“I just don’t know what’s wrong with the world!” We’ve all either said this phrase or been in agreement with someone else who has said it. There are things about the world to love. There are also quite a few things to despise. Our world promises wonderful beauty. It also presents us with incomprehensible darkness and treachery.
The philosopher Plato presented the idea that perfection only existed in thought. We could only conceptualize something like the perfect chair. When we attempt to make a chair, we lack the skills and materials to make it absolutely perfect. In the same way, we long for a perfect world but it seems out of our reach. We can’t make it happen. But we watch for it and hope for it. Wouldn’t it be nice?
We watch for it…
“There must be some kind of way out of here, ”
Said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Business men – they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None will level on the line
Nobody of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited, ”
The thief – he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour’s getting late.”
All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came
And went bare-foot servants too
Outside in the cold distance
A wild cat did growl
Two riders were approaching
And the wind began to howl, hey.
[“All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan… performed by everybody and everybody else…]
“All Along the Watchtower” must be one of the most covered rock songs of all-time. My high school basement band covered it. So have the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Dave Matthews Band, XTC, Run DMC(!), The Grateful Dead, The Presidents of the United States, and many more. (I promise this will be the last time I compare my high school band to any of these prominent artists.) People relate to the song. We want to be a part of it. One possible reason is that it asks the question we’ve all asked: “what’s wrong with this world?” The opening lines depict a scene of a joker and a thief lamenting the shape the world. We find ourselves identifying with those two characters.
Could it be fair to claim that, when it comes to the shape of the world, we, too, are jokers and thieves? Haven’t we taken from others for our own benefit? Haven’t we joked about the lamentable shape of the world?
ANYWAYS… There is a sense of expectation in the song. It’s an expectation that we all share: that at some point, the world is going to be better than it is now. Do you catch that hope in the song? The joker and thief look for it. Princes pace the walls of their towers awaiting the arrival of something new… some good news. We also wait in hopes of some news of a better world.
In the third verse, Bob Dylan makes reference to Isaiah 21 (specifically, verses 5-9). It is a prophetic vision that a pair of horsemen will come to announce the fall of Babylon. “Babylon” in the Bible is often not just referring to the city of Babylon. “Babylon” refers to the forces of darkness. It refers to what is wrong with the world. It refers to those situations and circumstances that make us ask “What is wrong with this world?”
Dylan pulled a Jesus Juke by dropping a reference to Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophesy makes it clear that it is not due to the toil of humanity that Babylon falls. The Divine intervenes to establish a better order. Babylon’s fall is the work of God. As Plato points out, humanity lacks the ability to establish perfection. Intervention is needed.
So what do you think happens between the second verse and third verse in “All Along the Watchtower”? When Jimi’s guitar is wailing, what do you imagine happening in the story of the song? How does the story move from the lament of the joker and thief to the fall of Babylon?