Bob Dylan's 'Jokerman' - an analysis - Part 5 (final part)
Bob Dylan's 'Jokerman' - an analysis – Part 5 (final part).
In this fifth and final part of our analysis of Dylan’s Jokerman we examine the last three verses of the song.
“Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers. In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed Michelangelo indeed could've carved out your features. Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space, half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face”.
One wonders why the poet only mentions the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as his only teacher and why not the whole Pentateuch or the whole Old and New Testament? The Pentateuch consists of the five books of Moses of which Leviticus is the third and Deuteronomy the fifth book. The obvious reason may be that the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy –and also the Book of Numbers - are predominantly legalistic Books. However, these books not only deal with the specific laws, commandments and cultic prescriptions for the people of Israel but especially the book of Deuteronomy also emphasizes God’s love and mercy (Deut. 4:31) and His continuous protection and commitment if the people of Israel obey and keep His commandments laid down in the Covenant. So in this verse we note dualism, controversy and ambiguity in the mind of the Jokerman between trust and faith in the laws of a righteous and merciful God as shown in the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy on the one hand, and belief in the harsh reality of ‘the law of the jungle and the sea’ on the other hand. The ‘the law of the jungle and the sea’ reflect the Darwinian thesis of the ‘survival of the fittest’. In this thesis only the strongest and fittest of any specimen or organism survive whereby all others are eliminated.
In the next line Dylan describes two separate scenes or notions – King Jesus Christ and his predecessor and forefather king David – and in a certain way he combines both notions into one picture. First Dylan draws our attention to ‘a milk white steed’ which looms large “in the smoke of the twilight”. Horses generating smoke during twilight is an apocalyptic sign representing conquest and war. In Revelation 19: 11-13 we find Jesus Christ riding on a white horse, ready to judge and to conquer. When Dylan goes on to say that “Michelangelo indeed could've carved out your features” he refers to the statue of the biblical King David (see the picture of David's statue on the right top of this page) which Michelangelo made between 1501 and 1504 andit seems obvious that Dylan sees Michelangelo carve out the features of Jesus Christ in the statue of his predecessor King David of Israel. The Bible states that in a lot of ways the temporary kingdom of David resembles and foreshadows the eternal kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ. Matthew 22: 42, 43 not only says that Jesus Christ is David’s Son but also that David calls Jesus ‘’LORD”. When we take a closer look at the statue, we see king David with his head turned to the left while his left arm is raised to his left shoulder with his sling flung down behind his back, ready to attack Goliath (I Samuel 17:40). Michelangelo’s David certainly is one of the most famous works of Renaissance sculpture, and it is a clear symbol of both strength and youthful determination. So if you take a close look at this statue, and although you do not literally see David riding this milk white steed, you may nevertheless discern the carved out features of King Jesus Christ, ready to conquer his enemies, in the same way as his predecessor, the righteous king David, combatted and conquered the Philistines and in particular the mighty giant Philistine Goliath. A studio outtake of “Jokerman” at this place has different lyrics: ‘No crystal ball do you need on your shelf, Michelangelo himself could've carved out your features”. These alternative lyrics seem to confirm that the features which Michelangelo has carved out here are indeed the features of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does not need any fortune telling crystal ball but He has direct insight into the future through His Father in heaven.
“Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space, half asleep near the stars” most likely refers to King David as well. Before David became king of Israel, he had been persecuted by King Saul for many years. We read of this in the first book of Samuel. To avoid being captured, David was constantly on the run and forced to leave the “turbulent” villages and towns and to take refuge in the open fields and in the caves. “Half asleep near the stars” indicates that he could not find any enduring rest; he was always on the alert and in danger of being captured. ”A small dog licking your face” brings in a new element and at first glance this dog has nothing to do with King David but the image of this dog is presumably used to reintroduce ambiguity and uncanniness into the song. Again we are taken to the Tarot cards. On some of these Fool Tarot’s cards we see a small dog licking the elbow of the Fool. This Fool looks like a beggar or a vagabond, like David once may have looked when he was on the run for Saul “far from the turbulent space”, to the times when David took refuge to the land of the Philistines and acted like a lunatic in front of the Philistine king Achish. Even in great men like King David, an act of bravery may soon be followed by an act of utter cowardice. The alternative studio outtake of ‘Jokerman’ – which unfortunately has not been released up till now – has the following lyrics: ‘So drunk, standing in the middle of the street, directing traffic with a small dog at your feet’. Again we see these ambiguous elements. When it says ‘directing traffic’ we see the positive characteristics of leadership, but this positive image is immediately neutralized by negative and contradictory and even preposterous elements when it says: ‘So drunk, standing in the middle of the street’. When you are drunk, the last thing you should do is directing traffic.
