The Man Comes Around

This song is about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Cash’s portrait of this great moment is both haunting and biblical. The lyrics are lifted right out of Scripture and are presented at one and the same time as a stern warning and a comforting hope.

The song begins and ends with the first and fourth horses of the apocalypse as described in Revelation 6:1-2 and Revelation 6:8. These two horses come forth in the time of Tribulation when Jesus breaks the first and fourth seals from the scroll given to Him by God the Father (Revelation 5:1-7). These horses represent the beginning-of-the-end, before Christ returns to reign on the earth. This then, is the premise of the song: Jesus is coming back. Are you ready for Him?

Jesus is the “man goin’ ’round takin’ names.” He is the Judge and not everyone will be judged the same. For some – and only some – “there’ll be a golden ladder reaching down” and it will bridge heaven and earth. The Bible teaches that Christ himself is the ladder who grants entrance into eternal life (Genesis 28:12; John 1:51).

The Return of Christ, however, is a fearful event, an event that will make “the hairs on your arm… stand up.” When He comes, there will be “terror in each sip and in each sup.” At that moment, the only thing that will matter is what you have done with Jesus. Will you partake of His communion cup (Matthew 26:27-28)? Or will you, like Judas, the chief betrayer, “disappear into the potter’s ground” (Matthew 27:3-8)?

When Jesus returns, God’s Kingdom will be fully established. God (both the Father and the Son) is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). We are all middle dwellers, men and women who receive our existence from Him and who are powerless to have the last word against Him. When Jesus returns, trumpets will resound in heaven (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; Revelation 11:15-19) and multitudes of angels will sing in exaltation (Revelation 5:11-12). For the redeemed – “the born” – this is sheer glory. Alternatively, for rebels – “the dyin'” – this signals the end and is to be greeted with weeping and the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:28).

In light of this, our proper response today is to be ready now for when that awful, wonderful Day shall come. We ought to be like the wise virgins who carefully tended to the wicks of their lamps by taking extra oil with them (Matthew 25:1-13). Even while we are responsible to be ready, however, Cash adds a note of hope into his chorus. God, in His sovereign grace, will make it impossible for any of the elect to resist His salvation, so that all predestined for salvation will be like Paul, the one-time opponent of Jesus and His Gospel, who could not continue to “kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14) when he came face to face with the resurrected Christ.

While we wait for Armageddon, there will be no shalom, no peace (Matthew 24:6-14). The wickedness of humanity will continue to pollute the world, which makes the hope for Christ’s return, when “the father hen will call his chickens home,” all the more desireable. This allusion draws on Matthew 23:37-39, combining paternal (Father) and maternal (Hen) affection in God toward His children. These gathered “chickens” are “the wise men [who] will bow down before the throne… And at His feet they’ll cast their golden crowns” (Revelation 4:9-11).

The Day of Christ’s Return is still far off, a day to be anticipated or feared. Cash closes out his biblical imagery by acknowledging that between this day and that Day very little will change. Quoting Revelation 22:11 (Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still), Cash finishes his apocalyptic vision. Although unsung, the very next verse in Revelation captures the hope and terror of this song:

“Behold,” says Jesus, “I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)

Enjoy this song, and worship along with Johnny Cash as he sings about the watershed moment of all history (2 Peter 3:1-13).

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 goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ 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 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.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

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.

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.

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.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marchin’ to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

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.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound.
When the man comes around.

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.

Worship with Johnny Cash

To my knowledge, Johnny Cash was never a worship leader. I have found, however, that much of his music draws me into worship. Although Cash sang and produced an abundance of Gospel music, it is not his Gospel music that captivates me the most. Rather, I find Cash to be most worshipful when he sings honestly and earnestly about life and faith.

Perhaps Johnny Cash will be an especially potent resource for men who desire to worship God in ways untapped by the average Sunday Service. With this in mind, I have put together a Johnny Cash worship playlist that I find to be particularly edifying. All are welcome to test it for themselves. Men are especially encouraged to see if Johnny Cash might spur them on to worship.

