“Once Upon a Time”
When you hear those words, what do you most commonly think of? A story right? Generally a fairy tale or fable more than likely. Bob Dylan opens his 1966 magnum opus “Like A Rolling Stone” which was once voted by Rolling Stone magazine as the “greatest rock song of all time” with this phrase. The song tells the story of a person in a high place and high position in society who ultimately loses their prestige and popularity, leading to feelings of drifting directionless on stormy seas.
As the song opens we are introduced to a first character, who is given a stern warning:
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you ?
People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall"
You thought they were all kiddin' you”
This calls to mind immediately the words of Solomon in Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (ESV). In Dylan’s words people are warning our character that she should beware because she is ‘bound to fall’ however, she thinks they are kidding with her. Thus, this character is prideful thinking nothing will happen to her. As the song continues however we find out:
“You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal.
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”
Indeed our protagonist has been humbled. In this way, I’ve always felt Dylan was acting like the watchman in Ezekiel 33:3-6 who we are told should warn the town of coming danger. If the watchman warns the town of coming danger and they do not listen, the townsfolk fate is their own fault, however, if the watchman fails to warn the town of impending doom, the fate of the townsfolk is his fault in the eyes of the Lord.
Let’s continue a couple of stanzas down
“You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns
When they all come down and did tricks for you
You never understood that it ain't no good
You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you
You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
Ain't it hard when you discover that
He really wasn't where it's at
After he took from you everything he could steal.”
Here we see our main character has been deceived by people who she thought were her friends but were indeed her enemies, wolves in sheep’s clothing if you will, to burrow Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15 about false prophets who can lead us astray, and take from us everything they can steal, including our souls when it comes to speaking in eternal terms!
I also like the imagery of riding on a ‘chrome horse.’ Chrome which is made from the chemical of chromium is actually not a super rare chemical, but is very rust resistant for a metal, and appears to be a lot more impressive than it really is. Thus our character is riding on a chrome horse that makes her appear more important than she ultimately is.
The last stanza sets up some interesting ideas as well:
“Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They're drinkin', thinkin' that they got it made
Exchanging all precious gifts
But you'd better take your diamond ring, you'd better pawn it babe
You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.”
I like the concept’s here that Dylan discusses in reference to the thought of a wealthy person needing to pawn a diamond ring. I doubt that a thought like that would ever cross their mind, yet there will come day for every person that puts us all on equal footing, it will strip even a decorated French war general like Napoleon into rags. That great equalizer is death, and every single human being on earth will experience it.
Jesus spoke about the concept of what happens when we die on several occasions, one though that is most poignant to our song exposition here though. Jesus tells us a parable in Luke 16:19-31 about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus would wait by the rich mans gate every day just hoping that he could raid the rich man’s trash in order to feed himself. The day came when both men died. The wealthy man who never cared at all for the poor went to hell, while Lazarus went to Heaven, where he had the opportunity to hang out with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel! The rich man is able to look up and see both Abraham and Lazarus in paradise and begs for Lazarus to dip his finger in cool water to cool his (the rich mans) tongue for he is in anguish! Abraham’s response is chilling:
But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” (Luke 16:25-26 ESV).
I don’t know about you but this may be one of the most terrifying passages of scripture when it comes to what happens when we die. There are two options: Heaven or Hell. That is it! So often times we see people in society who become wealthy and comfortable here in this life, but unless they surrender their lives to Jesus will spend eternity in Hell. Jesus once also said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:24)! Why you ask? Well, I think it because wealthy people simply naturally desire to become wealthier, until greed consumes their life! Christianity teaches that we are to lay aside our desires and seek God’s will, that is whole lot easier to do if God has brought you to a place where you have nothing but Him and Him alone, and need to trust Him alone, not money, not status in society, not your own mental or physical abilities, no Him and Him ALONE!
It is not easy friends, and that is why it is so important to store up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:33) and not be as concerned with what happens to us in this life. Don’t get me wrong possessions are fine, but when they become idols we have a major problem. It can send us away from the Lord the person who gave us life, and leave us with ‘no direction home/like a rolling stone.” The good news is, there is Grace for those who have lost their way, but only through Jesus the man who died to save our souls! Yet in order to be saved we need to lay our lives, our wills, and our desires for anything that is not of God (Rom. 8:7), in order to receive that Grace, the kind only God can bestow on us through His Son!