Johnny Cash’s “Man comes around”: what do the lyrics mean?

Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man, who loved Jesus and the Bible.

So much so, that in one of the last songs he wrote, “The Man Comes Around”, he gives a deeply personal message about Christian faith to his fans. I’m going to go into a lot of detail in this post.

Cash saw the song as one of his most significant pieces of work. “I spent more time on this song than any I ever wrote,” he said in August 2002. “It’s based, loosely, on the book of Revelation, with a couple of lines, or a chorus, from other biblical sources. I must have written three dozen pages of lyrics, then painfully weeded it down to the song you have here.”

So what is the message he’s trying to give?

Revelation is an amazing book of the Bible but it does require work to understand what it means. It’s full of rich symbols and striking images. One of its main themes is the end of time, when God will come to stop the wrongdoing in the world, and give the people the judgement that they have chosen. Instead, God’s Kingdom will reign, a place with no more crying or tears. But for those under judgement, God’s offering a way out.

When you examine the song’s lyrics alongside the Bible passages it mentions, it becomes clear that Cash is giving a very clear message to his listeners – he’s saying, “make a choice, before it’s too late”.

That’s not very fashionable. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t say it bluntly: we’ve got to study the song to understand it. So, here is the song dissected so that we can do this. The Bible verses are in quotes, Cash’s lyrics are in bold.

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 Cash’s spoken beginning to the song – it makes quite an impact! It’s based on this verse from Revelation:

As I watched, the Lamb broke the first of the seven seals on the scroll. Then I heard one of the four living beings say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked up and saw a white horse standing there… He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory.” Revelation 6:1-2a

So what does it mean? The four ‘living beings’ are first mentioned in Rev 4, and probably symbolise either goodness in Creation or God himself: here they are showing John, the author of this book, events in the future through a series of images such as the white horse. In this passage the horses refer to the judgements of God that are coming to the world – this means that human beings will be allowed to do their worst and therefore there’ll be much evil and many problems: war, death, famine and disease. While some say this is a prediction of what will happen at the ‘end of time’, it’s obvious that this is already happening on the Earth, sadly.

There’s a man going around taking names

The song opens with this line, and it’s key to the meaning of the whole song. A theme in the book of Revelation is the ‘book of life’ – who will be taken to God’s eternal Kingdom? If we are to go there, our names are recorded within the book:

I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books.” Revelation 20:12

As made clear in the rest of the song, it is Jesus who is coming to ‘take names’ and judge the people of the Earth, according to what people have done.

And he decides who to free and who to blame

It’s made clear in this line that it’s Jesus who is making the decisions here, about whether someone is to be ‘saved’. This reflects what it says in the Bible, for example:

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war… He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Rev 19:11,13-16

Jesus will make a decision for every person, whether they will be judged by their actions – whether they’ll be free in heaven or live forever with the weight of sin on them. This passage presents a fearsome image of Jesus, but it reflects the incredible horror of the wrong things we do and how God feels about them. Not that God wants people to hurt, but that if people want to continue to do evil, they are choosing for themselves an evil existence for eternity. As we will see, God offers a way out…

Everybody won’t be treated all the same

Again Cash isn’t being very PC. It’s fashionable to think that God does not judge, that he will take everyone to heaven without any consideration of whether their lives have reflected the reality of heaven. Revelation makes it very clear that this is not the case: that there is a black and white, clear choice to be made, such as in this passage:

And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds. Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire. Rev 20:11-15

Although the gospel of Christ offers forgiveness and redemption to all those who are willing to accept it and want to turn away from a life of apathy and wrongdoing and towards a life of love, this passage shows that our deeds will be judged. It’s important to follow Christ in this life – that means giving our lives to him. Not just a decision in our minds, but a decision with our hands, our feet, and our voices. What we do, matters. So, Cash is saying, we won’t be treated the same.

