Friday, January 8, 2010

The Meaning of "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash

"The Man Comes Around" is a song about judgment day. It was released in 2002, and was the title song for Johnny Cash's last album. The song has numerous Biblical references, many of which are cryptic.

The following is an interpretation. All Bible references are King James, since that's the version Cash quotes in the song.



And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder: One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see." And I saw. And behold, a white horse.

This is a quote from Revelation 6:1-2. It references John's vision of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who bring disaster at the end of the world. "1And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 2And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. "

There's a man going round taking names. And he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won't be treated all the same. There'll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.

The "man going round taking names" has double meaning. It is a reference to a song by folk singer Lead Belly. It is also clearly a reference to Jesus and the Book of Life where the names of believers are recorded (Revelation 20:12, 15).

God decides who to free and who to blame. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved and will escape punishment. The ladder reaching down refers to Jacob's ladder (Genesis 28:12). It could also refer to Jesus (John 1:51). He is the ladder that gives us a way of escape from judgment.

The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter's ground. When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up. This is a reminder of the fear that God will command on judgment day. The terror in each sip and sup refers to body and blood of Christ which we symbolically take during communion (Matt 26:26-28). To partake of the last offered cup means to be saved at your last opportunity. On judgment day believers who are covered by the blood of Jesus will be saved. Non-believers will be lost and disappear into the potter's ground. The potter's ground is a reference to the field that the chief priest bought with Judas' betrayal money (Matt 27:5-7).

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singing. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices calling, voices crying. Some are born and some are dying. It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

Hear the trumpets. In Biblical times important news was announced with trumpets. Revelation records seven plagues which are all hailed by trumpets. Trumpets will also announce Christ's new kingdom, and the raising of the dead (1 Cor 15:52).

Angels singing - Cash's brother Jack died in a terrible accident at a young age. His brother had a vision of angels while he was dying, and Johnny remembered this throughout his life. The Bible records there will be angels singing in heaven: "And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;" (Rev 5:11). The multitudes marching probably refers to Revelation 5, where multitudes are worshiping God.

Voices calling, voices crying. One must follow Jesus in this life. It will be too late to turn on judgment day (Matt 7:22-23 , Heb 9:27).

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and are a name for God. "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Rev 22:13). Kingdom come refers to when Jesus will return and establish his kingdom on earth (Rev 21). It is also part of the Lords prayer. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done..." (Matt 6:10).

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

The whirlwind and thorn tree is a self reference. Cash had a dream where he saw Queen Elizabeth. She said to him, "Johnny, you're like a thorn tree in a whirlwind." Job 38:1 also references a whirlwind. The virgins trimming their wicks are a reference to a parable told by Jesus in Matthew 25. There are wise and foolish virgins. The wise ones have their wicks trimmed and wait for the bridegroom. The foolish ones miss out. The point of the parable is that we need to be ready for Jesus' return or we will miss out.

"It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks" may be a self reference, about how it was hard for Cash to follow God, but God kept calling him back. It is also a reference to the apostle Paul's conversion experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:5 , 26:14). A prick (or goad) is a sharp stick used to prod livestock. The phrase in context means that it's hard for Paul to fight back against what Jesus is calling him to do. Cash identified with Paul, and wrote a book about Paul's conversion experience.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they'll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.

Armageddon is a location in Israel, and a site of a huge battle that will take place before Christ returns to earth (Rev 16). Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace. Shalam is a variation that probably means the same thing. There will be no peace until Jesus returns after Armageddon.

Then the father hen will call his chickens home. This echos Jesus' lament in Luke 13:34: "how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!". Jesus wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem up to follow him, like a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not. In the end, God will call his followers home. The chickens will come home to roost. :)

The wise men bow down and cast their crowns. The wise men may represent the church. This is a reference to Rev 4:10: "The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne..."

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still. Listen to the words long written down, When the man comes around.

Whoever is unjust.... This is a quote from Revelation 22:11: "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still." This portion of Rev 22 refers to the coming of Jesus. When he comes people will be found as they are, there will be no time for them to change at that point.

Listen to the words long written down. This means to listen and to follow what the Bible says.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singing. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices calling, voices crying. Some are born and some are dying. It's Alpha's and Omega's Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound. When the man comes around.

In measured hundredweight... refers to Rev 6:6: "...A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny..." There is severe famine in the last days. A person has to work all day for a loaf of bread. A penny is what a person made in a day, and a measure of wheat is how much one would need for a loaf of bread.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts, And I looked and behold: a pale horse. And his name, that sat on him, was Death. And Hell followed with him.

The song closes with with the last of the four horsemen recorded in Revelation 6:7-8: 7And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. 8And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

If you are interested in more about Cash's faith, see this article from Christianity today.

12 comments:

Adam Omelianchuk said...

One of my favorite "Christian" songs ever. Thaks for the Bible references.

Kevin Jackson said...

Thanks Adam. I loved his version of "Personal Jesus". Amazing how the same lyrics meant something entirely different.

An Unfinished Lady said...

I love this song, and I love that you've compiled verses to explain it!

I found your blog from ArminianToday and I'm definitely gonna read more. :)

Kevin Jackson said...

Thanks for the kind comments Unfinished Lady. :) I enjoy the Arminian Today blog as well.

Tony-Allen said...

Nice analysis :)

By chance, Kevin, have you seen the movie "Tombstone"? They did something similar, where the outlaw gang known as the Cowboys are told by a priest (before they shoot them) of the passage from Revelation regarding the fourth horseman. It becomes a foreshadowing of Wyatt Earp, who tells a Cowboy before he goes on a rampage, "You tell 'em I'm comin', and hell's comin' with me, ya hear?! Hell's comin' with me!"

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi Tony, I think I saw Tombstone, but it's been a while. :)

ArmedGeek said...

Aside from the obvious Bible references, to me, this is a terribly sad song performed by a man who was facing the end of his life. It is a toss-up between this and Johnny Cash's version of Hurt as to which is the saddest song.

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi Armed Geek, yeah it is a sad song. Cash had a lot to be sad about then I suppose. Thanks for stopping by.

Shadowslayer said...

Something I think you missed:
"Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers"
You said that it meant something epic was going to happen. But what I think that it's about is the trumpets being the holy side, and the pipers are on the unholy side (there's a nice little story that goes along with it). After all, if God is trying to grab the last few souls that he can save, wouldn't the devil also try and take his last too?

Kevin Jackson said...

Good point Shadowslayer, You're right, pipers lead people astray. Also, when someone "pays the piper" it's another way of saying that they have to face the consequences of their actions. Thanks for the comment.

jenkin said...

Simply superb dude!!..keep the good work going!!

Anonymous said...

Interesting takes on the song... I appriecate the thoughts. We discussed this song in my mens group tonight so I felt inclined to do a bit of research. I am a life long JC fan... Interesting the same initials for both my savior and a singer I see as the sort that Jesus may have picked as one of his disciples. I have always admired how Cash was grounded and never seemed to be any more that just a man... a man that wore black for the poor and beaten down that society does not want to see.