“Well, the rifleman's stalking the sick and the lame, preacher man seeks the same, who'll get there first is uncertain. Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain. False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin, only a matter of time 'til the night comes stepping in”. The first part of this verse can only be grasped if we read it against the background of what it says in the Gospel of John, Chapter 5:1-10. In Jerusalem there was a pool. Around this pool lay a multitude of sick, blind, and lame waiting for the moving of the waters. Sometimes an angel of the Lord went down into the pool and stirred up the water of the pool. Whoever then first got into the water, after the stirring up of the water, was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted. (Verse 4).That is why it says: "who'll get there first is uncertain". Now there was a lame man at the pool who had been disabled for 38 years. Jesus came up to him and asked him if he wanted to be cured. The man answered that whenever the water was stirred up; there was no one around to help him to reach the water of the pool first. Then Jesus cured him and ordered him to pick up his pallet and walk (verse 8). The Jews however, (verse 11) stalked and rebuked the cured lame man because he had been cured by Jesus on the Sabbath and on the Sabbath it was not permitted to carry a load (his pallet). Actually the Jews were persecuting Jesus for what Jesus had done on Sabbath (verse 16). Now the ‘rifleman’ may be a metaphor for the Jews and the Pharisees who were ‘stalking the sick and the lame’ to find pretexts to persecute and kill Jesus. The ‘preacher man’ may be a metaphor for Jesus. A preacher man is a person who brings the good news of the gospel and that is exactly what Jesus did. But there is a major difference between the ‘rifleman’ and the ‘preacher man’. The ‘rifleman’ has evil intentions because he is ‘stalking the sick and the lame’ in order to persecute and kill Jesus, whereas the ‘preacher man’ has nothing but good intentions. Jesus ‘seeks’ the sick and the lame in order to cure and heal them, even if this takes place on a Sabbath.‘Who'll get there first is uncertain’ may be an allusion to the healing pool in Jerusalem. The first sick, lame or crippled man who is able to step into the pool is healed and no sick or crippled man is sure that he will ever reach this water. However, whoever meets Jesus will certainly be healed, either physically or spiritually. Between the lines Dylan makes us feel the ambiguity in this world. The Jews and the Pharisees, pretending to defend a good course, the Sabbath rest, play a deadly cat and mouse game with Jesus with the purpose of preventing Jesus to ‘seek the sick and the lame’ so that their own authority is maintained, even if their attitude is at the expense of the sick and the lame. During the lifetime of Jesus we see the intensity of the ‘stalking of the sick and the lame’ increase. Because Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the Sanhedrin not only planned to have Jesus killed (John 11:53) but they also tried to murder Lazarus himself (John 12:10).
From a biblical image the focus suddenly shifts to a modern 20th century picture as Dylan goes on to say: “Nightsticks and water cannons, tear gas, padlocks, Molotov cocktails and rocks behind every curtain”. All these words are related to oppression and show that nothing will ever change in this world. This world is a violent world full of oppression and this is of all times and will never stop. The dictionary says that a “nightstick” is a short stout club used primarily by policemen, “tear gas” is a gas that is used to combat riots and disperse crowds, a ”padlock” is a detachablelock and has a hingedshackle that can be passed through the staple of a hasp or the links in a chain and then snappedshut, and a “Molotov cocktail “ is a crude incendiary bomb made of a bottle filled with flammable liquid and fitted with a ragwick. When it says that these things are “behind every curtain” this means that this weaponry is concealed to the eye. This is a typical trait of the Jokerman, to be intentionally ambiguous about his real intentions. An ostensibly peaceful status quo may, with a flick of the wrist, turn into war. For the same album ‘Infidels’ Dylan wrote the song ‘Neighborhood Bully’ which deals with the harassment of the Arab countries against Israel. Dylan writes in this song: “Well he’s surrounded by pacifists who all want peace, they pray for it nightly that the bloodshed must cease. Now they wouldn’t hurt a fly. To hurt one they would weep. They lay and they wait for this bully to fall asleep”. It is therefore not at all unlikely that at the time when Dylan wrote this song, he may have had in mind the precarious situation Israel had been in for quite some decades.