There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down

So while he’s warning of the judgement to come, Cash is pointing to the way out of the horrible fate he’s described, from the book of Genesis:

As [Jacob] slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway. Gen 28:12

This is what God offers – an escape route from the judgement, here depicted as a ladder. We are always offered forgiveness and entry into God’s Kingdom, if we repent. (Repenting means turning away from a life of selfishness, greed, lust, hate, apathy, anger and pride, and toward’s God’s love). So as again elsewhere in the song, Cash is saying that there’s an escape route towards heaven if we want it.

When the Man comes around
Cash’s song title comes at the end of each section of the song. He’s referring to Jesus’ return to Earth at the time of judgement, which is mentioned throughout the Bible, including this vision the Old Testament, which Jesus later said was referring to himself:

I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One [God] and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honour, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed”. Daniel 7:13-14

The man comes around’ refers to this passage from Daniel. Jesus often referred to himself as ‘The son of man’ in the New Testament.

The hairs on your arm will stand up

Cash continues to paint a picture of a frightening time, which Revelation also makes clear:

“Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?” Revelation 6:15-17

This isn’t a fashionable way of viewing the end of the world. But it’s what Cash was saying, and it’s what Revelation says.

At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?

There are two references here to drinking. The first probably refers to this Revelation passage, talking about drinking from the cup of judgement:

Then a third angel followed them, shouting, “Anyone who worships the beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand  must drink the wine of God’s anger. It has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath. Rev 14:9-10

Although a cup of suffering is referred to in the first line, the second ‘Partaking in that last offered cup’ probably refers to the cup of communion – that salvation through Jesus’ blood will still be offered even at the end, however bad it gets. Again, and as the Bible passage referred to in the next slide says – God will always offer a way out of the judgement if a person or a nation repents. So however frightening it is, there is a way out. Cash is telling his listeners that there’s an offer on the (communion) table.

Or disappear into the potter’s ground
When the Man comes around

I think this lyric means, that if you don’t repent take that ‘last offered cup’, which is the cup of forgiveness and new life that Jesus offers us, then the alternative is the potter’s ground, which is a symbol from the book of Jeremiah:

The Lord gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.  Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom,  but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would. Jeremiah 18: 1-10

So the implication is that we’ll be ‘crushed and started over’ if we don’t repent. However this Bible passage is again talking of the possibility of a new start, of forgiveness. So, again, Cash’s inclusion of this passage indicates he is telling his listeners that there is a way out – God always offers a way of avoiding the judgement. We must turn away from wrongdoing, and towards God’s way of love.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers

Cash is again using the imagery of the book of Revelation, painting the picture of the end of time:

Then I looked, and I heard a single eagle crying loudly as it flew through the air, “Terror, terror, terror to all who belong to this world because of what will happen when the last three angels blow their trumpets.” Revelation 8:13

David Pawson says the trumpet is used in Jeremiah and Ezekiel to warn people to ‘get ready’… because God wants to save them. So once again, it’s an image that gives a warning: that bad things will happen if we don’t pay attention.

One hundred million angels singing

Cash makes another clear reference to Revelation, where the angels are singing praise to God:

Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered— to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing.” Revelation 5:11-12

God is being worshipped by angels all the time. The ‘Lamb’ is a name for Jesus used throughout the Bible, who took on all our suffering and sin at the Cross so that we could be free. So the angels are praising God, for his sending Jesus and offering a way out of the judgement and the pain of a life without God.

Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling, voices crying

Cash is probably referring to the armies of heaven on white horse that we saw in Revelation 19. The image of voices crying is again painting a picture of a time of trouble and suffering.

Some are born and some are dying

Again Cash is making it clear that there’s a clear division between those who are saved and those who are not:

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” John 3:7

On the day of judgement some will be reborn into God’s Kingdom, and some will face the second death – a terrible fate. Cash is trying to warn people of this.

