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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Bob Dylan's 'Pay in Blood' -an analysis- Part 4 - final part

In this final part we deal with the verses 5 & 6.

‘How I made it back home, nobody knows
or how I survived so many blows
I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?
You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?
I’ll give you justice, I’ll fathom/fatten your purse
Show me your moral virtue first
Hear me holler and hear me moan
I pay in blood but not my own’.
The question is, are the words ‘How I made it back home, nobody knows, or how I survived so many blows’ just an illustration of the ‘survival of the fittest’, an expression of the resilience of the human race, that no matter how hard the human race is oppressed, it will always come out on top and it will always survive, no matter how hard it is struck, or is there more to it? There is certainly a lot of truth in this argument of human endurance. Yet we feel that there are strong arguments to think that this verse too is for the larger part about Jesus, albeit in covert terms as so often in Dylan’s work, in words which although they cannot be directly derived from the gospel, they nevertheless force themselves upon you as somehow connected with the gospel. Jesus ‘made it back home’. His home is in Heaven, at the right hand of God the Father. He left his home, the heavens, when he incarnated and –apart from His divine nature - adopted the human nature through the Virgin Mary. He became Man to ‘pay in blood’ for the sins of the entire mankind. Jesus is the One Dylan points at in the refrain of the song when he says: ‘I pay in blood but not my own’. For Jesus this payment meant indescribable pain, torture and suffering both physically and mentally, culminating in His crucifixion and the worst suffering of all when He was forsaken by God the Father (Mat. 27:46).   He received blow after blow but yet he survived. He died on the cross but rose from the dead after three days and ascended back to Heaven: ‘He made it back home’. How He –Jesus- made it? Dylan says: ‘Nobody knows’, this is of course seen from a human perspective. No living soul under the sun can fathom the depth of His sufferings or grasp the glorious power by which Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven. Only God knows. In fact, whatever happened to Jesus, it all went according to God’s plan.
When Dylan goes on to say: ‘I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?’ this reflects Matt. 27:46 where Jesus on the cross, in bitter agony, cries out with a loud voice: ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’. Some theologians have argued that Hell is the place where God is not present, and that Hell is the place of absolute absence of God. So being forsaken by God the Father, with whom He has an eternal and most beloved relationship, is the equivalent of going through Hell, which at the same time also meant that the devil and all the demons had free rein to hurl themselves on Jesus and bring his suffering to its culminating point, to a point which no human being has ever endured or will ever endure.
‘What good did it do?’ is the poetical equivalent of Jesus saying ‘Why?’ Why have you forsaken me?’. This outcry of Jesus again has to be seen from a human perspective, to be understood as the suffering as the Son of Man.  From a divine point of view however, it did a lot of good .It is the best thing that could ever have happened to the poet. This is not explicitly stated but is silently implied. Jesus, going as deep down as Hell and covered with the wrath of God, realized payment in blood for mankind to its full extent and made the refrain of the song true: ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’. It was not my blood but it was Jesus’s blood.
The words ‘You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?’ adds insult to injury for Jesus. So much surrendering love from Jesus was met with the most extreme hostility from his opponents. Some have argued that the Talmud states that Jesus was a bastard born of adultery (Yebamoth, folio 49b). However, this is a matter of interpretation; since the name of Jesus is not mentioned in this section of the Talmud, this interpretation is to be regarded as highly controversial and speculative and should for that reason be rejected. That is not to say that Jesus was (is) not called a bastard son by others. He was and He is. We also refer to what we already said about the line: “You've got the same eyes that your mother does; If only you could prove who your father was“. But it even goes further than that. In the gospels we also hear of a false and wicked accusation that Jesus was empowered by the devil (the demons). Luke 11:15: ‘No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons”. ‘I’m supposed to respect you? ‘’ is a rhetorical question showing utter contempt and it not only refers to Jesus being falsely called a bastard son but  also to  His humble, low birth from Nazareth. John 1:46: ‘“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”.