The studio outtake of “Jokerman” has:“well, the preacher man’s talking’ about the deaf an' the dumb and a world to come that's already been pre-determined. Nightsticks an' water cannons, teargas, padlocks Molotov cocktails an' rocks can't drown out his sermon. You let the wicked walk right into the trap. You're giving' away all good things that fall in your lap”. These alternative lyrics confirm that the message of the preacher man – Jesus – cannot be wiped out. Dylan seems to refer to the Sermon of the Mount here (Matthew 5-7). “A world to come” is the pre-determined Kingdom of God (Mat 6:33). Blessed are not only the “deaf and the dumb” (Mark 7:37) but blessed are also the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers and those who are persecuted for righteous’ sake (Mat 5:3-10). The Jews and Pharisees at the time tried to “drown out” the message of Jesus. However, also in our days modern combat means like “Nightsticks an' water cannons, teargas, padlocks Molotov cocktails an' rocks” cannot drown out the Sermon of the Mount. Dylan would later on warn us in ‘Shooting Star’ that one of these days it may be ‘the last time you might hear the Sermon of the Mount’ before the Latter Day finally arrives. “You let the wicked walk right into the trap” may refer to Matthew 22:15 where we read: “Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested” (NLT). The outcome was that the Pharisees walked right into their own trap and from then on no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any questions. (Mat 22:46).However, Jesus goes on doing the right thing: “Giving' away all good things that fall in your lap”. The good things fell into His lap – the gifts he received from the Father – and He gave the good things away to the sick and the poor, the deaf and the dumb, in fact the whole world could have fallen into his lap, if only Jesus had given in to the temptations of the devil(Matt 4: 8-10).
When the ‘official’ lyrics conclude: “False-hearted judges dying in the webs that they spin”, this expresses basically the same idea as “You let the wicked walk right into the trap”. As so often in this song, things are not what they seem and take an unexpected turn. Jesus was convicted to death by the “false-hearted judges” of the Jewish Sanhedrin, but in the end they were not able to withhold Jesus and the good news of the Gospel spread all over the world. “Only a matter of time 'til the night comes stepping in” takes us to Judgment Day when these false-hearted judges will be condemned and forever sent into the eternal night. Dylan’s song ‘Foot of Pride’ was also recorded for the album ‘Infidels’ and was written about the same time as ‘Jokerman’. This song says about false-hearted judges: "Well, there ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down” and also:“Sooner or later you gonna meet them coming down”. As the Book of Judas (verse 13) says these false-hearted judges are “Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever”. Biblical and at the same time very much Dylanesque language.
“It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery gray, a woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet. He'll put the priest in his pocket, put the blade to the heat, take the motherless children off the street and place them at the feet of a harlot. Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants, Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response”. Also this final verse breathes an atmosphere of ambiguity and at the same time makes an ultimate but fruitless appeal to the Jokerman to respond and to show his real intentions and to put his cards on the table. Who is who,who this prince really is,can only be determined by the way this prince is dressed and by what this prince is doing. Things are again contrary to what they seem at first glance. “It's a shadowy world” indicates that the picture which is drawn here lacks clarity and distinctness and at the same time this “shadowy world” is a sign that the real event, which the shadow foreshadows, will be coming up soon. The prince is borne under a sky which is denoted as “slippery grey”. The clouds and the color of sky often foretell what is coming, what the weather will be like (Luke 12:54, 55). This sky however, is “slippery” grey. “Slippery” may have the connotation here of the word “wanton” or “unchaste” or” loose in morals” (Shak). This slippery sky is “grey”. Grey is said to be any color of neutral hue between white and black. The word “slippery” seems to foretell that something “wanton” or “unchaste” is about to happen but at the same time the word “grey” somehow neutralizes the picture of what is coming up.
“A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet” is an important line in this verse. “A woman just gave birth to a prince today” first seems to take us back to the days when Jesus was born, to what it says in Luke 2:7: “And she (the Virgin Mary) brought forth her firstborn son”. In many a place in the Bible this “Son” Jesus is called a “Prince”. Centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah already prophesied the coming of this “Son” and called Him a “Prince”. Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace”. Deception and confusion comes in when the poet goes on to say that the woman dressed this prince “in scarlet”.This seems confusing because Luke 2:7 says: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn”. From a different viewpoint also Revelation 12 speaks of a woman who is about to give birth to a male-child (Christ) of whom we are told that he will rule the nations with an iron rod (verse 5).
