Sometimes it feels like Bob Dylan says: "I practice a faith that's long been abandoned, ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road"

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Jesus and the two thieves on the cross

Bob Dylan's "All along the Watchtower" - a lyric analysis - Part 2

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke, “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”. Elsewhere Dylan wrote: “When God is in His heaven, we all want what’s His, but power and greed and corruptible seed; seem to be all that there is”. Power and greed are typical of the joker but against all odds, things take a turn for the better when the thief starts talking. The thief on the cross has repented and has experienced what saving grace means. And because of that a new situation has now arisen on either side of Jesus hanging on the cross. On the one side there is now faith represented by the thief; on the other side there is continuous unbelief from the joker. On the one side is humility from the thief; on the other is arrogance from the joker. Profanity speaks out of one side and reverence speaks out of the other side. We said that the picture which is drawn here is timeless; these two voices have continued to speak from either side of the cross till this very day and will continue to do so until the Latter Day. The world has always been divided, and always will be divided, with Christ at the center. I read somewhere that God may have placed a man on each side of Jesus for this reason: one is the voice of the kingdom of this fallen world, the kingdom of Babylon, and the other is the voice of the Kingdom of God.
This saving grace from Jesus has made the thief humble and he now gently tries to persuade the joker to join his side saying: “No reason to get excited,” These words sound as if the thief says:  “You only worry about the loss of material things, your wealth and riches, your influence and power in this world; all these earthly principles which have corrupted you, the loss of all these things is no big deal and no reason to get excited about. Remember that all that there is in this world, is only temporary, only means to an end.  What really is bad and frightening in this world is that “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke”. Not only the chief priests, the scribes and soldiers standing around the cross, mocking and joking on Jesus, are meant here (Luke 23:35-37) but also the whole fallen world of Babylon of which the joker and the thief are both part of. Those who take life as a joke say: “Let’s feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!”(I Corinthians 15:32). They are without any hope; they “laugh in the face of what sorrow brings”.
It was W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) the famous British dramatist and librettist who wrote: “Everything is a source of fun. Nobody's safe, for we care for none! Life is a joke that's just begun!
When the thief goes on to say to the joker: “But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate”, it is as if the thief says: “We are both part of this fallen world of Babylon .I’m not naïve unworldly person; just like you, I experienced all the ups and downs and all the hardships of this fallen world. In this world I was no better a man than you are. We are both thieves and we fully indulged in whatever we could grasp in this world and we all grabbed it fast. We’ve both been to Sugar Town and we both shook the sugar down. We both deserve to die here on the cross but the saving grace of Jesus came over me and now I’m on my way to heaven and I will be in paradise with Jesus today (Luke 23:43). It was grace that taught me how to fear but Jesus reaches out for you too. You can either accept his hand or refuse it; that is your own responsibility. You can no longer hide and say that this is your fate, if you go down now, it’s gonna be your own fault”. “Fate” – if defined as the force by which all existence is determined and conditioned- is often unjustly invoked as a last resort to justify immoral practices.
Dylan has always been preoccupied with the concept of fate and destiny, the idea of “fate” as a last resort to justify immoral practices is very immanent in songs like "With God on our side" and in “Who killed Davey Moore” where the death of Davey Moore is in the end unjustly justified by: “Don’t say ‘murder,’ don’t say ‘kill’ It was destiny, it was God’s will”. Dylan wants to make it clear that although from a biblical point of view “fate” and “destiny” play an important role in the unfolding of God’s plans – “God knows everything, “God sees it all unfold”, “some perfect finished plan”- this concept never intends to neutralize individual human responsibility. On the contrary, when the thief on the cross says to the joker: “but this is not our fate” he wants to make it clear that they both have a choice. The choice is to either accept the saving grace of Jesus – which the thief will do – or to reject this saving grace; at the same time the thief emphasizes that is no use for the joker hiding behind words like “fate” or “destiny” when spiritual freedom for the joker is available just around the corner of his eyes. But if the joker perseveres in his unbelief, the thief presumably will have to heave a sigh in the end, saying to himself about the joker: “But with truth so far off, what good will it do!”
When the thief goes on to say to the joker “So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” he increases the sense of urgency. The word "falsely” reminds us of the Biblical ninth commandment not to "bear false witness”. The ninth commandment tells us that we must never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a legitimate hearing. But all these things happened to Jesus on the cross. It is as if the thief now says to the joker: “Look at that Roman officer standing there at the foot of the cross, this officer is a pagan, can’t you see that even he is convinced that the way in which Jesus died is such an unprecedented and world shaking event, that this officer has to admit:  “This man – Jesus - truly was the Son of God!”(Mark 15:39), so please open up your eyes to the truth which is now more apparent than ever,how long can you falsify and deny what is real, how long can you hate yourself for the weakness you conceal?”.
“The hour is getting late” is a biblical metaphor for the approach of the Day of Reckoning (Judgment, it) expresses here that time is running out quickly. Time is piling up for the joker and he has nearly reached the end of his trail, it is now or never. Just like the thief, the joker will die on the cross within the next few hours. The joker must come to a decision now. The thief now gently urges the joker, in the same way Dylan would do later at the beginning of this century when he performed the bluegrass gospel song “ This world  can't stand long”  38 times in concert: ”This world it can’t stand long, be ready don't wait too late,”.

