Bob Dylan's "False Prophet" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf
Bob Dylan’s “False Prophet” – an analysis by Kees de Graaf – Part 1.
When we hear this masterpiece “False Prophet” it feels as if this blues song were performed at a place to which Dylan alludes in his song ”My own version of You”. It is not hard to visualize Bob and his band playing “False Prophet” “at midnight on Judgement Day in the Black Horse Tavern on Armageddon Street”. The dragging blues riff- very much resembling Billy Emerson’s “If Loving is Believing”- feels like a performance in a nightclub near hell while the flames of Armageddon burn all around them.
There has been a lot of debate on the internet about the artwork accompanying the release of the single “False Prophet”. The cigarette the dressed up skeleton had in his hand on the original picture was photoshopped into a syringe. What does this syringe mean at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps the world? And who is that silhouetted person in the background hanging on a rope? Since it is not our intention to get involved in American politics, we leave these questions open for interpretation.
The title of the song “False Prophet” may seem a little odd when you consider that in the refrain the poet says: “I ain’t no false prophet”. It would be more obvious if the title were e.g. “No False Prophet”. But then again, in the words “I ain’t no false prophet” there is a double negation and although this is not always so, usually a double negation is regarded as an affirmation. The intention of the False Prophet is to categorically deny that indeed he is a False Prophet, but it seems that the more fervently he denies being a false prophet, the clearer it becomes that indeed he is a False Prophet. When further on, we take a more detailed look at the verses of the song, we feel that the verses will prove that the speaker definitely is a False Prophet.
The issue we’d better deal with straightaway is: is there an autobiographic undercurrent in the refrain: “I ain’t no false prophet”?. Maybe. There has always been the odour hanging around Dylan of being a prophet. Now you have prophets with a capital “P” and prophets with a small “p”. Prophets with a capital “P” are the Biblical Prophets like e.g. Isaiah and Ezekiel. These Prophets speak with divine authority and for that reason only they are authorized to say “I just know what I know” and “I just said what I said” But there are also prophets with a small “p” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17). Followers of Jesus are prophets with a small “p” and prophesize without divine authority, their prophecies need to be tested by others whether they are of God or not (1 John 4:1). Now there is this famous 2004 CBS interview. In this interview Dylan refers to people who say to Dylan: “You’re the Prophet, You’re the Saviour”. Then Dylan replies: “I never wanted to be a Prophet or a saviour. Elvis maybe. But Prophet? No!”. We feel that Dylan here denies that he is a Prophet with a capital “P” but that does not mean he cannot be a prophet with a small “p”. It all has to do with what Dylan in this same interview calls “the destiny thing”. When asked: “You use the word “destiny” over and over again in the book. What does it mean to you? Dylan replies: “It’s a feeling about yourself that nobody else does -the picture you have in your mind of what you’re about will come true. It’s a kind of a thing you have to keep to your own self, because it’s a fragile feeling. And if you put it out there, somebody will kill it. So it’s best to keep that all inside”. I think that Dylan is sincere here. “It’s a feeling about yourself that nobody else does” may in meaning come close to “ I just know what I know” and to “I just said what I said”. Long time ago he had this- spiritual- experience to which he refers in this same 2004 CBS interview: Dylan says: ‘’It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean, I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end’’. Dylan made a private bargain – apparently with God- and that gives him the courage to state that he knows what he knows and says what he says. It is- as he says- “a fragile feeling” so he cannot be explicit, you have to read between the lines. Only because of this bargain is he able to write songs like “False Prophet”. Otherwise he would never had got this far, in his own words ‘‘to get where I am now”. So to sum this up, the autobiographic undercurrent of the refrain “I ain’t no false prophet” may be understood as if he says: “I show you in the verses of this song how the False Prophet operates, and no matter how fervently the False Prophet denies that he is a false prophet, he definitely is a False Prophet. But “I” in contrast with this False Prophet, “I” am not a false prophet but a true prophet, albeit with a small “p”. Long time ago I experienced this “destiny thing” and because of this experience “I just know what I know” and “I just said what I said”.
