Every Grain of Sand part 2

This article continues from Every Grain Of Sand, A Perfect Finished Plan. Part 1.

By Paul Robert Thomas


“Then onward in my journey I come to understand”

EVERY GRAIN OF SAND:  Verse one, line one.

“In the time of my’ confession in the hour of my deepest need”

The words which open Dylan’s song echo the words of Psalm 77, a psalm which has been described as ‘the prayer of a perplexed man’. The psalm begins

“I will cry unto God with my voice / I cry to God that he might give voice. In the day of trouble I sought the Lord

In some translations ‘day of trouble’ is rendered ‘In my time of my distress’. The psalm begins with a resolution to turn to God and continues with signs of repentance as the psalmist confesses the turmoil he has suffered. In Judaism to ‘confess’ is to declare ones sins orally to a priest. Was Dylan’s confession a condition of his being born again, out of the ‘old Adam’ into the apron of Christ before baptism? Almost certainly, but the sign of ritual cleansing is not confined to Christianity. In Isaiah 1:16 God addresses Israel “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from mine; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the oppressed,… V.18 “Come let us reason together, saith the LORD, / Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow”. The convert to Christianity undergoes baptism. There are echoes here of the Jewish precept of casting your sins upon the waters (the waters must be in motion), a religious observance carried out by Jews on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, when each Jew is to confess his sins and failings to those he has hurt in any way and ask forgiveness, making reparation.

Line Two

When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every new born seed”

“They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy (Ps 126)

“My eyes shed streams of water because men do not obey your teaching” (“because they keep not thy Law”)

(Ps. 119)

To Christians, Jesus has been referred to as ‘the seed’ planted by God and watered by his people’s tears so that they might reap salvation on the day of his nativity as on the day of his return. Fr Gregory. has referred me to The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:5) which I explore later and which has associations here but more specifically in the later verse concerning the ‘Flowers of indulgence’. In this parable Christ explains to his disciples that the seed is God’s word. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as The Word’ “and The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and light but his people knew him not”. As a biographical note it is worth mentioning that between the recording of Desire and Street Legal, whilst the acrimonious divorce proceedings were under way and Dylan and his wife fought for custody of their children, Dylan produced no creative output and must have cried many tears of remorse and loss. At this point in his life the ground beneath his feet lay fallow. The above psalm might be compared with Ps 130

From the depths do I invoke thee, 0 Eternal, our Lord Hearken to my cry.

A psalm of deep distress which ends on a note of hope:- “0 Israel wait for the Lord / for with the Lord is steadfast love and great power to redeem”. Psalm 87 is also relevant here in respect of the desolation suggested by ‘The Pool of tears’.

The dyin' voice' suggests several possibilities and images.
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere.

It might be the dyin’ voice of one rendered silent with grief or again it might suggest a loss of hope and a great weariness; yet again could this ‘dyin’ voice be the dying voice of the ego, the self which, in Christian theology must surrender (die) to be reborn in Christ. The voice seems to be carried on the wind, ‘reaching out somewhere’ as though Dylan has lost all direction. As a Jew he would direct his words to God, likewise to Christians but through Christ, the mediator who Christian doctrine holds must plead on the sinners behalf as God, being Holy, cannot be approached by sin (nor may the sinner survive a direct confrontation with God). This line possibly records the exact moment when Dylan surrendered his Self into the unknown, shed his ego and threw himself upon the mercy of God, albeit indirectly. Both Jews and Christians believe that God answers the desperate and despairing. Dylan makes explicit reference to despair in line 4

“Toiling in the danger and the morals of despair”

A suggestion from Fr. Gregory, which makes sense of this passage is that, to Christians, despair is a state of extreme danger as it suggests a loss of hope in God. The Catechism of The Catholic Church defines it as a sin against the first commandment and states “By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises

– and to his mercy.” 8

The ‘morals of despair’ suggests a complete lack of hope or of any ability to find a way to escape from evil or the misery it causes. The figure most associated with despair in The New Testament is Judas, who through his despair at betraying Jesus, lost all hope in God’s forgiveness and committed suicide, negating God’s unconditional promise of salvation. There are no other examples. In Luke Ch 5.v5 the disciples are close to despairing (if this passage is read as a parable) but entrust themselves to Jesus’ words, and so to God their Father. In John 21.15 Peter, who had denied Christ three times is forgiven when he affirms his love for Jesus three times. Dylan’s despair might well be a memory of his feeling prior to his conversion but the dyin’ voice was heard by God who responded.