We now come to the final verse which, as we said above, should actually be the first verse. It was Dave Van Ronk, a fan and mentor of Dylan at the time, who remarked that the “Along” of “All along the watchtower”, is simply a mistake. A watchtower is not a road or a wall, and you can't go along it. In van Ronk’s eyes it was a poetic liberty Dylan thought he could get away with. Probably the words “All along” were inserted for rhythm purposes or to focus not on what happened on the watchtower but on what happened alongside the watchtower, the activities surrounding the watchtower.  We also remarked above that he whole of the discussion between the joker and the thief on the cross is marked by this verse. This verse “All along the watchtower, princes kept the view…etc.reflects the Book of Isaiah Chapter 21: 5-9 which reads:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed: And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights: And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground”.
This prophecy of the great Prophet Isaiah (740-639 BC) focusses on the fall of the great Neo-Babylonian Empire. A typical phenomenon of the prophecy of the Old Testament is that a prophecy may have multiple fulfillments throughout the history of this world, even without the prophet necessarily being aware of these multiple fulfillments. The first fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy took place when the great Neo-Babylonian Empire fell in 539 BC. We see a next fulfillment - in fact the biggest and the ultimate fulfillment- when Jesus died on the cross and by doing so, Jesus did what is written in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities”,’ in fact Jesus defeated the spiritual empire of Babylon on the cross. We see a next fulfillment of the prophecy of the fall of Babylon  represented in the fall of the Roman Empire and we sees a final fall of Babylon on the Latter Day, the fall of the great superpowers, the great Babylon as described in Revelation 18. The prophecy sees all these events as sequences, following one another in intervals, rather than as events next to one another as on a picture. This enhances the timelessness of the scene. Babylon stands for the all the powers which oppose the coming Kingdom of God. What strikes us in the prophecy of Isaiah is the great activity surrounding the watchtower – this may be the reason why the song says “all along” the watchtower. Isaiah sees a lot of stir and bustle: “a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, a chariot of camels, a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen”.  Dylan pictures the same activity, the same stir and bustle when he writes: “princes kept the view. While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too”. In some sort of a way whenever a big catastrophe, a world shaking event, is about to occur we see the highest state of alert in heaven and on earth, a whirlpool of activity. (Revelation 8:5; 11:13). We see the same stir and hustle around the cross: “all the women (John 19:25) came and went barefoot servants too”. Barefoot servants may represent the messengers of God, the prophets, the apostles, who gave up everything they owned to serve the LORD: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news” (Romans 10:15, even if these servants are poor and have to go barefooted. A barefooted servant may also be a messenger who publicly mourns for the sins of the people, like king David once did when he publicly mourned and wept for his own sins (2 Samuel 15:30). As we read in Revelation 18, the fall of the spiritual empire of Babylon is reason for ‘weep and wail’ (Revelation 18:9, 17).
“Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl. In this final line the omen that something ominous is about to happen is getting stronger, as if we’re just past the stillness in the winds before the hurricane begins. We have the idea that “the last part of the day is already gone” and that “it’s way past midnight”.
“Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl” may be a contemporary way of saying what is written in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be watchful – that is: stay on the watchtower – Your adversary, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”.
“Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
The two riders may be the two riders of Isaiah 21:7; they may be in a figurative sense the joker and the thief, approaching your life house, urging you to make a decision: “which side are you on? “or  the two riders may be, also in a figurative sense, the last two witnesses of Revelation 11.This final line warns us: “whatever you wish to keep, you’d better grab it fast” because the hour is getting late, the hour is near.