The poet dwells on the same subject as he goes on to say: ‘I’ll give you justice, I’ll fatten your purse, show me your moral virtue first’. Some here some alternative lyrics here: ‘I’ll fathom your purse instead of ‘fatten’ and ‘show me your moral that you reversed’ instead of ‘show me your moral virtue first’, but within the context this seems less appropriate. Also these words are best understood if you regard them as addressed to Jesus. These words resound in the gospel. ‘I’ll fatten your purse’ may almost be literally applicable to Jesus since Jesus had no money and he sent forth his disciples without money in their pockets (Mat. 10:9). One day they asked Jesus: “By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?”(Luke 20:2). Luke 11:16 says: ‘Others, trying to test Jesus, demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority’. It is as if people said to Jesus: ‘we will accept you and follow you and do you justice, we will fatten your purse but you must first accept our conditions and follow our political agenda. Free us from the Romans and give us bread. Stop talking about your heavenly mission, unless you can proof to us by a miraculous sign that you are – as you claim - sent by God the Father. ‘Show your moral virtue first’, sounds as if they reprimand Him: ‘who gave you the authority to judge us; on what moral virtue are you doing all these things!’. ‘Hear me holler and hear me moan’ means: hear my said and bitter complaint, how on earth is it possible that so much love from Jesus is met with such fervent hostility? This world has really gone mad and nobody is capable to break this morbid deadlock.  It stresses even more the need for redemption and substitution at the highest possible price and that is payment through blood. It is once again the reason why the refrain follows: ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’.
We come to the final verse of the song:
You get your lover in the bed
Come here, I’ll break your lousy head
Our nation must be saved and freed
You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?
This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to praise
I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone
I play in blood, but not my own’.
Sexual dissipations and abuse, extreme violence, nationalism and racism seem to have ruled the earth throughout the ages. Sexual dissipations- to get as many lovers in your bed as you possibly can, and extreme violence – ‘Come here, I’ll break your lousy head’ – go hand in hand in this forlorn world. ‘Our nation must be saved and freed’   has been the standard slogan to justify racism, nationalism and ethnic cleansing for many centuries and at all places in the world. ’Our nation must be saved and freed ‘also may easily lead to individual human rights of innocent people being sacrificed on the altar of nationalism. This is exactly what happened to Jesus and may lurk at the background of what the poet tries to tell us here. We read of this in John 11:47-50: “Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man (Jesus) certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.” Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!  You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” It is as if Caiaphas says: ‘Our nation must be saved and freed, I’m gonna do whatever circumstances require’’ and Caiaphas goes on to say in John 11:50:You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man (Jesus) should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”
When human rights of ethnic groups, minorities (e.g. slaves) or of individuals are scarified for the benefit of the nation, this may lead to accusations of downright murder, that is why it now says: ‘You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?’. Some have quite rightly argued that America – and in fact the the whole western world- may be accused of murder for having built an entire society on the institution of slavery for such a long time, only for financial gain. But there are more layers in this accusation. It looks as if Dylan also takes this accusation of murder to a more personal, individual level and in the end focusses the attention on the murder of Jesus Christ.  It is as if K. Kristofferson’s “They killed Him” – covered by Dylan on his album “Knocked out Loaded” re-echoes here. This song deals with the fact that some of the noblest and greatest men in history were violently killed. “They” killed Mahatma Ghandi who ‘knew his duty, and the price he had to pay’, and “they” killed Martin Luther King, who ‘made the bells of freedom ring today’. But then the song describes the murder of Jesus Christ:
The only Son of God Almighty
The Holy One called Jesus Christ
Healed the lame and fed the hungry
And for his love they took His life away
On the road to glory where the story never ends
Just the Holy Son of man we'll never understand’
