Someone Else's Words
Take the bible from its hook
A litany of biblical references in the Floyd canon
While you might describe Pink Floyd's music as somewhat 'spiritual', you certainly wouldn't call it 'religious'. Being decidedly British and decidedly private, none of the Floyds have been particularly outspoken about their own religious beliefs, aside from a rare comment from David Gilmour about being a lapsed member of the Church of England, or latter-day Roger Waters' remarks about the name of God being used to excuse a lot of violence and atrocities.
But Waters' father had been a devout Christian and a religion educator, and while Roger never knew him, some knowledge of the Christian bible has certainly found its way into Roger Waters' psyche. In all honesty, Christianity has so pervaded (and, at times, dominated) the culture and language through most of Britain's history that it is impossible to fully appreciate much of English literature (and, by extension, literary forms such as song lyrics) without some basic familiarity with biblical themes and characters.
The lyrics of Pink Floyd are no exception. Subtle references to biblical passages crops up with some regularity, often in lyrics without any particular religious overtones otherwise. What follows is a look at some of the ways the Floyds have recycled biblical texts in their work through the years. If you find that I have left out some, please feel free to contact me.
One of the Floyd's earliest uses of scripture didn't even make it on record. In 1972, the band was touring The Dark Side of the Moon, working out the kinks in what would become their studio masterpiece. Several of the songs were evolving during this period, but none quite as much as the track that would eventually become "The Great Gig in the Sky". On the album version, Clare Torry's memorable vocals evoke the wails of a death. But in the earliest live incarnations, the song was more about religion as yet another potential cause of madness. At one point, it was given the working title of "Ecclesiastics".
As Rick Wright provided some ominous, droning organ chords and flourishes (reminiscent, perhaps, of the organ music often used in church services), tape loops played speeches and sermons by various people--most notably Malcolm Muggeridge, who hosted a well-known religious talk show on the BBC at the time). Recordings of these performances suggest that there were several different speakers used on these tapes, and while the first bits were clearly bible texts, as the song progressed these were overtaken by prayer, commentary, and talk show discussion.
Sadly, many of these tapes are inaudible or undecipherable on the available audience recordings. One of the clearest comes from the February 20, 1972 show at London's Rainbow Theatre. Near the beginning, a man states "...we read from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians chapter 5, verses 15 to 33." He then goes on to read the text, of which can be deciphered "Be us careful then how you conduct yourselves...", "Let the Holy Spirit fill you", "Speak to one another, sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord..." and a few other phrases.
From these, I cannot determine which translation is being used. But here is the text of Ephesians 5:15-20 from the New Revised Standard Version:
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The voice fades out around verse 19 or 20, so while verses 21 through 33 are mentioned, they were not actually heard in the context of the Floyd's performance.
During this reading, a second voice fades in and out with what seems to be a prayer: "Draw near to us in this time of worship... strengthen by thy spirit...".
Shortly thereafter is the passage known as the Lord's Prayer, taken from Matthew 6:9-13 (King James Version):
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The lines of the familiar prayer echo on top of one another, until they are all but unrecognizable.
This is replaced by another voice reciting "...courageously carry the torch of progress into the glorious future ... how, in a macabre sort of way, funny that the form that insubordination takes...". This is clearly a sermon or speech of some kind, rather than a biblical passage. This is followed by yet another voice, saying, "I only wish I could show you the numbers of letters which I have received in support of the Holy Father's decision...".
I won't try to interpret all of this too completely, but it is easy to see how the selected scriptures, prayers, and sermons might fit the Floyd's intended statement that religion drives one mad. The passage from Ephesians sets a high standard of morality and conduct, eschewing alcohol and debauchery. Efforts to live up to such a standard could certainly drive one to madness. (Note also the phrase "making the most of the time", which could have been taken directly from the lyrics of "Time".) The prayers are familiar and recited by rote rather than by heartfelt communication with God, and thus become a great cacophony devoid of all meaning.
The sermon consists of flowery language (e.g. "carry the torch of progress into the glorious future") that sounds pretty but amounts to little, and during this it seems that the sermon itself is drowned out by the braying of sheep. The implication is that religious churchgoers are little more than sheep who will be led anywhere the authority figures want them to go (an idea Waters would explore again in Animals). This idea is reinforced by the statement that people have been writing in to support the Church's official position on one matter or another. Thus, religion is portrayed not as an instrument of independent thought, but rather as an institution that exists only to churn out generation after generation of mindless followers.
Weighty stuff indeed. It would be another half decade before Pink Floyd would start making such bold, pointed statements on record. In scrapping all of the religious text in favor of the 'death and dying' instrumental that would find its way to the Dark Side album, the band managed to keep the subject matter more universal, thus broadening the album's appeal.
Later in 1972, the band slipped two passing biblical references into the lyrics of Obscured by Clouds. The first of these is in the line "Heaven sent the promised land" from "Wots... uh the Deal". Although the phrase 'promised land' does not appear in most bible translations, it is commonly used to refer to the land of Canaan that was first promised to Abram (forefather of both the Jewish people and the Arabs) in Genesis 12:1 and 15:1. Abram's great-grandchildren left to live in Egypt during a period of great famine, and over some 400 years these Israelites became a vast population of slaves. When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they were heading back to their ancestral home in Canaan--the Promised Land. (See also Exodus 33:1, Deuteronomy 1:8, Deuteronomy 34:4, and Joshua 1:2-4.)
