle narrative of the Old Testament is the one true hero story on which all the others are based. Oh sure, it may not always seem that the texts are concerned with the hoped-for hero, but these books can only be understood in light of the back story that informs them. The hero is the driving force of that narrative undercurrent, so even when we are not reading prophecies about him or statements of hope that he will come, we nevertheless read authors who portray a world and a people whose future depends on the promised champion.
The true story of the world is the prototypical work of art that has been imitated by all myth-makers and storytellers. Did you read of Heracles slaying the Hydra? The mighty deliverer achieved expiation by slaying the snake. Then there’s Odysseus coming in wrath at the end of the Odyssey to rescue his bride. It’s positively apocalyptic.
We could go on and on with such examples. If a myth is an archetypal story that explains the world and provides hope, this hero story is the world’s one true myth. Justin Martyr said that the demons had salted the world’s religions with tidbits of the true story to inoculate people against the world’s one cure. And in stories influenced by Christianity you have imitations and approximations of it: Beowulf slaying first the one who descends from Cain, Grendel, and then the dragon. St. George, too, kills a dragon. These are but reflections and refractions of the light of the world, the ancient hope for the prince of life who comes to crush the head of that ancient serpent, the dragon, who is the Devil and Satan.
When we consider the Messiah in the Old Testament, our minds are confronted with the answer to the world’s questions, the fulfillment of all yearnings, the satisfaction of the universal desire for beauty and joy and peace and, and well, everything. You could say it’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin – something everyone wants, needs and looks for at all costs – but the McGuffin may not be profound enough to capture the weight of this, the real thing. Jesu joy of man’s desiring. Indeed. Jesus is the ultimate object of C. S. Lewis’ Sehnsucht – he is the one who fulfills the inconsolable longing for we know not what.
Swathed in cryptic hints and echoes from the distant past, hidden in shadows and faintly perceived from whispers subtly woven through the Old Testament. Soft impressions seen through a glass darkly, the trace of an outline, the kind of thing that almost has to be pointed out before you see it clearly, but then once you’ve seen it, you can’t see anything else. You don’t want to see anything else.
The promises of the coming seed of the woman all partake of a haunting, hopeful melody, to which the Old Testament’s composer returns again and again. The delay between these prophecies only increases the pathos, adds to the beauty so pure it’s painful. The next oracle almost sneaks up on us, and at points we only recognize it after it has passed us by. Suddenly the words ignite and we read and re-read the promise of a seed who is a lion who wields a scepter who will be a son to the Most High. Each installment in the interweaving of prophecy and pattern comes like a familiar rhythm, or a restrained suggestion, hearkening us back to something earlier in the music. The artist who orchestrates the living production in real time threads the line of promise lightly – but thoroughly – through the whole symphonic poem of the Bible.
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Those with eyes to see and ears to hear are ravished by a beauty better than all else they might desire. They lean in close, straining to hear and see, longing, yearning, hoping, as they earnestly attend to past promise, and watch for what they hope will be reiterations and expositions of it. The shadows may be long and the clouds thick, but a conviction has seized them that the heavens will be rolled back when the star shines out of Judah.
Then come the “experts.” They huff and snort that there is no theme that has been resumed. They deny that this rhythm sounds like that one. They insist that when these notes in this melody are taken apart, they bear no relation to one another. They explain that this beat cannot possibly be related to that one, and that the meaning some heard in that first syncopation was never there in the first place.
But we’ve heard the music, and for all the seeming intelligence of their explanations, we know what the music does to us. Those notes may be nothing in isolation, but in aggregate they form a song more lovely than the lectures of learned unbelievers. We know this melody is meant to evoke earlier ones, and as soon as we hear the music again, the denials of experts lose all power to compel. The strains of hope and longing that we have heard awaken faith and conviction and boldness, even as the academics drone on in their boring refusal to enjoy the music.
The one who wrote the music and conducted the orchestra came, and still people refused to hear his song. They did not recognize the one who was foretold, whose pattern was prefigured, whose destiny it was to unlock the door to life, lay the foundation for faith, design the theater for God’s glory, and build the temple of the Holy Spirit, but the hoped for hero really has come. And he’s coming back. He came the first time as a man of sorrows to be acquainted with grief. When he comes again his robe will be sprinkled with the blood of his enemies who lie trampled beneath his feet. He will accomplish God’s purpose and fill the lands with God’s glory like water fills the seas.
James M. Hamilton Jr. is associate professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary. He has written and contributed to a number of works including, most recently, Exalting Jesus in Ezra-Nehemiah (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) and What Is Biblical Theology?: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns. You can read more by Hamilton at his blog Jimhamilton.info. Also, follow him on Twitter: @DrJimHamilton. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.