Is Bob Dylan’s “False Prophet” About Jesus?

 

false prophet

False Prophet

WRITTEN BY: BOB DYLAN
1.
Another day without end – another ship going out
Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt
I know how it happened – I saw it begin
I opened my heart to the world and the world came in
2.
Hello Mary Lou – Hello Miss Pearl
My fleet footed guides from the underworld
No stars in the sky shine brighter than you
You girls mean business and I do too

3.
I’m the enemy of treason – the enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go

4.
I’m first among equals – second to none
I’m last of the best – you can bury the rest
Bury ’em naked with their silver and gold
Put ’em six feet under and then pray for their souls

5.
What are you lookin’ at – there’s nothing to see
Just a cool breeze encircling me
Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide
We can sit in the shade by the fountain side

6.
You don’t know me darlin’ – you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no False Prophet – I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head

7.
I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail
I sing songs of love – I sing songs of betrayal
Don’t care what I drink – don’t care what I eat
I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

8.
Put out your hand – there’s nothin’ to hold
Open your mouth – I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor Devil – look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill

9.
Hello stranger – Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule – you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna’ marry you to a ball and chain

10.
You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile – somethings got to give
I ain’t no false prophet – I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Copyright

© 2020 by Special Rider Music

 

 

 

 

Is Bob Dylan’s amazing song “False Prophet” about Jesus? More accurately, is the person speaking in the song meant to be Jesus? I think that we can count out the possibility that the song portrays Bob Dylan himself singing, unless we attribute to him a vast amount of megalomania expressed in lines like:

I’m first among equals – second to none

I’m the last of the best – you can bury the rest

Also, some of the statements of the singer seem quite impossible to attribute to Bob Dylan, amazing as he is. For he sings,

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head;

I’ve searched the world over for the Holy Grail . . .

I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet . . .

. . . I forgot when I died.

Moreover, the main line, “I ain’t no false prophet” may well be a claim that the singer is a true prophet, which then makes sense of the rest of the song. Of course Jesus Christ was not merely a prophet, although the New Testament portrays him prophesying things like the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies before the present generation of Israel was passed away. (See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:20-31.)

This represents part of a negative case that the song is not meant to portray Dylan’s own “voice.”  But the stronger case is the positive one – the lyrics that together paint a portrait of some mysterious person or the persona thereof who “ain’t no false prophet.” I think that the overall portrait only makes sense if this person is Jesus, but particularly Jesus in a Christian trinitarian sense wherein Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit together are somehow (and confusedly so) one God. This means that the “making sense” may not necessarily be fully comprehensible as we will see.

The best way to try to demonstrate my thesis is to consider each of the ten stanzas in order and make some observations and propose various possibilities of meanings. I will call the persona “the Prophet” to keep things simple, but we will see that he is much more than that, and most probably divinity such as is “part” of the Triune God known in Christianity. (Of course that is the understanding of God that Dylan has specifically related himself to in times past and also related to others in his songs.)

In the first stanza the Prophet begins with “another day without end” – a reference to God’s point of view wherein “a day is as a thousand years?” (See 2 Peter 3:8) The “ship going out” perhaps signaling a feeling of homelessness – “Like a Rolling Stone.” The words  “Another day of anger – bitterness and doubt” seem to establish a “status quo” for the present nature of life. But the Prophet again seems to exist differently in relation to time than any ordinary human being, saying, “I know how it happened – I saw it begin.” Did the Prophet see creation itself, or the “fall of man” into sin? The closing line of this stanza is perhaps the most interesting and difficult to interpret of all:

I opened my heart to the world and the world came in.

Because of the development in the second stanza, it seems that this opening to and coming in of the world are positive occurrences. This statement then provides the ultimate context which is the relation of the Prophet, perhaps now also claiming to be the creator (John 1:1-3), to the world. The French philosopher activist, and Christian mystic Simone Weil proposed that when God first created something other than God’s self, that God was voluntarily performing an act of renunciation of God’s self. And in the giving of free will to human agents, God was also granting them independence and also creating the possibilities (and therefore “risk”) of relationship. What Dylan recognizes is the effect this has on God whose love was thereby “opened” to the world. The world coming in shows that God’s love did not diminish even when the world went astray. (This has huge applications to Christian life and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “this worldliness.”

In the second stanza the Prophet introduces “Mary Lou” and “Miss Pearl” who seem to recall the relationships Jesus had with several Mary’s (his mother and Mary Magdalen) and their characters as being “Pearl” like. The rest of the stanza sings their praises and “fills in” important details of the ways “the world came in” so that these women are actually became “guides from the underworld” to Jesus just as humans in general were so for God from the beginning. The closing line of this stanza shows that some humans can “mean business” just as the Prophet does. In other words, some humans are “in sync” with God’s purposes – leading right to the next stanza.