It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come

This means that it’s God’s Kingdom come:

I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” Revelation 1:8

The ‘kingdom come’ is often referred to by Jesus, as in the Lord’s prayer. When we pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven’, we are hoping for a time when life on Earth will be as it is in heaven: no wrongdoing, no suffering, no pain. Just purely in the will of the Father, pure love, peace and joy. But for those who do not want God’s Kingdom, it’s not a joyful time.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. Matthew 25:6-7

This is a passage of the Bible again referring to judgement – the wise young women had their lamps ready for when Jesus (the bridegroom) comes – the foolish ones were going to get some oil and weren’t ready. So it seems clear that Cash is warning his listeners to be ready for the day of judgement.

The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks

This is a reference to a dream that Johnny had that inspired this song.

Till Armageddon no shalam, no shalom

Revelation says that there will be a battle at the end of time, at a place called Armageddon. This might by symbolic of the spiritual fight between good and evil, or it might refer to a real battle:

And they gathered them together at the place which in Hebrew is called Armageddon. Revelation 16:16

As we’ll see later, the terrible events of the judgement and the war that will take place will not last – God will bring his peace (shalom) to the world once all evil has been vanquished.

Then the father hen will call his chickens home

This comes from a very comforting passage in Scripture – which shows that even while we reject God, he longs for us to come to him as children and be protected under his wings:

Truly I declare to you, all these [evil, calamitous times] will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. Matthew 23:36-7

God longs to draw people to himself and be kind to them, as a mother hen. And yet, we continue to reject him. I think it’s clear from this passage that any judgement, as fearsomely described in Revelation, is not what God would ultimately want: he would want to care for and protect his children. However, he allows us to choose what we want to do, as any good Father does.

The wise man will bow down before the throne
And at His feet they’ll cast their golden crowns
When the Man comes around

This is another clear reference to Revelation, where the people who have accepted Jesus as Lord will bow before him at the end of time:

Whenever the living beings give glory and honour and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say, “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honour and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” Rev 4:9-11

The casting of crowns is an indication of worship.

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still 
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still

This is a direct quote from Revelation. The actual passage makes it clear, again, that there is a judgement coming, according to what we have done:

Let the one who is doing harm continue to do harm; let the one who is vile continue to be vile; let the one who is righteous continue to live righteously; let the one who is holy continue to be holy. Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. Revelation 22:11-12

Again, we will reap what we sow – we will face the consequences of our actions. But as Revelation and Cash makes clear, there’s always a way out. That’s why he’s writing the song:

Listen to the words long written down
When the Man comes around

When Cash says ‘listen’ – he is again showing that this song is very personal, written directly to those who listen to it. As it says elsewhere in Revelation, the invitation to come to God is always open:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. Revelation 22:17

The song repeats itself. Then:

In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the Man comes around.

This probably refers to:

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine. Revelation 6:6

Theologians debate as to exactly what this means, but in this song it probably again indicates that we will be judged by God, as it says in Daniel 5:27; ‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’.

Johnny’s narration returns to give a chilling finale:

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.

Well, Cash couldn’t make any clearer what he means. The four beasts and pale horse come from this passage:

I looked up and saw a horse whose colour was pale green. Its rider was named Death, and his companion was the Grave. These two were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease and wild animals. Revelation 6:8

This judgement could be said to be on the Earth now. But I think Cash is ending the song with these words to emphasise that the choice is stark: loving God and giving our life to his law of love, or going to the place of Death – the natural extrapolation of a life of wrongdoing.

This can all sound very frightening – I think Cash and Revelation do intend to do this, actually. It’s interesting that both of them are presenting a crucial and alarming message: but both are doing it using imagery, not going around with sandwich boards.

However Revelation also has a very positive message, for those who have repented of their wrongdoing and accepted Jesus as Lord. We have a future that has no more evil, only pure love and God’s rule:

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”

Rev 21:3-5

Will you listen to the words, long written down?

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2 thoughts on “Johnny Cash’s “Man comes around”: what do the lyrics mean?

  1. Wow, this song is even more powerful than I thought. I knew it had Biblical meaning, but I never realized just how deep it went. Thank you for this excellent breakdown of the song.

    Like

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