However, to dress the Son of God in scarlet would in itself be very appropriate because usually only the noble and very rich were dressed in scarlet. Scarlet is a vivid red color, sometimes with an orange tinge, and just like purple was typical of the exuberant lifestyle and clothing of the rich and the wealthy (see also Proverbs 31:21). However, the Son of God, when he came to this earth, chose to be dressed in swaddling clothes, the clothing which was typical of the poor. Therefore, the point the poet wants to make is to contrast between the humble and poor appearance on earth of the Son of God – wrapped in swaddling clothes but with the purpose of making us rich – and the exuberant and wealthy appearance of his opponent, the anti-Christ – who “dressed in scarlet” leaves us bereft of our children at the feet of a harlot.
To further understand in what direction the poet may have been thinking when he wrote “A woman just gave birth to a prince today and dressed him in scarlet” we have to realize that in the Bible, the title “Prince” is not only given to Christ but also given to God’s and Christ’s opponent the devil, the beast; for instance John 12:31 says: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out”. When it says that this prince is not dressed in swaddling clothes but “in scarlet” it is at this point where deception and ambiguity bursts upon the scene and where we are led to think in a completely different direction. The word ‘scarlet’ combined with the word ‘harlot’ – a word which will follow later on in the verse – makes us no longer think about the “prince” of peace Jesus but about his opponent, the “prince” of this world, the realm of the devil, the realm of darkness, the evil, spiritual empire of Babylon described in the Book of Revelation Chapter 17 and 18. However, the lyrics of the studio outtake of “Jokerman” have: “She's dressed in scarlet”, in that case the woman who gave birth to the prince is dressed in scarlet and not the prince. Either way, the combination “scarlet” and “harlot” resonates in the Book of Revelation Chapter 17:3-5: ‘So the angel took me in the Spirit into the wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it. The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality. A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus. I stared at her in complete amazement’.
The same word combination “scarlet“ and “harlot” comes back in Dylan’s song “Soon after Midnight” from the album “Tempest” where Dylan writes: “Charlotte is a harlot, she dresses in scarlet”.
We conclude that the “Prince” here represents the beast, the devil, the spiritually evil empire of Babylon and that this prince of darkness is out there to oppose the coming of the Kingdom of God. As outlined in the Book of Revelation, the devil does this in a variety of ways. The first weapon the devil, the beast, the dragon, deploys is temptation and deception through false prophecy. This weapon looks peaceful but does more harm than brutal force because it is ideological warfare. Therefore, when it says: “He'll put the priest in his pocket” this expression may be a metaphorical expression for the attempts of the devil – the prince of darkness - to wipe out the influence of his opponent “the prince of peace” through false prophecy, through false priests and prophets. We read of this in Revelation 16:13, 14: “And I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs leap from the mouths of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet. They are demonic spirits who work miracles and go out to all the rulers of the world to gather them for battle against the Lord on that great judgment day of God the Almighty (NLT)”. “He'll put the priest in his pocket” means that devil is in full command of those false priests and prophets, he has them in his pocket, to deceive not only individual believers but also to deceive whole nations and stir them up into ideological and spiritual warfare against the kingdom of the prince of peace.
The second weapon this prince of evil deploys is brutal force; this is expressed by the words: ”He’ll put the blade to the heat”. A hot blade is said to be an edged weapon that heats up, adding the thermal energy of its temperature to the kinetic energy of its blow to achieve extreme cutting power. Think of a flaming sword, in our imagination we see – as Dylan would write later on in his song ‘Shooting Star’- ‘the last fire truck from hell rolling by’ –the devil heating up his sword by taking fire from the last fire truck to destroy as much and as many as he possibly can, in a sort of scorched earth policy (Rev. 13:13). In Revelation 11:7 we read that the beast managed to kill the last two witnesses, these were the last two prophets or priests left, fully realizing Dylan’s metaphorical words: “He'll put the priest in his pocket and put the blade to the heat”.