The third stanza has the Prophet saying that he is the “enemy of treason” (revolt against God’s loving governance?) and of “strife” (bad love relationships between God & man and man & man?) He seems especially against “the unlived meaningless life” demonstrating that the Prophet is not arbitrarily against things, but against what is unprofitable for the loving human life God intended. The last line wondrously portrays the Prophet’s “heart” for the world either as himself “lonely” or seeking those “only the lonely” can go to.

I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know

I go where only the lonely can go

This is a far cry from Christopher Hitchens’ view of God as a totalitarian “Big Brother” who has 24/7 surveillance watching over all of his human creations to see if any are “out of line” and due for eternal punishment for not being perfect as God is.

The fourth stanza seems to wax more traditionally prophetic wherein this Prophet surpasses all other previous prophets (as was said in a historical sense of John the Baptist) and also in rendering a “judgment” of nakedness (a familiar image of Judgment for Dylan as in “It’s Alright, Ma – I’m only Bleeding”) and death for the materially rich (another image Dylan has used as in “Seven Curses” and even “The Times They Are A-Changin”). But Dylan has the Prophet nevertheless praying (or recommending others’ praying) “for their souls” so that the temporal “judgment” is a means to a better end for them.

The fifth stanza tantalizes with the Prophet, if one was to try to see him, as being beyond sight – with a cool breeze encircling him. Is this a reference to the prophet as the Holy Spirit, or at least in intimate relation with the Spirit? Is the next line, inviting the one addressed to “a walk in the garden,” meant to evoke Eden where “Adam and Eve” “heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” (Genesis 3:8) Note that the Hebrew word for “spirit” is also translated as “wind” and “breath.” Tying this stanza together as the Prophet is or exists in the Spirit’s “cool breeze.” The last line portrays the peace in Eden with God with the shade and fountain being other common biblical images of God’s kingdom peace.

The sixth stanza builds on the strange appearance (or non-appearance) of the Prophet as “ghostly.” Is this a way that Dylan says that Jesus, though presently unseen and only known through the Spirit, is nevertheless still a tangible incarnate human being existing beyond our present field of vision? But the Prophet is also just as tangible as any real flesh and blood prophet: not a false prophet; he “said what he said” just as he also “knows what he knows.” What is interesting here is that Dylan seems to be saying that the Prophet is engaging in prophetic speech and acts now, even if seemingly “invisible” to us at the present. Is Dylan insisting that Jesus is presently the Lord of all? Of course that’s the basic Christian confession and Dylan has never repudiated what he once said quite clearly in his “Born-again Christian” phase and has dropped many more subtle hints to that effect throughout his songs since that time. Fittingly so, the prophet proclaims,

I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.

But what that “vengeance” means we have already seen to some extent and will see more of as not the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” but rather “sinners in the hands of a loving God.” The former is apt to view God’s angry vengeance as paramount; the latter more-so God’s loving grief. Of course there is undoubtedly a harmony (or maybe a hierarchy?) of God’s attributes that sometimes is misrepresented in theological formulations and common religiosity. I think vengeance is proper, but get the feeling from Dylan that for him it fits within an understanding of a pre-eminently loving God, more than in a pre-eminently just God.

The seventh stanza opens with the Prophet’s search for the holy grail – an interesting turn of phrase if this is the search of Jesus for what would be a holy grail to him – perhaps the relationship with humans God’s love longingly desires and seeks. To that end he sings songs of love and betrayal, of course Jesus having known those intimately in his earthly life. (Note the hierarchy of love, and then betrayal in that lyric.) To that end he didn’t care about purity laws regarding food and drink, nor the purity of those he sat at table with which brought him into considerable trouble with “society”. And to that end, in the Prophets search for the his holy grail he summarizes his sacrifice:

I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet

It is also important to remember that “mountain” is a common biblical image of human government and that Jesus spoke of a mountain that needed to be overcome in his very day and instructed his followers to pray for that result. (See Mark 11:23)

We can also note that in the artistic image of the “False Prophet” the shadow image is of a hanging dead man – the only change is from the crucifixion tree to the lynching tree – a theme also used by Dylan and also by theologians such as James Cone who see victims of unjust societies participating in the cross of Christ. It is also appropriate that this song “False Prophet” shows how Christ has generally appeared to many or most, perhaps being evil or bringing death, with only the shadow revealing the truth that Christ’s own sacrificial death as a scapegoat overcame evil and death. It seems that the illustration of “False Prophet” may plainly be showing, through h shadow, that the song is about Jesus.

