Bob Dylan's "False Prophet" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 3.
In this episode we deal with the verses 4, 5 and 6.
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
Thanks to the Rev. Walter Lee who brought to my attention that the AABB rhyme scheme that is so neatly followed throughout the song is broken in this verse. Dylan could have easily written, “I’m the first among equals, I’m the last of the best, second to none, you can bury the rest” but he doesn’t and there must be some reason for this broken rhyme scheme. Now to address this query we first should note that “first among equals” is a translation of the Latin phrase “Primus inter pares “derived from Ancient Greek. It is typically used as an honorary title for someone who is formally equal to other members of their group but is accorded unofficial respect, traditionally owing to their seniority in office. In Mat. 12:24 Satan (Beelzebub) is called the “prince of daemons”. In a way, one could say that Satan is the” first among his equals”, among his equals, the daemons. No doubt Jesus can be called “first among equals”. Why? Because He practiced this principle in dealing with the 12 disciples and this is confirmed by Romans 8:29 where He is called the “first born among many brothers and sisters” Hebrews 2:12 says “So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters”(NLT). Jesus, the Son of God, who is called the “first” in everything (Colossians 1:18) is not ashamed to be called “first among equals”, among his earthly brothers and sisters. But now there is a huge difference between the False Prophet – alias Satan -proclaiming that he is the “first among equals” and of Jesus proclaiming the same thing. When Jesus is qualified as “the first among equals”, this may be called an honorary title and a reward which He received because of his unprecedented self-sacrifice for His brothers and sisters. Satan is called the ape of God. When Satan is qualified as the “first among equals” this is a fake statement, full of guile, and this pretended condescension is therefore immediately followed by a bragging statement that he is “second to none”. Satan, Lucifer claims to be second to none when in Isaiah 14: 13 he says : “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God”. In a way, what the right hand of the False Prophet advances by modestly stating that he is the ” first among his equals”, is drawn back by his left hand when he braggingly claims that he is “second to none”. This is the only reason I can think of why the AABB rhyme scheme is broken in this verse. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is thematically an interwoven album and some lines of thought in one song- though in a different context - are reappear in other songs on the album. “Second to none” reappears in the last stanza of “Murder Most Foul” where it says: “Was a hard act to follow, second to none, they killed him on the altar of the rising sun”. The “Altar of the Rising Sun” is located in Beijing' s diplomatic quarter and once used to sacrifice to the God of the Sun. Anyway, this is a territory the False Prophet is all too familiar with because Ezekiel 8:16 condemns worshipping the God of the Sun: “And he brought me into the inner court of the LORD'S house, and, behold, at the door of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about five and twenty men, with their backs toward the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east; and they worshipped the sun toward the east” (KJV).
The False Prophet goes on to say that he is “the last of the best”. In Islam Muhammad is generally regarded as the last and the best of the prophets sent by God. Whereas the words “first among equals” in the mouth of Jesus is the result of self-sacrifice , surrender, humility and companionship, the same words in the mouth of the False Prophet work itself out not only in a bragging: “I am the last of the the best” but also subsequently in a cursing and humiliating exposure both of his opponents: “You can bury the rest, bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold put ‘em six feet under and then pray for their souls”. Somehow these words still seem steeped in the Ancient Egyptian cultural burial practices we above dealt with. The exodes of the Hebrews comes to mind, when they escaped from their grave of Egyptian slavery and bereft the Egyptians of their jewellery, their silver and gold. (Ex.3:22 and 12:36) The Egyptians would have rather buried the Hebrews with their silver and gold in the Red Sea, than letting them go and set them free. ”You can bury the rest” in the mouth of the False Prophet may mean as much as ‘forget about the rest, I am the only one in the universe who is of any importance’. “Bury them naked” is an expression of utmost exposure to defilement and humiliation, in the same way as Two Timing Slim’s corpse was dragged through the mud (In Dylan’s “Soon After Midnight”). According to Wikipedia the expression “put them six feet under” is a reference to the plague:” The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak of the plague in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. The law eventually fell out of favour both in England and its colonies”. “Pray for their souls” alludes to a Roman-Catholic practice to pray for salvation of the souls of the deceased who dwell in Purgatory.
Here it is as if the False Prophet has us return to the liminal sphere of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to Osiris, Lord of the liminal world. Again it is as if we witness the voyage of some dead pharaoh to the liminal world. The Egyptian book of the Dead: “This white boat of spirit ferries the body through dark water, carries the heart of gold through the red core of earth. Great is the god in his boat”. Prayers are sent out for the return of the soul to the earth: “therefore with regularity, the spirit returns to its source to bask in the wonders of god, to draw strength from the fire, then go into the world to rage against the serpent of darkness”.
