The Tale Of The Wicked Messenger And The Faithful Servant
By Larry Fyffe
The Nobel Prize in Literature’s not handed over to Bob Dyan because he gives unequivocal answers.
In the song ‘John Wesley Harding’, Dylan disguises himself as a Methodist outlaw of the Old West, and messes with the train tracks of biblical history.
In the song ‘The Wicked Messenger’, Dylan, dresses himself up as the Old Testament prophet Samuel. This time, the songwriter keeps the slow train of biblical history that’s coming up around the bend on the mainline. Aboard is the Ark of the Ten Commandments that is supposed to be under the guard of the sons of Eli, high priest to the Israelites.
Bob, the time-traveller, is yet transfixed in perplexed wonderment:
“Though many a 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”
(Bob Dylan: With God On Our Side)
A conundrum indeed since were it not for the ‘wicked messenger’ Judas, there’d be no dead man to take down from the cross, no God-ordained martyr to atone for the sins of mankind.
Steel-drivin’, rail-fixin’, “John Henry” Dylan travels back in time to the days when B.C.calendars hung on the walls. He’s not looking for Elvis in a big hotel, but for Eli, and ventures into the past where no Post-Modernist songwriter has gone before. Specifically, to the historical time recorded in the pages of the First Book of Samuel.
“There was a wicked messenger from Eli he did come
With a mind that multiplied the smallest matter
When questioned who had sent for him,
he answered with his thumb
For his tongue it could not speak, but only flatter”
Samuel’s mother Hannah apprenticed her son to Eli, she being thankful to the high priest for blessing her desire to produce a child. Young Samuel hears a voice while half-asleep in the back-room, and he assumes that it’s the all-knowing Eli calling him to arise for further religious instruction.
“He stayed behind the assembly hall,
it was there he made his bed
Oftentimes, he could be seen returning
Until one day he just appeared
with a note in his hand which read
‘The soles of my feet, I swear, they’re burning”
Eli informs Samuel that it’s God’s voice that the apprentice is hearing, and that he must carefully record what God says. Samuel is afraid to tell his religious instructor what God said to him: that He is going to punish Eli, his two sons, and all of his kin because the priest did not admonish his sons for disobeying God’s Commandments. Eli demands that Samuel tell him what he knows. Upon hearing the message, the devout priest makes no attempt to repent, but simply accepts the fate that God has bestowed upon him.
“Oh, the leaves begin to fallin’
and the seas begin to part
And the people that confronted him were many
And he was told but these few words
which opened up his heart
‘If you cannot bring good news, then
don’t bring any.”
(Bob Dylan: The Wicked Messenger)
A Philistine attack defeats the Israelites; the Ark which Eli’s two offspring are assigned to safeguard captured. The sons are killed, and Eli dies on hearing all the bad news.
Had Samuel not been a “wicked messenger”, he’d not have been God’s “faithful ambassador”; the young man is rewarded, and appointed high priest in place of the dead Eli. All because the Lord is so pleased that the Universe is unfolding as He planned it.
Good news that is indeed.
“A wicked messenger falleth into mischief; but a faithful ambassador is health.”
(Old Testament: Proverbs, 13:17)
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