Verse two has Judaic and Christian overtones with its opening line “Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake”, containing echoes of Genesis and the teaching of Christ and his disciples. The injunction ‘not to look back’ recalls the story of Sodom and Gommorah to mind where the angels of God urge Lot, ‘Flee for your life! Do not look back, do not stop anywhere on the plain; flee to the hills lest you be swept away” (Gen 19:15-26). Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt – petrified). Lot’s escape to the hills puts us in mind of Psalm 120 “1 lift up my eyes to the mountains/From where shall come my help/My help shall come from the Lord who made heaven and earth”. In Isaiah 52.7 the messenger of the Lord comes from hills (mountains) to bring good news. The injunction not to look back is also implicit in The New Testament. Paul tells those who have placed their faith in Christ, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ”, and Jesus, in sending out his disciples to preach the gospel tells them that where they are rejected they are to ‘shake the dust from their feet and move on; “Truly I tell you it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gommorah on the day of Judgement than for that town” (Math 10:12-15). The Christian is ‘a new creation’ after reception into the church. Cf Luke 9.5. But the line of Dylan’s song also has echoes of Ecclesiastes 5.5 – “Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin, neither say thou before the angel that it was a mistake”. Incidentally the root meaning of ‘Sin’ is ‘mistake’ a falling short through error or spiritual laziness. In the second line Dylan likens himself specifically to Cain whose failure to confess his crime of parricide to God resulted in his exile – but not his death. Cain’s exile might be likened to Dylan’s exile from his followers and from the religion of his forefathers upon his conversion to Christianity. Also it might be argued that Dylan is identifying himself with Cain ‘see the Masters hand’ in the fury of Cain’s slaying of his brother. Cain was to found the first City as a result of his exile and named it after his son Enoch (Gen 4:17-22) and from generations of Enoch was born Jubal the ancestor of all who play the harp and the lyre – of poets and musicians. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary remarks that Cain’s crime ~ used by God to further civilization – to break the nomadic chain of Cain’s ancestors and have them ‘put down roots’. But Dylan’s sentiment is one shared by many who find God, whether Jew or Christian. In reassessing their life they see Cod at work even when they felt most distant from Him. The last line of this verse, “In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand” should be compared with Lev 26:36 and Ps 114:7. Ezek 26:16. Dylan sees God’s hand in all of Nature, from a trembling leaf to a grain of sand just as the psalmist does in Ps 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. At the same time the pastoral imagery puts us in mind of Dylan’s retreat, in 1977, to his ranch in Laredo, Minnesota, whilst the divorce was going on, and where he was to begin writing the songs of Street Legal. (See the reference 9 to Farida McFree above).

"Oh the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer"

These words are some of the most evocative of the New Testament in this song. They bring to mind Christ’s ‘The Parable Of The Sower’ Mark Ch.4 vs.3 – 10

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. And (Jesus) said “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen”

Jesus explains the hidden meaning of this parable to his disciples.

Vs 14-26 ‘~The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground; when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away (or ‘stumble’ as a variant text has it). And others are those that are sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word: but the care of this world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on good soil they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and an hundredfold. For to those who have more shall be given; and for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The Kingdom of Cod is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground

Dylan, raised a Jew, Bar- Mitzvah’d, had strayed a long way from his religious upbringing by 1966 and again at the time of his divorce. His profligate ways with women are legendary and perhaps the flowers of indulgence refer to his affairs, as well as his abuse of drugs and alcohol ‘Weeds’ are a vernacular term for a woman’s mourning clothes. Is there a reference here to Sara’s mourning the loss of her husband or to mourning in general’? On a personal level this verse might refer to the way life on the road has ‘choked the breath of conscience’; rendered Dylan unfit to discriminate between right and wrong. Breath is a biblical term for the spirit of God, some translators of Genesis render the sentence in the creation myth, “God breathed upon the waters”. As ever there is a psalm which seems to parallel this verse, “When the wicked spring as the grass/And all the workers of iniquity do flourish’ Ps 92:7.

The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay

The reference to the ‘sun’ (Son?) uses one of the oldest religious symbols which man worshipped before God revealed Himself through the Prophets and through Torah. It has also been used among many other titles to refer to Christ, the Word of God according to John’s Gospel. Psalm 119:105 uses the images of word and light together and has become a hymn in Christian churches and is chanted in synagogues.

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

In Dylan’s stricken and artistically idle state is it possible that Dylan recalled these words or the following from Isaiah 60:19

“The sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.”

Christianity reinterprets key prophetical texts and scriptural allusions to show how Jesus fulfills prophecy concerning the coming of The Christ, the Anointed One, The Messiah (the Greek meaning of Christ is ‘anointed one’). He is referred to as The Way, God’s Word, The Logos (mind or reason of God), The Light of The World, The Morning Star and The Dayspring from On High. He is also seen as ‘The Sun of righteousness (risen) with healing in his wings’ (Malachi 4:2-3), “The suffering servant” of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 and “The Way of Holiness” Isaiah 35:S, and is reported by John as telling his disciples “I am the way, the Truth and the Life, no man cometh to the father but by me…if you know me then you know the father who sent me”(John 14.6) Images from The New Testament run through the music of poor white and black Americans. The blues developed from a fusion of Holiness music, Gospel and African American spirituals. Dylan could no more escape the stories of Christ as savior, liberator and messiah as well as a friend to the poor, as well as an outcast ‘despised and rejected’. I believe that Dylan moved from knowing about Jesus to a point where he identified strongly with him. From there it was a small step to move into a personal relationship with the risen Jesus who alone could, “ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay”.

“Decay turns me off. Ill die before I decay” (Bob Dylan 1966) 10

“For the living know that they shall die but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)

The memory of the just is blessed but the name of the wicked shall rot (decay) Proverbs 10:7)

The series continues…

Untold Dylan: who we are what we do

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  1. Through many dark hour
    I 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

  2. Surely Judas was not a wicked messager, but a faithful ambassador –
    For had not Judas betrayed Jesus, mankind would not have been saved from their sins ( see the story of Samuel and Eli)

  3. Many thanks for referencing my article ‘Dylan and The Sick Rose’ in your excellent study of the song ‘Every Grain Of Sand’. I wrote my piece some 24 years ago and your current exploration reminded me of some very happy times that I spent in the company of Bob and Blake. I must congratulate you on the depth and insight clearly shown in your article whilst at the same time finding happiness again that Dylan is still being heavily influenced by Blake’s words and sentiments as expressed in his own current work. With best wishes

  4. Nice to see and hear so many people value the real-live christian Bob Dylan. Even U2 and you too…

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