The Book of Revelation (Chapter 17) reveals that the False Prophet, alias the Beast-, turns himself against his own loyal companions, the harlot and all of her followers. The harlot in Revelation represents Babylon, the mother of all harlots and abominations on earth (Rev. 17:5). The avenge of the Beast is bitter: “And the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast, these shall hate the whore, and shall make her desolate and naked, and shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire. (Rev. 17:12 KJV). It is as if the False Prophet first says to the harlot and all of her followers: “Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold”. And the False Prophet did stuff the mouth of the harlot and her companions – the Great Babylon - with gold when you consider all the riches, the silver and gold he gave them (Rev. 18:12). But subsequently when the False Prophet has stuffed their mouth with gold , just like the Beast, he starts to loath his own children and dismisses them snarling: “bury ‘em naked with their silver and gold put ‘em six feet under” followed by a cynical “ and then pray for their souls” suggesting that prayer will do them no good.
What are you looking 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.
By nature invisible daemons are invisible, so that is why it says “there’s nothing to see” but they also hate to be closely examined and exposed. When Jesus exposes them and pulls them out of their comfort zone, they shrink back. Therefore, “What are you looking’ at - there’s nothing to see” also sounds like a reproach. “Just for a second there I thought I something move” (Dylan’s “Things have changed”)could easily have been followed by “What are you looking’ at - there’s nothing to see”. As said Satan is the ape of God. He likes to pass himself off as God or as an angel of light. Here the False Prophet takes the words of God in his mouth because “Just a cool breeze encircling me” and also “Let’s walk in the garden - so far and so wide” can primarily be said of God as He walked through the garden of Eden communicating with Adam and Eve: “Then the man and his wife heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:8 BSB cf. 1 Kings 19:12).The Biblical expression “to walk in” usually refers to one’s lifestyle, one’s moral conduct. It may either be a lifestyle full of faith and devotion to God, just like Enoch in Gen. 5:24: “Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” or it may be a lifestyle full of sin(c.f. Eph. 2:2). So when the False Prophet invites you saying “Let’s walk in the garden - so far and so wide” this may in itself be a neutral statement and may simply be an invitation for confidential communication as you walk along in the garden.
However, when these words are followed by “We can sit in the shade by the fountain side” this takes it a step further. Because, when you “sit” down with somebody you come under his or her spell. When you take a walk with the False Prophet there is always the possibility to escape from his influence, but once you sit down with him, there is no turning back. The images that are used here are Biblical. In the dry land of Israel with its hot and dry climate, you are always in need of shade against the burning sun and in need of fresh living water from a fountain. In the Bible a well, a spring, a fountain of water is a metaphor for the abundant everlasting life God gives to his people like it says in John 4:14 “but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” and in Rev. 21:6 “And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (KJV). However, when you decide to succumb to the temptation of the False Prophet to “sit in the shade by the fountain side” he can do with you as he pleases and in the end, when it is too late, you will find out that these fountains, “These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever" ( 2 Peter 2:17 KJV).
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
In this verse the False Prophet is involved in a number of activities and in doing so sets an example to his followers to do the same, with the only one purpose to draw a red herring across the track of his followers and to keep all those who are not “busy being born, busy being dying”.
According to Wikipedia, the Holy Grail is a treasure that serves as an important motif in Arthurian literature. There are multiple interpretations of what this Holy Grail stands for, from Jesus’s vessel from the Last Supper, to all sorts of objects related to the crucifixion of Jesus. There are many conspiracy theories circling around about the Holy Grail and there are many myths and legends dealing with the Holy Grail, too many to list here. Take e.g. Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller “The Da Vinci Code”.
Thanks to Walter Lee who pointed out to me that this whole verse may be about Lancelot and his quest for the holy grail. He is the French singer who entices the love of Guinevere. He betrays Arthur as he comes in, and in his effort to rescue Guinevere, he removes the armour on his feet and hands to cross the Bridge of Swords an gets across, cut up and wounded in his effort.
And as far as the holy grail is concerned, there is of course also the Indiana Jones connection to this verse. Indiana Jones is also referred to in the opening track of this album “I contain multitudes’ where it says “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones, and them British bad boys the Rolling Stones”. First there was this movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark”- of which most of the action took place in Egypt- and where Indiana Jones finally finds the lost Ark of the Covenant after digging the Well of Souls. This movie was later followed by the movie “The Last Crusade”, which may be regarded as a sort of remake of the ”Raiders of the Lost Ark”, except for the fact that it is now the Holy Grail and not the lost Ark of the Covenant, which is searched for.
The point the poet may intend to make here is that false prophecy, personified by the False Prophet, has searched the world over to find the Holy Grail and by doing so encourages people to do the same and keep on searching for this Holy Grail, regardless of what it may mean. The Holy Grail is a labyrinth in which people easily get lost. And that is exactly what the False Prophet is intending. The opposite is also true. “Seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:8) Jesus promises but, when you truly do that, such a search may be qualified by the false prophecy as “looking for nothing” like in Dylan’s song “Marching to the City” where it says: “Well I’m sitting in church in an old wooden chair, I knew nobody would look for me there, sorrow and pity rule the earth and the skies, looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes”.
Any attempt to find God is “looking for nothing” in the eyes of the false prophecy. The purpose of the False Prophet is to distract the attention of people away from God and encourage people to lose themselves in trivialities like finding the Holy Grail. This is exactly corresponds to the warning Paul gives to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:4 : “not to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training, that is in faith”.