In part 1 of this analysis we raised the question why this song is so important for Dylan. Does Dylan see himself as some sort of a prophet like Ezekiel? Ezekiel received orders from the LORD:  “Now, son of man, I am making you a watchman for the people of Israel. Therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for me”.  (Ezekiel 33:7)
During his 1979/1980 gospel tour we hear Dylan say in a stage rap: “Years ago they ... said I was a prophet. I used to say, "No I'm not a prophet" they say "Yes you are, you're a prophet." I said, "No it's not me." They used to say "You sure are a prophet." They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, "Bob Dylan's no prophet." They just can't handle it”. In his 2004 CBS interview Dylan says that people use to say to him: "'You're the prophet. You're the savior.' I never wanted to be a prophet or savior. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.".
We conclude that it is true that Dylan never regarded himself as a prophet with a capital “P”, speaking with divine authority like the biblical prophets. In I Corinthians 14, however, it says that all Christians may be in sense prophets, but they are prophets with a small “p” and Dylan is certainly one of them. And that is why this song is so important to him.
As always, please feel free to respond to this article.....


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Published on: 23-12-2011 20:06:06

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IMHO - These are just metaphors used to describe Dylans feelings toward fame at that time in his life...the whole of JWH is IMHO mainly autobiographical - thats how I hear it anyway, so what if he uses biblical imagery?the guy was starting out on writers block , the Wibble was probably a useful tool

Keith Jackson03-01-2013 07:18

While it is well documented that Dylan had a large volume of the KJV open at Isaiah at the time of penning JWH, 21:7 does not state two riders. While JWH may have been the 'first biblical rock album', this was no evangelical Dylan. He was not preaching the gospel. Not all Dylan lyrics are about evangelism. Your approach and that of others like you is that you seem to have no interest in Dylan's wider reading: T S Eliot for example: In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo. Ironically, your treatment of the joker carves out your interpretative features in the same smoky twilight as that of the Wanted Man brigade who tried to link the joker with the Jokerman, between two thieves, so as to perpetrate their Jesus-the-Jokerman agenda: Nick de Somogyi, ransacked by Michael Gray in his hilarious chapter on Jokerman. As for Dylan's disingenuous denial of having the attitude of a prophet, 'come gather round people' - and read R E Prindle on Exhuming Lubavitcher Bob.

Hans Python Andersen25-12-2011 21:44

analysing any song using biblical quotes doesn't make sense : who will analyse these quotes ? Instead of offering solutions the result is even darker than the song itself.

lyrics carry the melody, melody needs words to be carried. All you really can say about this song is, that the composer succeeded in using the lawsof the greek tragedies : unity in time, space and action.

bert wels25-12-2011 07:05


john24-12-2011 10:32


john24-12-2011 10:31


john24-12-2011 10:30

My understanding is that the Joker in the Tarot refers to the Fool, not to Jesus.  The idea that this song is about a conversation between people being crucified does not fit my perception. It strikes me as imposing something on the song that is not in it.

john24-12-2011 10:29

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