Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bob Dylan was talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave…

The preacher was talkin’, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must… keep it …satisfied

Man in the Long Black Coat
Copyright © 1989 by Special Rider Music
You can't do that!  Your attributing to Bob Dylan something that he says is the preacher said.   But shouldn’t we always remember that in the 2001 song High Water (for Charlie Patton) Bob Dylan claims:

I’m preachin’ the Word of God
I’m puttin’ out your eyes

So I guess we better take him at his word, that in these songs Bob Dylan sees himself as often doing a little something more than simply singing us rhymes or lullabies.

The preacher in this song, The Man in the Long Black Coat, points out that there is a genuine problem with the human conscience.   It is very undependable.  It is undependable in the first place because it is vile and depraved, so that gets it off to a bad start, and then second, there is this major problem when it is you who is the one, who must “keep it satisfied.”  In other words, you are the ultimate judge and there is no outside standard.   But you are not an unbiased judge.   You are not a neutral source.  You have a vested interest in the outcome of the determination by your conscience of the morality of a certain action.  

The Apostle Paul in a letter that he wrote to the early Roman Christians in chapter two discussed the same problem about two thousand years ago in 55 AD when he wrote:

15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

Paul is pointing out the very same problem with the unreliability in the human conscience.   An action that is sometimes accused by the conscience and at other times excused.   So it is not a dependable guide to determine the morality of a certain action.  So we need an outside source to help us determine the right thing to do in various situations.  We certainly don’t want to be a hypocrite and condemn certain actions at sometimes and then excuse ourselves at other times for the very same action, nor should we lash out at others for certain actions and then find ourselves doing the very same thing.  But we know we do it all the time.

But the song The Man in the Long Black Coat is about more than the unreliability of the human conscience.  The main actor in the song is a dark and mysterious figure, “he had a face like a mask.”   He has stolen away someone, someone who used to fit comfortably into that “soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry.”  At first it appears that she was seduced when he looked into her eyes… but she made a choice and gave herself over to this mysterious figure and even asked him to dance:

It ain’t easy to swallow; it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man
In the long black coat

So it seems she got involved with him and the involvement came to the level that she decided to leave town with him in a hurry:
Not a word of goodbye, not even a note
She gone with the man
In the long black coat

The narrator is bitter about the whole thing, kinda like the guy in the Kenny Rogers song, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucile….four hungry children and a crop in the field….you picked a fine time to leave me Lucile.”
She went with the man
In the long black coat

But the mysterious figure in this song is even a little bit more diabolical than the guy who lured Lucile away.   And this song rises to a higher and more cosmic level than Kenny Rogers could ever attain.  This mysterious guy was first spotted in that run down; no account dance hall outside of town where nuthin’ never comes to no good anyhow.

Somebody seen him hanging around
At the old dance hall on the outskirts of town

We finally get the decisive clue as to who this mysterious figure is, the man in the long black coat, the one with the face like a mask, when we notice:

There was dust on the man
In the long black coat

Dust.  That’s it, the Dust of Death.  This man is death itself!  He is a seducer;  He is a liar, and he even quotes from scripture:
Somebody said from the Bible he’d quote
There was dust on the man
In the long black coat

Jesus noticed that when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness that old scratch was pretty good at reciting scripture verses, he just took them out of context and he was no good at systematic theology.  So Jesus had to show him how you can’t set two passages of scripture against one another (Matt 4:1-11).

So this man in the Long Black Coat, he is death personified.  He is darkness, and that, by the way, is why he wears the Long Black coat.  He has a face like a mask, because he is not real, he is hiding behind the mask.  He has come into town where he has no place being.  He is a stranger, outsider and an outlaw.  He seduces weak willed women (i.e. all of us) and draws them away into his lair of destruction.  He is a minion of the devil, if not the devil himself.  He keeps people from their true identity and their rightful place … in their soft cotton dress.

All of us have to deal with this outlaw.  He has an appointment scheduled with all of us.    But the Apostle Paul again, declaring the gospel, says in his Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 that 

26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
This is good news!  The Man in the Long Black Coat is going down!   He will be destroyed!   What a glorious promise!

Notice how the Bible personifies death, and the Saints in Heaven will even mock him:
54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”
Paul is declaring that the achievement of the Savior was a decisive death blow to The Man in the Long Black Coat, the Redeemer's death actually saves his people, as that death was meant to do.

Here is a great performance of this magnificent song, with some extra special work on the harp:

Manchester Arena
Manchester, UK
November 16, 2005



  1. Hallo Doug
    Your comment on this Dylan song is confusing.
    1. Our human conscience is unreliable since we're judge and accused.
    2. Christ (according tot Paul) has defeated Death
    3. What Christ teaches therefore has the greatest authority
    4. Have the Pope, Dylan, or the priviliged chosen ones, a link to that authority ?
    5. If not we're back where we started our conscience is fallible
    If they have that authority how will we ever know that what they say is not a mistake ?

    Don't follow no leaders

    1. Hello Johan, Thanks for interacting with my interpretation of this great song. You have correctly summarized some of the ideas I was getting at in this post. #1 = yes. #2 = yes #3 = yes #4 = Yes. And let me explain with another Dylan song: What Can I Do for You? from 1980:

      You have laid down Your life for me
      What can I do for You?
      You have explained every mystery
      What can I do for You?

      You have given everything to me
      What can I do for You?
      You have given me eyes to see
      What can I do for You?

      Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside
      Filled up a hunger that had always been denied
      Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide
      And You’ve chosen me to be among the few
      What can I do for You?

      So yes, there is a link to that authority, it comes to those who are "given the eyes to see," and then they express their faith in Christ and cry out to Him like Dylan has done: "What can I do for you?"

      So What is a persons supposed to do to get connected to the Lord, Bob Dylan says, "Believe in His power is about all you have to do." So reach out to Him, and Jesus promises: as recorded in John 6:37 "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out." So just come to Him, He will never cast anyone out.

      Now on #6 How will we know? John writes in 1 John 5:13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life." So it is something that can be known for certain. We can have an assurance of our eternal salvation, if we "believe in the name of the Son of God." Doug

  2. Hi Doug
    I agree with tour thoughts however the point I tried to make is that reasoning more than grace helps people discern btwn right and wrong Dylan not only asks what he can give but also HOW he can live for Himt

  3. Very Good Johan. And how do we know the difference between right and wrong? We need an outside source. We need God's inscripturated revelation to be our outside source. As Jesus said in his prayer to the Father, "Thy Word is Truth." John 17:17. God's revelation (i.e. the Bible) enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve.