False Prophet

Album: Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020)

Songfacts®:

  • This song is full of biblical allusions, but its ultimate meaning is murky. At times it seems to be Dylan speaking as Jesus, the "real prophet," but at other times he seems to be speaking as the "false prophet." Ultimately, the song's title is the best indication as to the real meaning. Though at times Dylan speaks very convincing words as a true prophet, the character in this song is ultimately not the real deal.

    False prophets appear multiple times in the Bible but are especially important in the story of Jesus related in the New Testament. In Matthew 24:23-24, for example, Jesus states (in what is frequently referred to as the "Little Apocalypse"):

    Then if anyone says to you, 'Behold, here is the Christ,' or, 'There He is,' do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

    This idea comes back in the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John. In that story, the false prophet ushers in the coming of the Beast. He appears to be good and Christly but is really a bringer of doom that is eventually cast into a lake of fire and brimstone. This is probably who Dylan is referring to, seeing as how the figure was prophesied to appear in the future of the early Christians, which would include today.
  • Dylan announced this song's release on Twitter May 7, 2020, with the lone lyric, "What are you lookin' at – there's nothing to see."
  • Hello Mary Lou
    Hello Miss Pearl
    My fleet-footed guides from the underworld


    These might be the oddest lines in the song because they seem so out of place among the other obvious Biblical imagery. The first lyric refers to a specific song that doesn't seem to have anything at all to do with the Bible, Jesus, or prophecy: Rick Nelson's released Hello Mary Lou in 1951. Why she is now a fleet-footed guide from the underworld is a mystery.

    Miss Pearl's identity is a mystery, too, though it's tempting to say it's Janis Joplin, whose nickname was Pearl.
  • The city of God is there on the hill

    This line is a reference to Matthew 5:14–16:

    You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
  • What are you lookin' at
    There's nothing to see
    Just a cool breeze that's encircling me


    This line casts serious doubt regarding the legitimacy of the prophet in the song. EPHESIANS 2:2 says, in reference Satan the deceiver:

    And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.

    Satan, then, is the "prince of the powers of air," and Dylan seems to be surrounding this false prophet with a breeze as a subtle hint of what he really is. Notice that this odd detail is preceded by an attempt to deflect your notice: "What are you lookin' at? There's nothing to see." These two lines are also the ones Dylan chose to include in the Tweet announcing the song's release.
  • Let's go for a walk in the garden
    So far and so wide
    We can sit in the shade by the fountain-side


    On the night he was arrested and taken to his crucifixion, Jesus walked the Garden of Gethsemane. A song about this event eventually evolved into one of the great recordings of American history, Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.
  • I ain't no false prophet
    No I'm nobody's bride


    In the New Testament, the "bride" is often used as a symbol for the Church (with Jesus frequently called the bridegroom).
  • NPR writer Tom Moon discovered that this song borrows heavily from "If Lovin' is Believin'" by Billy "The Kid" Emerson. Dylan has always admitted to carrying on the old American folk tradition of reworking older songs into new ones. Over the later years of his career, this method has gotten some critics to accuse him of plagiarism. Dylan's answer is that songs have always been built from older songs, and that the process if an intrinsic part of the American music tradition.

Comments: 3

  • Silvermane Wesley John from UsaDylan reminds me of the creepy Norse shaman-like character in "Vikings" out of Canada. Floki is made up to be very mystic with undertones of the devil- ala Bob Dylan.
  • Colin Escott from NashvilleI think "Miss Pearl" alludes to the Jimmy Wages record of that name. On "Multitudes.." Dylan namechecks another rockabilly record from the same era, "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache."
  • Jack from Israelno i'm nobody's bride: tryin' to say that I'm the bride to the one that has NO Body, in the spirit and mystical sense
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Justin TimberlakeFact or Fiction

Was Justin the first to be Punk'd by Ashton Kutcher? Did Britney really blame him for her meltdown? Did his bandmates think he was gay?

Jesus In Pop Hits: The Gospel Songs That Went MainstreamSong Writing

These overtly religious songs crossed over to the pop charts, despite resistance from fans, and in many cases, churches.

RamonesFact or Fiction

A band so baffling, even their names were contrived. Check your score in the Ramones version of Fact or Fiction.

Glen BurtnikSongwriter Interviews

On Glen's résumé: hit songwriter, Facebook dominator, and member of Styx.

Howard JonesSongwriter Interviews

Howard explains his positive songwriting method and how uplifting songs can carry a deeper message.

Stand By Me: The Perfect Song-Movie CombinationSong Writing

In 1986, a Stephen King novella was made into a movie, with a classic song serving as title, soundtrack and tone.