When we take a closer look at the lyrics, we find that the ways of the False Prophet are quite often “rough and rowdy” and for that reason this song thematically very well fits in with the main theme of the album, the “Rough and Rowdy Ways”. But the manners of the False Prophet are not always like that. As Dylan said in his song ”Man of Peace”: “Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace”. As we will see later in more detail, in the lyrics the false prophet alternates his rough and rowdy ways of violent persecution with ostensibly peaceful and subtle deception. From the lyrics it is clear that the False Prophet operates in the liminal space, it feels as if an occult voice from the underworld tries to break into the visible and tangible reality with the purpose of causing as much damage and destruction as he possibly can. How could we summarize the possible meaning of this song in a few words? In the song a number of lines are quoted from a book titled “Awakening Osiris” – A New Translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead- written by Normandi Ellis (Phanes Press). If you take this into account, one could argue that that in this song the False Prophet may be some sort of incarnation of Egyptian polytheism, of gods like Temu, Ptah Ra, Shu, Tefnut, Geb, Nut, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys. There seems to be a cosmic struggle going on between these multiple Egyptian gods embodied by the False Prophet and annex by false prophecy – false prophecy such as laid down in the Egyptian Book of the Dead- and the One and Only God, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה, Jahwè , the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who calls Himself “I AM” in Ex. 3:14. The “I AM” who exposed the Egyptian gods and their false prophecy, when with a mighty arm He led His people out of Egypt into the promised land of Israel. (Exodus 6-12).The same God, the same “I AM” to whom the poet of ”I’ve Made up my mind, to give myself to you” has given his heart: “I’m giving myself to you, I AM”. So in this song is not the question on whose side the poet is, nor, for that matter, of the outcome of this cosmic struggle will be. This outcome is by no means uncertain: “There in the temple of the sun in Egypt He will demolish the sacred pillars and will burn down the temples of the gods of Egypt” (Jer. 43:14). Let us now see how in a verse by verse analysis this theme is worked out.
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.
When it says “Another day without end” the poet immediately quotes chapter 8 of the book “Awakening Osiris” where in the context it says: “Now is the day of the joining of opposites, of the mingling of the dust of flesh with the dust of the coffin. this is the day of flow, the living ether returned to air, the maker of forms assuming new form. This is the day without end—the passage into light itself, the joining of Osiris to Ra”. As is outlined in the introduction of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the book is a compilation of funeral texts and religious hymns written by priests during a period spanning approx. 3000 BC to 300 AD. It is true, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, there is a constant struggle between the powers of darkness and light, between good and evil. At the same the non-dualistic state of nature, including human existence, is prominently present in the book. This non-dualism wipes out the fundamental difference between the Creator and creation. The creation is deified and subsequently worshipped (cf. Rom 1:21-23). The Pyramid texts show supplications to the gods, so that a man might achieve unity with the deities in heaven. Because of this non-dualism, the absolute distance between Creator and creation and between right and wrong is eliminated. In chapter 9 we hear the Speaker – the Speaker addresses Osiris in the third person – say “I create myself”. In chapter 8 the Speaker equates himself with the god Osiris: “I have sailed with Ra in the boat of the sun. I am a shining recollected Osiris”.
The primordial sin of man in paradise was that he believed the lie uttered by the serpent – the devil, alias the False Prophet – that man could be on an equal with God, that man could be like God (Gen. 3:5).But from the very beginning man could only live in perfect harmony with God if man respected the endless qualitative difference between God, the Creator, and man, His creation. It was this same megalomania ”I am like God, I create myself” which led to the downfall of the devil, alias the False Prophet. Condemned and thrown out by God, the False Prophet – and annex false prophecy - can now thrive in cultures like that of the ancient Egyptians, deceiving pharaoh’s and the Egyptian elite in believing that they are like god and that they are gods. These funeral texts in the Egyptian Book of the Dead can be seen as an embodiment of this false prophecy. But the False Prophet is condemned and you hear this weary and cynical note of resignation in his voice when he says: “Another day without end”. Isaiah 14:12 (KJV) says of him: “ How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations!”. The one who once was a son of the morning is now condemned to a day of agony that will never end.
