The song richly describes the challenge: “given all of the bad things that have just happened, what am I committed to becoming?”
The song, while beautiful, needs a bit of explaining. It was written after Bob Dylan became a Christian, and the Bible’s influence permeates it. This essay provides clues about how the work is connected to Biblical stories.
Here are the lyrics (in bold) and interpretations (in italics):
Every Grain of Sand by Bob Dylan
In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need/When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
Note: Psalm 126 describes people sowing with tears and reaping with laughter. In agrarian cultures, families cry when they plant. They put seed they could be eating into the ground. They know they may be (and often are) starving by the time of harvest. They confront this reality and still they planting seeds in hopes of a good harvest that will have made the planting and suffering they will endure before harvest worthwhile.
There’s a dyin’ voice within me reaching out somewhere/Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair
Note: Negative feelings come unbidden. The mistake is choosing to stay there. Martin Luther once said “You cannot prevent the birds from flying over your head. But let them only fly and do not let them build a nest…“
Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake/Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
Note: Genesis 4:8 shows the beginning of a cycle of violence, when Cain kills Abel. Abel’s blood cried out for vengeance. In Hebrews 12:24 Jesus’ spilled blood cries out for grace and peace. (Heb. 12:24b “..the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.”)
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand/In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand
Note: This probably refers to Abraham’s discussion with God of the beautiful creation and Abraham’s promised descendants.
Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear/Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
Note: Little actions overtime accumulate into habits and practices that are hard to correct once these habits and practices become established. In addition to reflecting the concept of karma, the phrases may allude to Proverbs which provides numerous examples of the challenge of temptation: giving into a little temptation here and there may provide short-term benefits (I get to indulge my self-centeredness, my anger, etc.) but in the end lead to bad results. C. S. Lewis in his work The SCREWTAPE LETTERS describes the trap essentially this way: the road to Hell* is not paved at all. It’s gradual with no signs or sudden changes that can sensitize you that you are going into a trap until you realize that you are alone in a very, very bad place with little hope of getting back.
*I do not know what C.S. Lewis’s full theology of hell, but in this case Hell’s consequences are dread, separation, disconnection, and utter despair.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way/To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay
Note: What are you committed to becoming? Does one want to get well or remain idle & die? This reminded Rev. Bennett of John 5:1-14 – the man Jesus heals against Jesus’ better judgment. The man has lain beside a healing pool for 38 years. If he wanted to be healed he could have just rolled himself into the water. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed and the man blames others. Jesus heals the man and leaves. When the man walks away with his mat, authorities ask him about why he’s working on a Sabbath and the man then blames Jesus for healing him.
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame/ And every time I pass that way I always hear my name/Then onward in my journey I come to understand/That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand
Note: Proverbs 9:14 discusses temptation standing at the door calling out.
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night/In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light/In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space/In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face
Note: There are many changes in life which happen to all people regardless of their morals (Ecclesiastes 1). The broken mirror might be James 1:23 where a person who won’t change given new information is like a person who looks at herself in the mirror and walks away, forgetting what she looks like.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea/Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man/Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand
Note: The sparrow reference is found in Matthew’s Gospel: ”Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26) and “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Thanks to Rev. Malcolm Guite, Rev. Brenda Bennett, and the Wise Women of the World Bible study group in Medford, MA.