“The Man Comes Around” is a song about judgment day. It was released in 2002, and was the title song for Johnny Cash’s last album. The song has numerous Biblical references, many of which are cryptic.
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.
There’s a man going round taking names. And he decides who to free and who to blame. Everybody won’t be treated all the same. There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down. When the man comes around.
The “man going round taking names” has double meaning. It is a reference to a song by folk singer Lead Belly. It is also a reference to Jesus and the Book of Life where the names of believers are recorded (Revelation 20:12, 15).
God decides who to free and who to blame. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved and will escape punishment. The ladder reaching down could refer to Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12), or it could also refer to Jesus (John 1:51).
The hairs on your arm will stand up. At the terror in each sip and in each sup. For you partake of that last offered cup, Or disappear into the potter’s ground. When the man comes around.
The hairs on your arm will stand up: This may be a reminder of the fear that God will command on judgment day. The terror in each sip and sup may refer to the to the body and blood of Christ which one takes during communion (Matt 26:26-28). To partake of the last offered cup is to be saved from damnation at your last opportunity. The potter’s ground is a reference to the field that the chief priest bought with Judas’ betrayal money (Matt 27:5-7).
Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers. One hundred million angels singing. Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum. Voices calling, voices crying. Some are born and some are dying. It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.
Hear the trumpets: In ancient times important news was announced with trumpets. Revelation records seven plagues which are all hailed by trumpets. Trumpets also announce Christ’s new kingdom, and the raising of the dead (1 Cor 15:52).
Angels singing: Cash’s brother Jack died in a terrible accident at a young age. His brother had a vision of angels while he was dying, and Johnny remembered this throughout his life. The Bible records that there will be angels singing in heaven: “And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;” (Rev 5:11). The multitudes marching probably refers to Revelation 5, where multitudes are worshiping God.
Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and are a name for God. “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” (Rev 22:13). Kingdom come refers to when Jesus will return and establish his kingdom on earth (Rev 21). It is also part of the Lords prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” (Matt 6:10).
The whirlwind and thorn tree is a self reference. Cash had a dream where he saw Queen Elizabeth. She said to him, “Johnny, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.” Job 38:1 also references a whirlwind. The virgins trimming their wicks are a reference to a parable told by Jesus in Matthew 25. There are wise and foolish virgins. The wise ones have their wicks trimmed and wait for the bridegroom. The foolish ones miss out. The point of the parable is to be ready for Jesus’ return or you will miss out.
“It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks” may be a self reference, about how it was hard for Cash to follow God, but God kept calling him back. It is also a reference to the apostle Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus road (Acts 9:5 , 26:14). A prick (or goad) is a sharp stick used to prod livestock. The phrase in context means that it’s hard for Paul to fight back against what Jesus is calling him to do. Cash identified with Paul, and wrote a book about Paul’s conversion experience.
Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home. The wise men will bow down before the throne. And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crown. When the man comes around.
Armageddon is a location in Israel, and according to Revelation 16, a site of a huge battle that will take place before Christ returns to earth . Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace. Shalam is a variation that probably means the same thing. There will be no peace until Jesus returns after Armageddon.
Then the father hen will call his chickens home. This echos Jesus’ lament in Luke 13:34: “how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!”. Jesus wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem up to follow him, like a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not. In the end, God will call his followers home. The chickens come home to roost. :)
The wise men bow down and cast their crowns. This is a reference to Rev 4:10: “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne…”. The wise men may represent the church.
Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still. Listen to the words long written down, When the man comes around.
Whoever is unjust…. This is a quote from Revelation 22:11: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” This portion of Rev 22 refers to the coming of Jesus. When he comes people will be found as they are, there will be no time for them to change at that point.
Listen to the words long written down. A reference to the Bible – which was written long ago.
In measured hundredweight and penny pound. When the man comes around.
In measured hundredweight… refers to Rev 6:6: “…A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny…” A penny is what a person made in a day, and a measure of wheat is how much one would need for a loaf of bread. There is severe famine in the last days. A person has to work all day for a loaf of bread.
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.