Bob Dylan's "False Prophet" - an analysis by Kees de Graaf - Part 4.
In this final episode we deal with the verses 7,8,9 and 10.
You don’t know me darlin’ - you never would guess
I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain’t no false prophet - I just said what I said
I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.
The False Prophet seems to be aware of the fact that his “ghostly appearance” scares off people and might give them that creepy haunted feeling that something is wrong. Terrified they were, the disciples of Jesus when they were in a boat on the sea of Galilea and Jesus passed by walking on the water and they thought he was a ghost (Marc 6:50). Intuitively the False Prophet feels that his ghostly appearance may impede his victim’s surrender to him and therefore he attempts to reassure his victims by pretending that he has no evil intentions and that they have nothing to fear. He tries to reassure his victim by addressing her as “darling” and it is as if you hear the echo of Dylan’s “Man of Peace” where Dylan says of Satan: “He’ll puts both his arms around you, you can feel the tender touch of the beast”. “What are you looking at - there’s nothing to see” of verse 5 sounded like a reproach but here the False Prophet intends to take away any suspicion in a gentle way.
We already dealt with the possible meaning of “I ain’t no false prophet - I just said what I said” in the introductory remarks made in Part 1 of the analysis of this song.
“Vengeance” means a punishment inflicted in retaliation for an injury or offence. Both the False Prophet and God use the word “vengeance” However, when the False Prophet uses the word “vengeance” in “I’m here to bring ‘vengeance’ on somebody’s head” his intentions are quite different from God’s intentions when God uses the word “vengeance”. When God says “Mine is the vengeance” (Romans 12:19 quoting Deut. 32:35) God’s intention is to do justice to those who have been wronged. From God’s side “vengeance” is an act of love and justice, to set things right. From the side of the False Prophet “vengeance” is an act of just pure evil. The False Prophet is out to bring vengeance “on somebody’s head”; for the False Prophet it is quite indifferent who the person targeted is, it might be anybody; he couldn’t care less as long as he can ruin and inflict damage on a person. We find a classic example of this “vengeance” in 2 Chron. 18:18-22. A spirit – a daemon- stepped forward in the heavenly council and said that he was ready to bring vengeance on King Ahab’s head saying “I will entice him”. He indeed succeeded in enticing Ahab to wage war against Ramoth-Gilead and we see that - because of this vengeance- Ahab was killed in the following battle against Ramoth-Gilead (2 Chron. 18:34).
Put out your hand - there’s nothin’ to hold
Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold
Oh you poor Devil - look up if you will
The City of God is there on the hill
The primordial sin of man in the Garden of Eden was that man wanted to be like God and be independent from God. “Putting out one’s hand” is just the opposite and a token of dependence from and surrender to God and that is a humble attitude which the False Prophet very much loathes. The False Prophet knows that anyone who puts out his or her hand to God in prayer for heavenly aid, will be heard. But such prayers are sometimes not answered immediately and the full realization of God’s promises lies in the future. This requires patience and perseverance in faith from the side of the believer. The False Prophet targets his fiery darts on the weak spot of the believers and that is their patience and perseverance. Therefore, he constantly puts their patience and perseverance to the test by trying to make them believe that “there is nothing to hold” as if he says to them: “you may put out your hand to God and trust him, but his promises are empty and vain and he leaves you empty handed, but I can give you everything you want right now”. These are the scoffers who say “there is nothing to hold”. These are the same scoffers, who, inspired by the False Prophet, will come and say: “Where is the promise of his coming?”(2 Pet. 3:4 RSV).
When the False Prophet goes on to say: “Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold” the False Prophet claims that he – unlike God -can give you instant inner peace and wealth. It is the sort of “instant inner peace” Dylan denounces in his song “When you gonna wake up”: ”Spiritual advisors and gurus to guide you every move, instant inner piece and every step you take has got to be approved”.
When it says: “Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold” this reminds us of Crassus, the wealthy Roman, who had his mouth stuffed with molten gold by the Parthians, after losing a battle in 53BC.
It also reminds us of a quote from the British Labour Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who shortly after the Second World War, said: “I stuffed their mouths with gold” after allowing British doctors to continue seeing private patients- and allowing these doctors to make a lot of extra money out of it – on top of the money they made on accepting NHS patients.
Something comparable happened in the 1990s when U.S. hospitals, began buying primary care physicians and their practices by “stuffing their mouths with gold.” To incite doctors to become their employees hospitals initially paid them exorbitant salaries—essentially bribes.
When it says “Open your mouth - I’ll stuff it with gold” the poet may allude to the so-called prosperity gospel which is widespread especially in the USA. The adage of the prosperity gospel is the religious belief that “financial blessing and physical wealth well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one material wealth”(Wikipedia). It is as if the False Prophet says: “Don’t put out your hand to God, because if you do so, there is nothing to hold, only vague future promises, there is nothing tangible to hold which you can enjoy right now. But if you follow me and “open your mouth, I’ll stuff it with gold”. Gold teeth is usually a sign of extravagant luxury and that is what this prosperity preacher, this False Prophet, promises to give instantly to all those who follow his instructions.
When it says “Oh you poor Devil - look up if you will, the City of God is there on the hill”, the False prophet speaks condescendingly to the believers as if they are to be pitied: “Oh you poor Devil”. It is as if the False Prophet says: “It is true, God promises you a City of Gold (Rev.21:8) but you have to look up for it, you do not have it right now, it is there on the hill and beyond reach and who says that you will ever reach this City,”. ”On the hill” may also allude to the hill of Calvary. The City of God is the New Jerusalem which will come down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) but it is on Mount Sion where also the hill of Calvary is. Calvary – the hill where Jesus was crucified - also smacks of suffering and it is as if the False Prophet wants to make it clear that if you follow God you will suffer and if you follow the False Prophet, you will get rich instantly.
Hello stranger - Hello and goodbye
You rule the land but so do I
You lusty old mule - you got a poisoned brain
I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain
Although it may make the analysis of this song a little less coherent, yet we feel that there is reason enough to believe that -only in this verse- there is a change of perspective. A change of perspective, because it seems that here the False Prophet is not the speaker – as in the previous verses and the following verse - but the addressee. It is God - or more precisely Jesus- who now addresses the False Prophet.
Before we go deeper into this, we should note that the words “Hello stranger” echo a song from the Stanley Brothers called “How Far To Little Rock” where it says: “Hello, stranger, (Why, hello there, stranger), Ah, could you tell me how far it is to Little Rock?(Well no sir I couldn't, buddy, but they's a devil of a big'n down here in Pap's old field”. The words “Hello stranger” also echo a song from The Carter Family called “Hello Stranger”. The song has the line “I’m prison bound, I’m longing to be free”, a line which happens to breathe the same atmosphere of imprisonment, the same sphere of imprisonment as the “ball and chain” in “I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain”.
There seems to be a certain symmetry in two song titles. In verse two we had the song “Hello Mary Lou” and here in verse nine we have the song “Hello stranger”. The “goodbye” here echoes the “goodbye” from “Hello, Mary Lou, Goodbye, heart”.
Above we said that there may be a change of perspective in this verse and now the False Prophet is the addressee and is addressed by Jesus as “Stranger”. In John 10 Jesus tells us that He is the good shepherd, the sheep recognize His voice and follow Him. But his opponent who cares nothing for the sheep is addressed as a “Stranger”. John 10:5 says: “And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers “ (KJV).
In Mat. 7:15 Jesus says: “Beware of the false prophets”. Mat. 7:22,23 Jesus says of these false prophets: “On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?’ and then I will declare to them, ‘I NEVER KNEW YOU; depart from me, you evildoers’ (RSV). Jesus does not know these false prophets, they are strangers to Him. “Depart from me” may mean as much as “goodbye”.