When “Another ship going out” is added, it is as if the False Prophet wearily witnesses yet another burial of some Egyptian pharaoh or other wealthy Egyptian. This is reflected in the book “Awakening Osiris” when it says: “This white boat ferries the body through dark waters, carries the heart of gold through the red core of earth, Great is the God in his boat”. The ancient Egyptians used a ship as tomb offering and this symbolizes the transport of the dead person and their soul, from this life into the afterlife, to Osiris the god of the dead. According to Wikipedia, the Egyptians believed that a boat or ship was needed in the afterlife in order to travel to the heavens. Sometimes a small model of a boat was buried with a person. Often times a full size boat was included in the tombs of Pharaohs and other wealthy Egyptians.
“Another day of anger bitterness and doubt” again reflects this weary and cynical mood of the False Prophet and takes us back to “Awakening Osiris” where we read these words in the following context: “May I walk the road envisioned by Ra's eyes. May my spirit gather my selves and fly back to its source. May I join the great march of beings who live and die in the circle of light. I shall not fall under flashing knives. I shall not burn up in the cauldron. I know the names of the scorpions and they are these: anger, bitterness and doubt. And I know the names of the serpents: ego, concern for the self of the body; relinquishment of destiny, the attribution of suffering to god; false pity that stifles another man's becoming; mediocre virtues and the denial of passion; sentimentality wherein passion is artifice; satisfaction wherein he fails to attain the great; common thought wherein a man seeks not to push himself beyond the limits of his own imagination”. It seems obvious that the Egyptian Book of the Dead associates a scorpion with “anger bitterness and doubt”. Jesus proclaims victory over scorpions and serpents and equates scorpions and serpents with demonic resistance and enmity. In Luke 10:19,20 Jesus says: “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven”. (KJB).One may say that since his downfall the Satan, the Serpent, alias the False Prophet, is condemned to, and trapped in, a day by day, but never ending vicious circle of “anger, bitterness and doubt”. All fruit the False Prophet produces is nothing but “anger, bitterness and doubt” and there is a sharp contrast with the fruit the Holy Spirit produces, as is written in Gal. 5:22,23(NLT): “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, and self-control”
“I know how it happened - I saw it begin” takes us back to the time of the downfall of Satan, the devil, Lucifer, alias the False Prophet. Isaiah 14:13,14 (NKJV) describes how it happened, how it began: “For you have said in your heart: ‘I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.’ This led to the downfall of Satan: “Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the Pit” (Isiah 14:15 NKJV).
It all happened, it all began when “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in”. Again the book “Awakening Osiris” is quoted: “I've known the pleasures of the earth. I bathed myself in light on an afternoon of rejoicing—not a festival, but an ordinary afternoon where I opened my heart to the world and the world came in, where I brought water from the well with my daughter, where I chewed the grass, at the figs and sat by the riverbank watching sunlight dazzle like the white pearls of my daughter's smile. I steeped myself in the passion for existence until my spirit rose like steam bearing the fragrance of cedar and flowers”. A few lines below this quote we read: “I bring home the earth. I bring back the words." What strikes us is that these lines have a pantheistic character. One could say that pantheism leads to polytheism and visa versa and you find these phenomena all over the book “Awakening Osiris”.
To understand what these words “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in” may mean, we have to go back to the early days of the world, somewhere in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1), to the time of the downfall of Satan as pictured in the text we quoted above from Isaiah 14:13-14. One could say that Satan – alias the False Prophet - left his dependant position from God (Jude 1:6) and he no longer gave his heart to God, the Creator, but he opened his heart to the creation, the world, to own the world and to equate himself to the world and in doing so defying God. Satan, the serpent, did the same thing to man in paradise when he tempted man to open up his heart to the world, he succeeded and the world came in and man fell.
Now Satan tempted Jesus to do the same thing and have Jesus open his heart to the world but here Satan failed. We read of this in Matt. 4: 8-10 (NLT): “Next the devil took him to the peak of a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. I will give it all to you,” he said, “if you will kneel down and worship me.” Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him”. Jesus could have opened his heart to the world and would have owned all the kingdoms of the world and their glory but the world did not come in and Jesus rejected Satan’s offer.
In Part 2 we will analyze verse 2 .Then the camara will zoom out of ancient Egypt and zoom in , where in modern times, Mary Lou and Miss Pearl will enter the scene.
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