These songs, most of which come from the last years of Cash’s career, have been a real help to me in my own personal worship. I hope they will be for you also. (I encourage you to purchasethese songs and listen to them in this order):

1. The Man Comes Around (Album: The Man Comes Around)

2. God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Album: American V: A Hundred Highways)

3. Ain’t No Grave (Album: American VI: Ain’t No Grave)

4. I Corinthians 15:55 (Album: American VI: Ain’t No Grave)

5. I Hung My Head (Album: The Man Comes Around)

6. I See a Darkness (Album: American III: Solitary Man)

7. The Beast in Me (Album: American Recordings)

8. When He Reached Down (Album: My Mother’s Hymn Book)

9. The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea (Album: Unchained)

10. Why Me Lord (Album: American Recordings)

11. Help Me (Album: American V: A Hundred Highways)

12. I Came to Believe (Album: American V: A Hundred Highways)

13. Softly and Tenderly (Album: My Mother’s Hymn Book)

14. Beautiful Words (Album: The Holy Land)

15. Were You There [When They Crucified My Lord] (Album: Essential Johnny Cash)

16. Redemption (Album: American Recordings)

17. Down There by the Train (Album: American Recordings)

18. Spiritual (Album: Unchained)

19. Just As I Am (Album: My Mother’s Hymnbook)


Testimony of Johnny Cash

We are all complicated people. Even Paul, God’s chosen apostle to the Gentiles and author of much of our New Testament, was fully aware of his own sinfulness. One of the most vulnerable passages in Paul’s letters comes to us in Romans 7:15-23:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

So it is that even Paul wrestled with the sin in his life. Of course, we are never to embrace sin and temptation. Rather, we continually wage war against it, until our dying breath. In light of this, we do not seek to glorify the weaknesses of men like Johnny Cash, who publicly struggled with temptation and sin his whole life. And yet, at the same time, we ought to reflect on the deep grace of God that was at work in Cash’s life. For, it is the same grace at work in our own lives. Paul continues in this passage with a note of hope for the struggling Christian in Romans 7:24-25:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

The day will come when the war will cease and we will live in glory without the encumbrances of temptation and sin. Enjoy this video about the work of God’s grace in the life of Johnny Cash.

(You Tube gives credit for the production of this video to Mars Hill Church. I, however, have not been able to confirm or find its origin.)

Man of Contradictions

I recently finished reading a biography on Johnny Cash entitled The Life, by Robert Hilburn. As a long-time fan of Johnny Cash’s music, I was enthralled to learn more about the life of the man behind it all. Though I was aware of many of Cash’s demons, I was astonished to learn the depth to which he wrestled with himself to the very end. Johnny Cash was a man of deep contradictions. On the one hand, he partnered with Billy Graham on many of his evangelistic crusades. On the other hand, he battled debilitating drug addiction through most of his adult life. He sang about Jesus and also about cold blooded murder. He wrote a book about Paul the apostle (Man in White), with whom he self-identified, while simultaneously embodying polar opposite tendencies.

Reading The Life reminded me that all of us, like Johnny Cash, are full of contradictions and these contradictions make us vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Yet, hypocrisy is only appropriately tagged to the self-righteous who either ignore or hide their sin. Johnny Cash was no hypocrite. He knew his sin and he relied on God’s grace, especially, it seems, as he neared the end.

In many ways, Cash’s sins were coloured with more brilliant paint than most of us have access to. At the same time, God gave this man a platform to proclaim the Gospel in ways that many of us never will. Johnny Cash is a trophy of God’s grace at work in the life of sinners. His life is an exhibition of Romans 7 and his legacy, for me, is the reminder that we, in the Church, cannot afford to be legalistic or licentious. The Gospel recoils from both in equal measure.

Johnny Cash is not a man to be idealized or emulated in the Church. He is, however, a man that we ought to come alongside to worship Jesus Christ, his Saviour and ours. In the end, Christ alone judges the hearts of all men. I cannot be certain that Johnny Cash had a genuine faith that led to his eternal salvation. From the evidence that remains, however, I expect to sing songs with him in glory.