When God – or Jesus- says to the False Prophet: “You rule the land but so do I” this does not mean that God and the False Prophet are equals and that they equally share their power to rule the land. Since the victory of Jesus on the cross the devil is defeated and therefore Jesus says in John 12: 31: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out”(NKJV). It is true, some power – and that may be nasty- is left to the False Prophet – alias the devil-. His rule consists of prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour (1 Peter 5:8) but his power is limited and can only go as far as God allows him to go. Jesus is in command, therefore, “But so do I” means that in reality all power and authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus (Mat. 28:1). In his famous 2004 CBS interview Dylan alludes to this this by cryptically referring to Jesus as “the Commander in Chief in this world and in a world we can’t see”.
The words “You lusty old mule” may be almost literally quoted from Homer’s “Iliads”. A translation of this poem can be found in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Volume 10-11: “The Iliads and Odysses of Homer”, where in LIB. XXIII “The funeral games for Patroclu”s, on Page 281 -line 655-670- it says:
“A prize for him that won at fist and ball, a mule of six years old, and hard to rule.As for the vanquished, be assigned to him a lesser prize, which was a silver cup, that crooked and wryed was about the brim. Achilles then amongst the Greeks stood up. Atrides, and you Argives all, said he, let two men fight for these at fist and ball; the lusty mule shall for the victor be, the cup for him that in the night shall fall. This said, Epeius, a huge man stood up, and that had at this kind of fight great skill, and seized the mule, and said, as for the cup, let any one against me rise that will ,the mule is mine; at this game I am best”.
The first thing that strikes us is, that there is an exquisite word pun here. The Iliads speaks of a “ball” in “a prize for him that won at fist and ball”. In the next line “I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain” another sort of “ball” is introduced. Not a “ball”used in a game, but another sort of heavy metal “ball”, a ball used in combination with a chain to restrain and detain a prisoner.
Apart from this pun, one may wonder why the False Prophet is addressed here as “You lusty old mule”?. Now the dictionary describes a mule as “the offspring of a donkey and a horse (strictly, a male donkey and a female horse), typically sterile and used as a beast of burden”. It is true, mules are less stubborn and more intelligent than donkeys, yet they still can be very stubborn. This can also be said of the False Prophet -alias Satan of old-. They say that “Pride goes before a fall” and it was this stubborn “mulish” pride that led to the downfall of Satan. Now the False Prophet is characterized here as a “lusty” old mule. Where true love is lacking, only carnal “lust” remains. The False Prophet entices you to believe that sex outside a love relationship may be called love, but the truth is that such a love is only lust. Apart from “lusty” the False Prophet is also characterized as an “old” lusty mule, not strange when you consider that Rev. 20:2 calls the serpent, the devil, an “ancient” or old serpent. An additional reason why we feel that the False Prophet is the object in this verse and not the subject is the line “you got a poisoned brain”. “Poison” reminds us of a serpent; the old serpent of Rev. 12:9 who is Satan- alias the False Prophet. The False Prophet is said to have a “poisoned brain”. This means that his mind is fully occupied by poisonous and evil schemes, he is the embodiment of all evil. John 8: 44 calls him the murderer from the beginning. “You got a poisoned brain” also reminds us of the garden of Eden when the devil disguised as a serpent, injected Eve and Adam from his own poisoned brain with his poison and he did so by questioning the integrity of God in a very deceptive way. (Gen.3:1).
There is irony in the words “I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain”. Literally and figuratively. To understand this we must first realize that there has been a continuous quest in Dylan’s oeuvre to get free from earthly lust and to achieve the perfect and pure love of matrimony. On the Latter Day – when the final whistle (or trumpet) is blown- “lust” will be finally defeated and a pure and perfect matrimony will be consummated . Then it will be just like he said in his song “Duquesne Whistle”: “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like my woman’s on board”. An earthly matrimony is a foreshadowing of the eternal matrimony between Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride (cf. Eph.5:31-33). On the Latter Day and lasting into all eternity, there will be a marriage between Christ and all of his followers, just like it says in Rev. 19:7 “Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.”(NKJV). The “Lamb” in this verse stands for Christ and “his wife” stands for the church.
