The Meaning of "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash

“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.

This is a quote from Revelation 6:1-2. It references John’s vision of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, who bring disaster at the end of the world.

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.

Voices calling, voices crying: One must follow Jesus in this life. It is too late to turn on judgment day (Matt 7:22-23 , Heb 9:27).

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).

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree. The virgins are all trimming their wicks. The whirlwind is in the thorn tree. It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

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.

The song closes with with the last of the four horsemen recorded in Revelation 6:7-8: 7And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. 8And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
If you are interested in more about Cash’s Christianfaith, see this article from Christianity today.
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Una persona (Yo no sé quién) se ha traducido la entrada del blog aqui en Español.

33 Comments

Filed under Johnny Cash, music

33 responses to “The Meaning of "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash

  1. One of my favorite "Christian" songs ever. Thaks for the Bible references.

  2. Thanks Adam. I loved his version of "Personal Jesus". Amazing how the same lyrics meant something entirely different.

  3. I love this song, and I love that you've compiled verses to explain it! I found your blog from ArminianToday and I'm definitely gonna read more. :)

  4. Thanks for the kind comments Unfinished Lady. :) I enjoy the Arminian Today blog as well.

  5. Nice analysis :)By chance, Kevin, have you seen the movie "Tombstone"? They did something similar, where the outlaw gang known as the Cowboys are told by a priest (before they shoot them) of the passage from Revelation regarding the fourth horseman. It becomes a foreshadowing of Wyatt Earp, who tells a Cowboy before he goes on a rampage, "You tell 'em I'm comin', and hell's comin' with me, ya hear?! Hell's comin' with me!"

  6. Hi Tony, I think I saw Tombstone, but it's been a while. :)

  7. Aside from the obvious Bible references, to me, this is a terribly sad song performed by a man who was facing the end of his life. It is a toss-up between this and Johnny Cash's version of Hurt as to which is the saddest song.

  8. Hi Armed Geek, yeah it is a sad song. Cash had a lot to be sad about then I suppose. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Something I think you missed:"Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers"You said that it meant something epic was going to happen. But what I think that it's about is the trumpets being the holy side, and the pipers are on the unholy side (there's a nice little story that goes along with it). After all, if God is trying to grab the last few souls that he can save, wouldn't the devil also try and take his last too?

  10. Good point Shadowslayer, You're right, pipers lead people astray. Also, when someone "pays the piper" it's another way of saying that they have to face the consequences of their actions. Thanks for the comment.

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  13. “God decides who to free and who to blame. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved and will escape punishment.”

    Are those two sentences meant to be as contradictory as they sound?

    • Not at all. God sets the terms (those who believe will be saved).

      • Yes, but He doesn’t actually decide “who” then does He, He’s just selects people based on one of their attributes.

        We have an example in Lev 27:32 where Israel was told that “For every tenth part of herd or flock, whatever passes under the rod, the tenth one shall be holy to the Lord.” The owner of the flock did not decide which of the flock was God’s, in fact the next verse says “He is not to be concerned whether it is good or bad, nor shall he exchange it”. All the flock owner did was count off nine animals and the tenth was God’s. It’s just a purely mechanical process.

  14. This is an amazing break down of each Verse, very well put together.

  15. Dave J

    Thanks for your notes on the lyrics. This is a powerful song that I first encountered as done by Jorma Kaukonen, not realizing it was written by Cash. I think Jorma’s version is a better performance, check it out.

  16. This is great…..Thanks.

  17. Excellent job explaining the lyrics.

  18. will

    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.. what is the meaning of that. Why did he put them together

    • Good question. That’s a quote from Revelation 6:7-8. One theory is that the horse with death on it is the opposite of the white horse at the beginning of the song.

    • Robz

      Good Day Will. With regards to your post on July 29, 2015 at 5:29 am, There were JC makes reference to the pale horse whom had a name sat on him “death” refers to Belzabul / Beezlebub. It refers to a demon who shall upon judgment day, unleash his wroth , torments etc after Jesus has gathered his followers.

      Those left behind shall be severely persecuted by the man seated on the pale horse & his minions as described in Revelations.
      The song indeed refers to the biblical apocalypse & not the thoughts or metaphorical thoughts of an inmate on death row.

      Just figured I’d update ya.

      Have a blessed day

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  20. Gold Dust Woman

    Thank you for this interpretation, it was exactly what I was looking for.
    It’s a very powerful song, well executed by JC

  21. So six years after posting, I think “No shalam, No shalom” is supposed to be the Arabic & Hebrew versions of the same word, indication that it won’t be until Christ’s return at Armageddon that there will be peace between the Arabs & Israel. Technically, the Arabic word is “salaam’.

  22. Phil

    You need to look at the real story behind this song. Yes the references are correct but with Cash you cannot just assume it is a song about the end of the world. He is actually singing about a man on death row. The man is wrongly acused and about to die. The song is about how we treat each other on earth, that is the message he is trying to get out.

  23. Le Penseur

    “And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.” This is what I think this line means…

    A whirlwind is a powerful force and as the line says it is in the thorn tree. This makes me picture a powerful force being held captive within a mess of thorns.

    I then interpret this powerful force, that is the whirlwind, as Faith and/or the Soul, the indomitable Spirit within us. The thorn tree and its pricks are much like the trials and tribulations of life.

    The whirlwind is in the thorn tree, it’s hard for me to kick against the pricks.

    I disagree with what others have said in saying this is a sad song. To me this is a song of incredible comfort. I have sung it in my greatest times of unease.

  24. Annabelle duff

    A young member of my has just sadly committed suicide and left this song on his FB account the morning of his death ..nobody had any idea Why he would want to leave us all was this song a warning ? if so it was very deep thoughts he must have had to understand this song … can anyone help me understand?

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