The Wicked Messenger

Eli is apparently a variant on the name of God as spoken in Hebrew and Aramaic. It can also refer to the high priest of Shiloh. Either way this suggests the messenger is not wicked since he comes from God, or God’s representative. It would appear, then that we’d be wrong to trust the narrator when he refers to the messenger as wicked.

The question who had sent for him is irrelevant; what matters (and what the narrator has recognized, but is ignoring) is who he was sent by – God. Only the most ego-inflated would think God’s messengers should not be welcome unless ‘sent for’. The narrator proceeds to willfully misrepresent what the messenger says. He claims that the messenger is ‘multiplying’ (exaggerating) small matters, whereas it’s much more likely that he was characterizing important matters accurately – perhaps like how to behave morally. In the light of this, his so-called ‘flattery’ could perhaps have been a genuine attempt at diplomatic politeness, which is being deliberately misrepresented.

That the messenger is unwelcome is apparent from his having to make his bed behind the assembly hall – something the narrator mentions without further comment as if to cover his own guilt for being unwelcoming. ‘Oftentimes he could be seen returning’ associates him with Christ and the awaited ‘second coming’. The implication is that those who don’t pay attention to the messenger’s message are likely to suffer at the last judgment. That his feet are burning suggests the place to which he is delivering his message has hellish qualities – it’s full of evil. Since the messenger is from God, he notices it more than the intended recipients of his message. That the message is written takes up the idea that his ‘tongue it could not speak, but only flatter’. Having failed to get the message across in speech, due to being dismissed as a flatterer, he resorts to written words – perhaps symbolizing scripture.

In the third verse the reference to leaves beginning to fall is to an image from Isaiah of fallen angels going into hell. It suggests what the consequences are of the message not having been heeded. The seas parting would seem to be an image of God’s goodness – in saving Israelites after their escape from Egypt. That these things begin happening, i.e. at the time the narrator is speaking, and outside their original biblical context, suggests that both evil and God’s love are  timeless. The narrator appears unaware of the significance of what he’s saying, though, since he merely reports that the messenger was confronted, without any hint that confrontation is inappropriate. This man from God should have been welcomed, not ‘confronted’. The exhortation not to bring any news that isn’t palatable is also presented uncritically by the narrator, and is obviously absurd. These people  need to know the bitter truth. The comment that it opened up his heart would be both patronizing and untrue – wishful thinking on the part of the disingenuous narrator. That he is castigated for not bringing good news is also ironic in that what he is bringing almost certainly is ‘good news’ – i.e. the gospel; the word ‘gospel’ literally meaning good news.

10 thoughts on “The Wicked Messenger

  1. Another, somewhat similar interpretation is that The Wicked Messenger is a revision of the story of Samuel(1) who is being tutored by high priest Eli – what’s bad news for easy-going Eli and his wayward sons ends up being good news for Samuel who gets to take over the priesthood.
    Dylan expresses the ironies of the situation in his lyrics, ie Samuel thought that the priest not God was talking to him until the priest informed him otherwise.

    Not easy to do, but it’s best to stay with the lyrics – with the awareness of literary or biblical sourcs – and not to question why the author includes some words just because they appear to distort a subjectively conceived conventional pattern that reader or listener has imprinted in his mind,

    Dylan leaves lots of room for interpretation; but one has to be careful not to overly impose one’s own predermined ideas as to what the lyrics mean. Dylan nearly always puts his own spin on older story lines.


  2. Thanks Larry. I’m not quite sure why exactly you think Dylan might have had that passage in mind, though, apart from the mention of Eli. You say ‘Dylan expresses the ironies of the situation in his lyrics, ie Samuel thought that the priest not God was talking to him until the priest informed him otherwise’. Which particular lines are you saying express the ironies of the situation?


  3. ‘When questioned who has sent for him’
    Could well be taken as Samuel asking Eli if it was the priest who called him( or someone else)

    ‘If you can’t bring good news don’t bring any’
    Samuel did not want at first to tell Eli that the priest was in trouble with God

    In any event, Eli goes about his business as usual and accepts that God’s will’d be done with no attempt to change his own bebaviour to see if he might get some mercy

    Samuel might consider it a wicked thing to do to give Eli the bad news before it actually happens; on the other hand, Eli gets tipped off that he ought to wise up – a good thing to do

    Samuel is rewarded for conveying the message by God to Eli – regardless of the consequences – so God considers him a dutiful messenger

    It all depends from what angle you look at the situation ….there’s lots of irony


  4. I don’t think so Larry. Something can have significance for us seeing it from our vantage point even though that significance wouldn’t have been apparent to people living at the time.


  5. I agree with the comments and think David makes some valuable points. I wouldn’t say that the wicked messenger stands for Christ directly in the way that the drifter in Drifter’s Escape or even JWH in John Wesley Harding do. It’s easier to see him as a prophet bringing a message that he doesn’t yet fully understand than Christ who IS the message (the Word). The prophets were also confronted by many” “The leaves began to falling and the seas began to part” does suggest the signs and symbols that occurred in Christ’s earthly ministry (which in the Christian tradition the prophets prefigure) but it doesn’t seem like the messenger is the one performing them. The clincher would seem to be “he was told but these few words”–Christ who is the Word doesn’t need to be told anything–“which opened up his heart”–interior conversion to the “good news”.

    On a wider level you would see the wicked messenger who comes from Eli/God as man himself — the old Adam — with a mind that multiplies the smallest matter, cf. Genesis 6:5 “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The soles of his feet (followed no doubt by the rest of him) will burn without the Good News that is coming and that will open up his heart, prefigured by the leaves falling (change, renewal by death), the parting of the seas, etc. “Know ye not the signs of the times?”


    • Thank you! I would also add that, while I don’t think this interpretation can be sustained for the whole song, the first verse does seem to suggest we might be talking about the devil. See Job 1:

      6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.

      7 And the Lord said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

      ‘Angel’ is Greek for messenger; a wicked angel would thus be Satan (referred to as one of the “sons of God” or Eli/Eloi); “oftentimes he could be seen returning” suggests “from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it”.

      Again I don’t think that the wicked messenger of the song is literally Satan but I do think that this view is played with – as Watchtower for example also mixes different books of the Bible to see the interplay between them. I find the album JWH notable for the way individual figures can be seen to contain aspects of Christ, the devil, and man all at once – John Wesley Harding the outlaw, the wicked messenger, the drifter, the joker and the thief, the poor immigrant, the powerful landlord. This to me shows that it is a truly ‘biblical’ work, a collection of songs participating in the drama of the Bible, not just making use of words or phrases from it. It also expresses something of the shocking newness of the appearance of Jesus Christ in the world—to some he is a devil: “Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?”


  6. Yes, I think you’re right SJ. Many of Dylan’s songs can be interpreted on two (or more) levels. You’ve found some good support for a surface-level interpretation which needs to run alongside the one I’ve given. In order to be able to say what the song is ‘about,’ one now needs somehow to reconcile the two interpretations.


    • Or is it enough simply to say that the song is multivalent and contains various aspects of and allusions to the Bible? Is the song ‘about’ anything (i.e. standing for another meaning exterior to it) or is it (the combination of the words and music, binding together and mutually enhancing each other) a new thing in itself which expresses itself, which expresses whatever meaning it has when we listen to it?

      Whichever way it is I think we have to look for any higher meaning within the context of the album JWH. More than many of his records it seems to thematically unified, each song complementing the others and adding or drawing out new aspects. An interesting paper could be written in my view exploring Christological themes on the album song-by-song.


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