Now in “I’m gonna marry you to a ball and chain” there is also a marriage, but it is a marriage “to a ball and chain” and that is the irony, or to be more specific the “iron-y”. The False Prophet will be married to irons into all eternity, or to put it in Dylan’s own words, the False Prophet is “Cold irons bound”. In the final verse we hear the False Prophet boast: ”I’m nobody’s bride”. That is how the False Prophet will end up. In the third verse we heard the False Prophet say: “I go where only the lonely can go“ but he will not only go there but he will also stay there. A marriage “to a ball and chain” is not a marriage to look forward to. Christ’s marriage to the church and the False Prophet’s marriage to “a ball and chain” cannot be more contrasted!.
The “chain” echoes Revelation 20:1,2: “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years” (NLT).
You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live
When your smile meets my smile - something’s got to give
I ain’t no false prophet - I’m nobody’s bride
Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died.
The quasi familiar words from the False Prophet “You know darlin’ the kind of life that I live” are meant to inspire confidence. These words seem to echo the doctrines of another False Prophet – in this case a self-proclaimed false Prophetess called Jezebel- referred to in Rev. 2:19-29. This False Prophetess is said to know the ‘depths of Satan’. To fully know and understand “The kind of live that I live” may be the same as to know the ‘depths of Satan’, just like Jezebel once knew the depths of Satan. Jesus condemns and exposes this False Prophetess Jezebel and admonishes the church of Thyatira not to follow Jezebel into the depths of Satan; not to follow her into the life she lives: “Now to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, who have not known the depths of Satan, as they say, I will put on you no other burden”( Rev. 2:24 NKJV).
The words “when your smile meets my smile” suggest that an evil pact with the devil is fabricated. “When your smile meets my smile” may be seen as some sort of a token of a tacit agreement. Magical power is given to such an agreement, because when this happens, when these two smiles meet, the inevitable result is that “something’s got to give”. “Something’s got to give” means that that tension is building up and that whatever is supporting everything is going to break under the pressure. “Something’s got to give” also means that ‘the current situation cannot remain unchanged for much any longer; one side or the other has got to yield’. (Farlex Dictionary of Idioms). This is exactly what happened in the Garden of Eden when man yielded to the devil and fell into sin (Genesis 3).
The “something” in “Something’s got to give” was that Adam and Eve gave up their innocence, it was the day “when innocence died” (Dylan’s Ring them Bells). Losing their innocence meant that, when they opened up their eyes, they knew that they were naked (Gen 3:7). “Something’s got to give” also implies that something else broke down there in the Garden of Eden. This turned out to be a turning point in the history of mankind, because when the LORD God concluded: “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen.3:22),this meant that man not only lost his innocence, but now also knew of good and evil, and from then on has been able to experience what “the kind of life” the False Prophet lives involves, albeit with devastating result. ”The kind of life” turned out to be an evil life, but man cannot unring the bell and undo what has been done.
For the third and last time the False Prophet says: “I ain’t no false prophet” but this time it may be different. This time, on the album version – but not in the official lyrics on Bob Dylan’s website for that matter- the words “ I ain’t no false prophet” are followed by an emphatic “No”. A third negation makes a statement affirmative again and therefore from here on, it looks as if the False Prophet speaks the truth. There is truth in the proud statement from the False Prophet when he says: “I’m nobody’s bride”. This is not because the False Prophet loves the truth, on the contrary, he is a liar from the very beginning. To be somebody’s bride means that there must also be a groom. It means that there is matrimony. The metaphor used in the Bible is that of a matrimony between the groom Christ and his bride the church (Eph.5:25-27). It is a matrimony which will be extended into all eternity. The metaphor of a happy matrimony is used to symbolise the eternal love and protection from the groom (Christ, the Lamb) for his bride and the eternal devotion to the groom from the side of the bride (the church). Revelation 19:7-9 also uses this metaphor and says: “Let us be glad and rejoice ,and let us give honour to him. For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself. She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear”(NLT). The False Prophet cannot and does not want to be part of this eternal wedding feast. It would be the last thing he would ever wish. To him this wedding party it is an abomination. In fact, it is the reason why he says: “I’m nobody’s bride”. The False Prophet – alias Satan- represents the fallen Babylon which is condemned in Rev. 18:23: “The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The happy voices of brides and grooms will never be heard in you again. For your merchants were the greatest in the world, and you deceived the nations with your sorceries” (NLT). For so long in history, the False Prophet had been the head of business men who drank his wine and of ploughmen who dug his earth, but this will all come to a halt when suddenly, at the Latter Day, the eternal wedding between the groom and the bride starts. At that Day the False Prophet will be left empty handed in an existence where the happy voice of a bride and a groom will never be heard again and in which the words “I’m nobody’s bride” will be fulfilled.
“Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died” wraps it all up. Again the book “Awakening Osiris” – A New Translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead- written by Normandi Ellis (Phanes Press)- is almost literally quoted. In chapter 8 called “Triumph over Darkness" 2nd paragraph we find:
"the ways of making indeed are wondrous, the child born of its mother, the sun rolling into sky, the song rising from the lips, the world springing from the word of god. The essence of life is brilliant, dazzling. I cannot explain such miracles, yet I embody them daily. Though I cannot remember my birth and shall forget my death, I live in the midst of wonder."
To make sense of “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died” we must plunge into Greek Mythology. In Greek Mythology the LETHE was the underworld river of oblivion and its goddess. The river LETHE flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the underworld (the Hades). All those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. LETHE was the name of the Greek god of forgetfulness and oblivion and the personification thereof. The shades of the dead drank from its waters to completely forget all about their mortal earthly troubles and woes.
This symbol can also be found in the last section of Plato’s Republic, where souls are required to drink from the River of Forgetfulness before they are able to return to their earthly life. Others connected this idea to the doctrine of reincarnation where one continuously reappears in a new format of life with a clean slate. In Virgil’s Aeneid we find that drinking these waters is said to “quench man’s troubles [with] the deep draught of oblivion”.
First we should examine the meaning in Classical Greek of the word “lethe”.We find that “lethe” literally means "oblivion", "forgetfulness", or "concealment". It is related to the Greek word for "truth", which is “alētheia” which through the privative prefix “a” ( alpha) literally means "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment". This is not without importance. Jesus calls Himself the “alētheia”, the “ἀλήθεια” – the truth – in John 14:6.
Now Jesus Christ is the antitype of the False Prophet- alias Satan. He does quite the opposite of what the False Prophet does. In our imagination we see the False Prophet plunging himself into the waters of the LETHE and drinking from its waters, and then claiming that he has reached a status in which he can say: “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died”. The False Prophet pretends to be able to reach a status of permanent oblivion, a status where the memory of his wickedness is erased and where he cannot be held accountable for his evil deeds, a status in which his conscience has been seared up and a status in which justice will never be done. But he is wrong. Now Jesus follows a quite opposite route. In a certain way, He remembers every little detail of what we have done, of the kind of live we have lived. He does not erase the film of our lives. He puts our life – and our sins – under a magnifying glass and confronts us with the memory of our sins. However, He does so not to condemn us but to reconcile us. His soteriological working order is that of confrontation followed by justification and reconciliation. A reconciliation, so that the prayer of the thief on the cross: “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 RSV) was well grounded and therefore answered by Jesus.
However, in another sort of way, there is also a divine non remembrance. Once our sins are reconciled, the memory of sins are gone. In Micah 7: 19 it says: “You will trample our sins under your feet and throw them into the depths of the ocean!” and Hebrews 8:12 “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (NLT).
It is true, as long as we are in our mortal existence, it is sometimes better to have a forgetful heart, just like Dylan wrote in his song “Forgetful Heart”: “Forgetful heart, lost your power of recall, every little detail, you don't remember at all”. A forgetful heart is necessary to soften the pain we suffer under the sun: “Without you it's so hard to live, can't take much more”.
The False Prophet says: “Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died” but God already knew us and remembered us, even before we were born, like it says in Psalm 139:16: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all my days were written in Your book and ordained for me before one of them came to be”(BSB).