The eighth stanza has the Prophet addressing the wayward desires of we “poor devils”  and what God “gives” to us when we insist on such “rewards” – all the while the aforementioned “mountain” of man being overshadowed as shown in the video:

The City of God is there on the hill

The ninth stanza opens with the Prophet calling his addressee “stranger” when before he had said “darlin.'” Perhaps this is a different subject being addressed, perhaps even the devil himself – “you rule the land but so do I” showing the conflict and also that the Prophet (Jesus) is the one who really rules now. He calls the stranger “you lusty old mule” and characterizes him with “a poisoned brain.” Therefore he will be married to a “ball and chain.” Perhaps a reference to Revelation 20:1-2 where the devil is bound with a chain for “a thousand years.”

The tenth and final stanza has the Prophet again addressing a “darlin'” and saying that with his kind of life (of love) that when she smiles in response to his smile – “something’s got to give. Because the Prophet is not only “no false prophet” but also “nobody’s bride.” This is probably not meant to demean marriage, but rather to say that in the marital imagery common to the Bible, God is never the bride and humans are always the bride – and sometimes that to the wrong groom, for there is only one rightful bridegroom. As Dylan sang quite some time ago “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Possibly Dylan is  using that imagery here with Jesus still waiting for his wayward bride that he created and opened his heart to, from the beginning. The closing line of the song is quite interesting:

Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died

Of course none of us remembers being born but from the mouth of this Prophet that seems to take on added significance, perhaps alluding to something like what theologians call the eternal generation of the Son in the triune relationship of Father/Son/Spirit. The Prophet forgetting when he died could signify that God’s forgetfulness is perhaps a truly perfect forgetting, as God says that our sins he will remember no more. Perhaps the historic death of Christ who was the eternal Word was life itself  is now forgotten, just as mortality itself is according to scripture to be swallowed up by life and immortality.  (See John 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:50-56)

At any rate, this Prophet is quite the person, as we have hopefully seen. I recommend, having some of these associations in mind, which I think may well be allusions intended by Dylan, re-watching the video and letting the rich imagery and allusions lead to an encounter with the Prophet, who it seems is much more than a mere prophet.

It seems to me that this is one of the most powerful song Dylan has ever written. And certainly in regard to what I think he considers his biblical calling, he has perhaps crafted this song in which, rather than singing about or alluding to Jesus, he provides a mediation of Christ in the very song. And that, as far as I understand, is the prophetic vocation. Perhaps by not himself claiming to be the Prophet of this song, Dylan has nevertheless fulfilled the role of a prophet. And if so, we need to be open to this encounter to the one who “opened my heart to the world and the world came in.” But we come in as individuals, to whom the prophet says “Hello . . . my fleet footed guides to the underworld” and not, “Hello stranger – hello and goodbye.”

Let’s walk in the garden – so far and so wide

We can sit in the shade of the fountain side

Thanks for reading.

Bryan Christman @ Manifest Propensity, 2020.

 

 

 

Fleetwood Mac’s “Lay it All Down” and the This-Worldliness of Redemption

In Fleetwood Mac’s 1971 album called “Future Games,” there was an interesting song about Moses and what his message basically amounted to in full. Perhaps a current Old Testament scholar may help us to understand the importance of the “message of Moses” in relation to understanding “redemption” as presented in the New Testament.

…we are prone to miss the amazing scope of God’s redemption, and especially its full bodied, this-worldly character, if we do not read the New Testament with the world view of the Old Testament as our basis and guide. (J. Richard Middleton, “A New Heaven and a New Earth“.)

So with that introduction in mind, presented in the video by Fleetwood Mac, is some of the “world view of the Old Testament” that can serve as our “basis and guide” to understanding the “full bodied, this worldly character” of redemption.  I find it quite interesting that Fleetwood Mac, or at least one or more of the members of the group, seemed to have more insight into the “scope of redemption” than many Christian teachers and scholars had or have, even to this day.

Here are the lyrics:

Let me retell
A story of old
About a man named moses
Who lived long ago
He prophesied good
He prophesied bad
And now that prophecy’s
Coming to pass

Let all your sons, and your daughters
Of the golden calf
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay it all down, for paradise here on earth

(Instrumental)

A whole lot of people, including myself
Thought the story of moses was just a tall tale
But all of the things that we see going on
Are just what moses set down

Let all your sons, and your daughters
Of the golden – yeah
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay it all down, for paradise here on earth

(Instrumental)

Let me retell
A story I know
About a man named moses
Who lived long ago
He prophesied good
He prophesied bad
And now that prophecy’s
Coming to pass

Let all your sons, and your daughters
Of the golden – yeah
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay it down

(Instrumental)

Lay down, Lay down ….

Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt
You’ve got to lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of sorrow
Lay down your burden of hurt …

Lay it all down, for paradise here on earth

Any comments or questions are welcomed. Thanks for reading (and listening) – I hope you received something good from it all.

BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2016