The question that is now raised in the song about all those innocent killings is: ‘How do you plead?’. How do you deal with this accusation? Well, the implicit answer is that we, as mankind and as individuals, must plead guilty. And if we are guilty we have to face condemnation. This song makes us clear that in the eyes of the poet there is only way to escape eternal condemnation is to accept the notion that redemption is needed and payment is necessary. Man cannot pay through his own strength and power and has to conclude: ‘I pay in blood but not my own’. But before this conclusion is again drawn Dylan takes one more detour: ‘This is how I spend my days, I came to bury, not to praise’. This is how spend my days’, means this is what I’ve been contemplating for so long, by day and by night: ‘I came to bury not to praise’. This line ‘I came to bury not to praise’ is taken from Mark Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar’ (Act 3, Scene 2). Mark Antony delivers a speech about the assassinated Caesar. After Brutus has spoken, Mark Antony goes on to say:
‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar’.
If we to try to find out why Dylan uses this line ‘I came to bury not to praise’ here and take a closer look at this play, things are not what they seem. Mark Antony is fully aware of what happened to Caesar and he knows who the conspirators are, including Brutus, but Antony is only allowed to speak to the crowd on the condition that he does not implicate Brutus or anyone else in the death of Caesar and Antony swears that he will not implicate anybody. Yet in a stealthily way Antony tries to turn the crowd against the conspirators in order to revenge the murder of Caesar. Antony does this through speaking in some sort of rhetorical double tongue; he repeatedly, and sarcastically, refers to Brutus as an 'honorable' man, and through this exaggerating repetition he tries to impugn Brutus to the crowd and covertly incites the crowd to riot against Brutus and the conspirators. Antony’s speech means the inverse of its language. We often see this in politics. But not only Mark Antony, we also see another politician, Brutus, ‘pumping out the piss’. Brutus slew Caesar, yet he says in his speech: ‘If there by any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demands why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less but I loved Rome more’. (Act 3, scene 2).What Brutus says sounds as if he says: ‘but our nation must be saved and freed’. This comes close to what Caiaphas said about Jesus. John 11:50: “Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!  You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.”. Somehow Dylan makes a link from Antony and Brutus to Jesus, maybe to show that dirty politics always leads to utmost injustice. Apart from the Caesar connection, ‘I came to bury, not to praise’, within the context of the song, it may also be a reference to Romans 6:4: “For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives”, meaning that Christ has come to bury our old and bad nature. It may  look as if the poet gives us this message: ‘In this song I came to tell you some inconvenient truth and you are not going to like it, I came to bury which is never a pleasant thing to do, and I certainly did not come to play up to you, to praise you, to give you a good feeling, you have to remember that I pay in blood, payment in blood is serious business because the price is very high price, in fact nobody could ever pay a higher price than his own blood and it  has been paid for me, somebody else –Jesus - did it for me so it is not my own blood’. Because of this payment peace and abundance has now come into my life and that’s why I conclude:  ´I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone´. “Fill” as a noun means a full supply, as much as supplies want; as much as gives complete satisfaction .It is a direct quote from the Bible. Ps 36:9 “They drink their fill of the abundance of Your house; And You give them to drink of the river of Your delights” .Leviticus 25:19 ''Ye shall eat your fill.''  The idea behind is that once you are reconciled with God, His presence in your life will give you hugh abundance and everything you need to reach your destination will be yours. ‘to sleep alone’ underlines this idea of peace and quiet that has  come over the poet, exactly as Psalm 4:8 says: “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O LORD, will keep me safe.”. Cover him over and let him sleep till the new morning has arrived. He can lay at rest because he paid in blood- though it is not his own. 





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Published on: 01-01-2013 17:52:01

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excellent analysis! makes more sense than any other I have read.


Linda06-09-2014 03:18


I love the analysis here, as "Pay in Blood" is such an amazing song. You've done great work taking it apart and even upon first release, I had a feeling you'd work through it. Thank you for your effort.


Peter Hyatt06-01-2013 19:46

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