All Along the Watchtower and the Christian Life
Bob Dylan just won the nobel prize in literature, which I think was well deserved. He has certainly been one of the greatest American poets of the last 60 years. The song first appeared on his album, “John Wesley Harding” which Dylan himself called the “first Christian Rock Album.”
You need to understand that Dylan went through a fame and luxury induced drug phase which ended in a motorcycle accident in 1966. After his recovery he released this album which was heavily influenced by the Bible, and I believe his own realization of what it was like to come to end of trusting in luxury and influence.
This song is widely covered and probably the most popular recording of it is by Jimi Hendrix.
I couldn’t find a copy of the original recording on YouTube to post, but it’s much more authentic and leans harder on the Harmonica than the electric guitar.
The reference to the watchtower comes from the fall of Babylon in Isaiah 21.
The banquet is spread,
the guests reclining in luxurious ease,
Eating and drinking, having a good time,
and then, “To arms, princes! The fight is on!”
The Master told me, “Go, post a lookout.
Have him report whatever he spots.
When he sees horses and wagons in battle formation,
lines of donkeys and columns of camels,
Tell him to keep his ear to the ground,
note every whisper, every rumor.”
Just then, the lookout shouted,
“I’m at my post, Master,
Sticking to my post day after day
and all through the night!
I watched them come,
the horses and wagons in battle formation.
I heard them call out the war news in headlines:
‘Babylon fallen! Fallen!
And all its precious god-idols
smashed to pieces on the ground.’” – from The Message
But what is Dylan talking about in this song?
The theories vary widely, but I think the joker is Jesus Christ and the thief is the thief we all aware of who died next to him. There is a conversation about wanting out and not being able to get relief. When I hear this I think of the pain of crucifixion and the thirst Jesus proclaimed on the cross.
“Businessmen drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth” but none of them know what it’s worth. I find this to be a charge against humanity. We take what is God’s, which is created and given to us for our good and his glory, yet rarely if ever do we recognize the value of what he has given us.
Consider for example the movie “Blood Diamond” With Leonardo Dicaprio depicting the very real conflict which pitted the value of Diamonds in Sierra Leone against the value of human life. This is only an extreme example of the way humanity has misunderstood the value of God’s resources. The Bible paints a picture of God as the most valuable thing in existence and humanity running in second. We have inverted that, placing humanity in first place and then everything has run amuck from there.
Yet we drink wine, spreading feasts and banquets in relative ease. We celebrate ourselves and our freedom not realizing that in doing so we are constructing our own prison cells. Much like Dylan before the motorcycle crash. We plunder the earth for its resources in order to get more for ourselves. Far too often we forget to stop and recognize that these things are from God for our glory and his good. We do not know its worth.
Taken to an extreme in our own day, we no longer know the value of God’s gift of human sexuality.
The thief responds to the joker with an admission that “we’ve been through that.” He recognizes his own past of doing that. The joker has come to realize that he is guilty of devaluing God’s good gifts.
With the words “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke” he refers to the temptation toward nihilism which for example we see on a surface reading of the book of Ecclesiastes.
I had a great conversation about Ecclesiastes in our Kgroup (BCC’s Small group ministry) last night. The teacher repeatedly says things like “Everything is meaningless!” and “There is nothing new under the sun!”
It is interesting to note that the SyFy series Battlestar Galactica repeatedly features this same sentiment. A recurring phrase in the series is “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” And let me not fail to mention that the single most prominent song in the series, played over and over again in the last season and a half is in fact “All Along the Watchtower!” I am beginning to think we are on to something.
But in both the book of Ecclesiastes and even in BSG there is an ongoing refusal to give up hope in the face of this temptation. The teacher in Ecclesiastes ends his tirade with a reminder that we come from God and we will return to him. That in our lives here we must live well and remain faithful.
And why? Why should we remain faithful in the face of such hopelessness?
The answer comes to us repeatedly in the bible, as it does in Isaiah 21. It comes to us in Ecclesiastes, even as Battlestar Galactica comes to its somewhat darker ending, there remains a hope that Babylon will yet fall.
Throughout Scripture the historical Babylon is presented as an image or a representation for everything the world bends itself toward. The People of God were taken from their homeland and placed in exile for about 60 years. During that time they were surrounded by excess and luxury, but also by corruption and immorality and they were told to continue to maintain their faith even in the midst of those who “think that life is but a joke.”
Ahhh, but the joker and the thief, they know better don’t they?
As the Biblical text promises in the passage above and as Dylan hints at, and as the book of revelation again and again calls us to remember. Set a watchman, because Babylon falls. The corruption and excess and immorality and self indulgent feasting of humanity that devalues God and his creation is coming to an end. The wildcat howls in the distance and the approaching riders are a sign of hope and promise that Babylon the great has fallen.
Babylon represents selfish humanity. Babylon is a picture of our self interest and corruption. These are the ways we go when we fail to properly order the value of things, placing God and his gifts in right perspective. But the beauty of the gospel is that the fall of Babylon has already begun.
When Jesus Christ died and rose again he defeated Babylon. He sets us free to stop seeking self indulgence. Spurgeon put it this way, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I beat my breast to think I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.”
Through Jesus Christ, God in the gospel sets us free from self. And while we live in Babylon for a season, its destruction is assured.
I believe Dylan discovered this. It is ironic that Hendrix died in the arms of Babylon despite the fact that what is probably his most listened to recording predicts and even revels in its demise.
Let us keep our heads up, let us keep a lookout, because Babylon has fallen and the riders approach. The real feasting is about to begin.