“I sing songs of love - I sing songs of betrayal” shows the two seemingly opposite faces of the False Prophet under which he operates. “I sing songs of love” pictures the deceptive face of the False Prophet. According to Dylan’s song “Man of Peace” the devil - alias the False Prophet- “Knows every song of love that ever has been sung” but underneath there is this vicious counterpart of these so-called “love” songs and these are the songs of betrayal. Betrayal is core business for the False Prophet, culminating in Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. This betrayal reminds us of Dylan’s song “With God on our side” (for a detailed analysis of this song, please go to my Bob Dylan song analysis page elsewhere on this website) Dylan says there: “Through many dark hour, I’ve been thinking about this, that Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss. But I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide, whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side” . Here, love – expressed by a kiss- and betrayal are seemingly intertwined. False prophecy always tries to legitimize itself by appealing to the word of God and proclaiming that it has God on its side. Judas is the personification of such a False Prophet and if he would say “I sing songs of love - I sing songs of betrayal” and if by saying so he would fulfil the Scriptures (e.g.. Acts 1:16), such a confession would nevertheless not take away his responsibility for this evil act. Whereas Moses sings a true song of love and redemption (Ex.14) together with the Lamb (Rev. 15:3-5), expressing a righteousness which constitutes pure love, the great imitator of God sings his songs of “love” and betrayal.
When the poet goes on to say “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat” followed by “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” these two lines seem contrasting. “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat” shows the utmost moral indifference and disrespect for the body, whereas “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” at the same time shows a meticulously executed flagellation of the body to achieve a desired mental state. Yet these two seemingly contrasting attitudes fit the False Prophet’s message well.
It is true, “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat” may be an allusion to Jesus when Jesus declared all food kosher (Mark 7:19, e.g. also Acts 10:15) but when the False Prophet takes these words into his mouth, his intentions are quite different and the casual indifference from the False Prophet seems to encourage unbridled consumerism as a means to divert attention from deeper spiritual thoughts. The False Prophet could not care less that this unbridled consumerism “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat”, leads to huge medical problems like obesities from which millions of people around the world – and especially in the USA - suffer. It suits the agenda of the False Prophet well that in rapid speed we consume our planet’s resources at the expense of the many very poor. What ‘Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat’ may result in, is nowadays deeply felt all over the world in the Covid-19 pandemic that is raging over our planet. They say that the Covid-19 virus originates from bats which are traded in Chinese food markets. Deep down inside, ‘Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat’ represents the False Prophet’s false claim that the earth and all of its resources belong to him whereas in reality it belongs to the LORD. (Psalm 24:1.) “Eat whatever is sold in the market without raising any questions on the ground of conscience” (1 Cor.10:25) is quite the opposite of and has nothing to do with the casual ‘Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat’ . “Eat whatever is sold in the market without raising any questions on the ground of conscience” is deeply rooted in a free conscience and a free conscience always entails a responsible use of all resources based on the fact that “the earth is he Lords’ and everything in it “(1 Cor. 10:26).
“I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” is a reference to a Zen Buddhistic training method:“ From here on, emptiness is no longer a realization. Instead it becomes a tool that you will use for the reminder of your training. After you answer the Mu koan, you will begin to work through any number of other koans. Zen calls this climbing the mountain of swords that is riddled with the skulls of the fallen. Each koan forces you to confront some aspect of yourself – some fear, attachment, belief that is keeping you from true enlightenment”. These words go back to Wumen Huikai a Chinese Chán (in Japanese: Zen) master during China‘s Song period. In the 48-koan collection called “The Gateless Barrier” it says: “You must carry the iron with no hole. No trivial matter, this curse passes to descendants. If you want to support the gate and sustain the house, You must climb a mountain of swords with bare feet”. “Mountain of swords" is a Chinese idiom for some sort of ordeal. They say that “ 上刀山，下火海“means “dare to climb a mountain of swords or plunge into a sea of flames”. 刀山(Mountain of Swords)is said to be an old Buddhist ritual, one of the cruellest sort of self-torture from the underworld.
When the False Prophet says: “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet”, this Buddhist self-imposed torture shows a harsh treatment of the body which Colossians 2:23 strongly denounces: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (NIV).
As far as the body is concerned, there seems to be a sharp contrast between the casual indulgence and contempt for the body shown in “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat” on the one hand, while on the other hand, there is the utmost attention for, and deployment of, the body as a way to achieve enlightenment in “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet”. Yet these seemingly contrasting two notions are two sides of the same medal and both are part of the False Prophet’s armoury. The equivalent to “Don’t care what I drink - don’t care what I eat” is the fatalistic “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). The equivalent to “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” is the“ false humility” and the “harsh treatment of the body” of Col.2:23. Whereas Jesus‘ deep physical and emotional suffering portrayed by Dylan in “Make You feel my Love”: ‘I’d go hungry”(Matthew 4:2),and ”I’d go black and blue, I’d go crawling down the avenue (of Gethsemane Matt. 26:39), Oh there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love’ shows Jesus’ profound love and determination to save others, the False Prophet’s “I climbed a mountain of swords on my bare feet” is only egoistic self-exhortation.