For young children, to lose their father is a tragedy, but it is even a greater tragedy for young children to lose their mother and be left wandering in the streets “motherless”. That is exactly what this prince of evil, dressed in scarlet, has been doing for so long. He has been stirring up all those nations to make war, culminating in the final battle of Armageddon (Rev. 15:16).Throughout the centuries these wars have caused a continuous stream of blood shedding, devastation, destruction, destitution and poverty. These wars literally leave many children out on the streets of big Babylon, orphans, fatherless and “motherless”. But what does this prince of evil do? Help those “motherless” and helpless children? On the contrary: “He takes the motherless children off the street and places them at the feet of a harlot”. He abuses those motherless children for his own purpose in a morbid cycle of sexual abuse, whereby victims become perpetrators and end up in prostitution at the feet of harlots.
In a metaphorical way those “motherless” children represent people without any direction, stability or proper guidance in their lives. These people make no choices in their lives just like Dylan wrote in “Man in the long black coat’: ‘But people don't live or die, people just float”. In an ideological way they become easy victims to the beast who places them at the feet of “a harlot”, so that they become servants of this harlot. The word “harlot” is metaphorically used in Revelation 17 to represent the antagonistic spiritual empire of Babylon. The word ‘’Babylon” is in itself a metaphor for all the big evil powers in this world who try to oppose the coming of the kingdom of God (Rev. 17:5).
The studio outtake of Jokerman has: “He'll turn priests into pimps and make all men bark,take a woman that could have been Joan of Arc and turn her into a harlot”. This verse line basically expresses the same idea. A pimp is someone who procures customers for whores or arranges sexual partners for others. When it says: “He'll turn priests into pimps” this may not be meant literally but is a metaphor for the continuous efforts of the devil, through false prophets, to deceive entire nations through erroneous doctrines, theologies and ideologies into becoming advocates and servants of ideologically evil empires and having those nations commit idolatry in a spiritual way. “Take a woman that could have been Joan of Arc and turn her into a harlot” refers to the kind of woman who resembles Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc –ca. 1412-1431 – was nicknamed “The maid of Orléans" and is regarded as a French folk heroine and a Roman Catholic Saint. At the time she saw it as her mission to support Charles VII in his attempts to recover France from English domination. She was eventually captured by the British and put on trial. She was convicted to death on charges of heresy and was burned at the stake when she was about 19 years old. The poet may have intended to say that the deceptive power of the prince of evil is so great that he successfully turns people who were meant to be saints into the opposite, into becoming harlots.
Having said all this, it is now finally time to confront the Jokerman with the dreadful consequences of all this. Therefore the words: “Oh, Jokerman, you know what he wants, Oh, Jokerman, you don't show any response” may have been intended to draw some sort of a conclusion. The Jokerman is now put on the carpet. It seems as if he now says to the Jokerman: ‘oh come on Jokerman, stop mocking and joking, you know exactly what this prince of evil, the devil, the beast is up to! You know exactly “what he wants”. All this prince wants is evil; in fact this prince is the incorporation of all evil. His purpose is total destruction of this world through a scorched earth policy. As the end of times approaches, he does his utmost – he puts the blade to the heat - to inflict as much pain and destruction and agony as he possibly can. Like it says in Rev. 12:12:’. So Jokerman, although “You don’t show any response”, you must respond now, you cannot have your cards in your sleeve any longer, you must put them on the table. You cannot play the joker card any longer to hide your real intentions. When you see all those innocent motherless children being abused you Jokerman must stop ‘laughing in the face of what sorrow brings’. You Jokerman, you’ve said all along that ‘there must be somewhere out of this’ but this time you will not get away with this. Although “you don’t show any response” I must ask you again ‘’which side are you onwas once on the same cross roads and concluded the following:‘ Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination, or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards’.
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Excellent and thought provoking analysis. I need to be better educated in th Bible to reveal any criticism, but this song, And Dylan's other songs in this era have inspired me to study the Bible more intensely. Thanks for the inspiration to do this.
— James Damian Abel06-11-2020 19:30
— Michael04-02-2014 21:21
Well, the rifleman...hark back to Deadman, Deadman where Bob writes "What are you trying to overpower me with, a doctrine or a gun" This verse is describing anit-Christ, who will come as a "Man of Peace," so deceptive that even a small puppy will lick his face in a display of affection. He will be regarded so highly by the masses that he would seem to deserve/warrant a statue worthy of immortalizing like something by Michelangelo. He will be regarded as royal and regal (the purple) but will be a tyrant causing war and the destruction of morality and dehumanizing of the innocent. All too often, and with all due repect, this song is linked to Jesus....it is a song about the Anti-Christ.
Just some random thoughts thrown out there....thanks for an interesting read.
— tensteel04-02-2014 20:53