I haven’t written about secular songs before, but they can be very interesting and touch on subjects pertinent to discussions on faith. One such song, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to, is Viva la Vida by Coldplay.
I’d like to look at a few phrases at a time and then offer a few concluding thoughts on the song as a whole:
I used to rule the world; seas would rise when I gave the word. Now in the morning I sleep alone, sweep the streets I used to own.
The song indicates to the listener it is a reflection of a powerful world leader on his life. He says, “I used to rule the world.” He had it all. He was in charge. He gives a biblical allusion to emphasis the God-like power he had—“seas would rise when I gave the word.” This line, like the song, is poetry and should not be understood as an indication that the singer is Christ merely because he speaks of doing the miraculous. In actuality, the whole song is a comparison of this now-fallen leader and the once-fallen Christ.
I used to roll the dice, feel the fear in my enemy's eyes. Listened as the crowd would sing, “Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!” One minute I held the key, next the walls were closed on me. And I discovered that my castles stand upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.
This leader took chances (“roll the dice”) and liked that others feared him. He reveled in the praise and adulation given him by the crowd. Yet the chant of the crowd gives an indication of their true fidelity. In one breath they rejoice that the old king is dead, and in the next they praise the new king. They have no loyalty to the person, just submission to current power broker. It wasn’t long before this new king found that out.
One minute he had the power over opportunity (“held the key”) and the next minute he had none. The use of “key” and “walls” contrasts the power he had with the helplessness he later experienced—a key is only good when a door is available.
When he lost his power he discovered, too late, that his source of comfort and security had a weak foundation. A pillar of salt, which is what Lot’s wife turned into, reflects the vanity of grasping at that which is perishing, just like the pillar of sand, which brings to mind Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish man.
I hear Jerusalem, bells a-ringing, Roman cavalry, choirs are singing. Be my mirror, my sword and shield, my missionaries in a foreign field. For some reason I can't explain, once you'd gone there was never, never an honest word and that was when I ruled the world.
The chorus makes a strong allusion to the Passion. The singer is saying that as Christ was abandoned by His friends on His road of suffering, so he too has been abandoned. The Jerusalem crowd and Roman soldiers drown out all other noise and certainly do not support the broken and condemned leader. This king calls out to his friends to reflect him (“mirror”), to defend him(“sword”), protect him (“shield”), and advocate for him (“missionaries”).
When his friends left him he lost his ability to trust others (“once you’d gone there was never, never an honest word”). The element of suspicion and lack of trust led to his downfall.
It was a wicked and wild wind; blew down the doors to let me in. Shattered windows and the sound of drums. People couldn't believe what I'd become. Revolutionaries wait for my head on a silver plate. Just a puppet on a lonely string, oh who would ever want to be king?
He came to power very suddenly, assisted, seemingly, by divine power. The doors, which had been locked to him (the “old king” had the “key”), were knocked down and he took power. It was a violent takeover leaving behind “shattered windows” (lost aspirations, hope) and “the sound of drums” (violence, oppression).
He had been a revolutionary, but once he took power his oppression and lack of trust made him into the kind of autocrat he had overthrown. Now he is on the other side, as revolutionaries seek to take him down, asking for his “head on a silver plate.” The reference is to John the Baptist, not to show this king’s innocence, but the fact that the revolutionaries are as wicked as Herodias. He now realizes that he was enslaved to power (“a puppet”); power was not enslaved to him. He reflects on the sad state of affairs: “who would ever want to be king?”
I hear Jerusalem, bells a-ringing, Roman cavalry, choirs are singing. Be my mirror, my sword and shield, my missionaries in a foreign field. For some reason I can't explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name. Never an honest word and that was when I ruled the world.
In the last repetitions of the chorus, the singer changes one line. He says, “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” This is the final comparison between himself and Jesus. For Saint Peter to call anyone's name first requires a resurrection. The singer doesn’t quite know why, but will not experience that kind of resurrection, politically or spiritually.
Christ’s fall from power was not motivated by His wickedness, but rather His submission to the will of God. He didn’t look for or find security in power. He didn’t violate God’s commands to stay in power. Because Christ was sinless His death was pleasing to God and paid for sin. Because Christ was humbled, God exalted Him. The king in the song sought his own glory and never humbled himself, so God humbled (humiliated) him.
This song is a reflection on the lust for power and what it does to those who get it. Though the artists don’t fully understand why, they know Christ is the best counter-example of that concept. I would hope, as Christians, we have a better understanding of the “why.” and it's found in Jesus.