The concept of leaving a land of exile and returning to the Promised Land has been burned into the Jewish psyche for hundreds upon hundreds of years, and has a similarly prominent place in the Christian consciousness. The 'Promised Land' represents a land of peace and prosperity, 'flowing with milk and honey' (Numbers 13:27).
In La Vallee, the 'Promised Land' is the paradise that is said to exist in the hidden valley, and the group of travelers is in search of it. "Wots... uh the Deal" does not specifically refer to a scene in the film, but it borrows the 'paradise' theme and depicts a traveler looking at this 'Promised Land' from the outside. Later in the song, the idea is echoed and transformed in the lyrics:
Someone sent the promised land
And I grabbed it with both hands
Now I'm the man on the inside looking out
This idea of reclaiming a lost paradise is also biblical in origin. It refers to the Garden of Eden, which is where God placed Adam and Eve, the first humans (Genesis 2:8, 2:15). After the humans brought sin into the world, they were cast out of the garden (Genesis 3:23-24) and made to work for their food and shelter, which had previously been provided for them in the paradise of God's perfect creation. The theme of trying to reclaim the 'Lost Paradise' and return of a state of perfect harmony with creation and with God is central to Judaism and Christianity alike, and it reverberates throughout the bible as well as through much of Western literature. (Compare Isaiah 51:3 and Ezekiel 36:35, which speak of the land of Israel being rejuvenated and becoming a paradise like Eden.)
This idea of longing for the lost paradise (represented by Eden) has made its way into Floyd lyrics more recently as well. David Gilmour used it in "Sorrow" ("He's haunted by the memory of a lost paradise") in which he describes a man trapped in a ruined wasteland who is dreaming of "green fields and rivers" and longing for the "world that's departed". And in "Perfect Sense, part 1", from Amused to Death, Roger Waters mentions that the monkey (representing mankind) "turns his back on the garden", willingly leaving paradise behind in favor of the promises of civilization. By the end of the song, however, he has been outfitted for war and "sent... back in search of the Garden of Eden."
(A full analysis of this fascinating, complex song is beyond the scope of this article. The fact that the monkey is sent back to Eden with a nuclear submarine suggests that he is meant to reclaim the lost paradise by force, or perhaps it is merely a reference to the traditional Middle Eastern location of Eden.)
There is one more brief semi-biblical reference in Obscured by Clouds that bears mentioning. "Free Four" states "You are the angel of death/And I am the dead man's son", which is one of Waters' earliest lyrics about his dead father. But the 'angel of death', while not--strictly speaking--a biblical figure, has its roots in Judeo-Christian tradition. There are several Biblical accounts of angels being sent to destroy individuals and societies which have angered God (Genesis 19:1 and 19:13, 2 Kings 19:35, 1 Chronicles 21:15), and Proverbs 16:14 mentions "angels of death" (often translated as 'messengers of death'; the word 'angel' means 'messenger').
There is also a long non-biblical tradition in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim lore of an actual Angel of Death. He is sometimes called Azrael, and is at times identified with Satan and/or the Antichrist. At other times, he is identified as a good, angelic servant of God.
The Dark Side of the Moon also contains a pair of more direct bible references. 1 Timothy 6:10 begins "For the love of money is the root of all evil" (King James Version), and this phrase has passed into common usage, such that it is quoted in "Money" ("Money, so they say/Is the root of all evil today"). The key difference between the common proverb and its biblical original is the phrase "the love of". Money itself does not cause evil, but man's lust after certainly leads one to evil--a sentiment that certainly meshes well with Roger Waters' anti-capitalist sentiments.
The other bible quote in Dark Side is found in the final couplet of "Eclipse", which states " And everything under the sun is in tune/But the sun is eclipsed by the moon". The phrase "under the sun" originates in the book of Ecclesiastes, where it is found some 29 times. The best-known of these is found in Ecclesiastes 1:9: "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."
Dark Side shares a lot of thematic material with the book of Ecclesiastes--the pointlessness of man's labors and the meaninglessness of modern life (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, 2:11, 2:20, 2:22), the futility of chasing after material wealth (5:10), and the inevitability of death (3:19-20). Also note the similarities between Ecclesiastes 1:5 ("The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises') and the lyric "You run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking/Racing around to come up behind you again" from "Time". The theme of the entire album is summed up quite nicely by Ecclesiastes 9:3--"This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward when they join the dead."
Like the bit from 1 Timothy, "There is nothing new under the sun" is another biblical phrase that has passed into common usage. It was even alluded to by Shakespeare in Sonnet 59. (Likewise, Agatha Christie's novel "Evil Under the Sun" borrows its title from Ecclesiastes 4:3.) So Roger Waters may not have been fully aware of the biblical origins of the phrase "under the sun" as he was writing "Eclipse". But the fact that Dark Side voices so many of the same concerns that are found in Ecclesiastes suggests that he may, in fact, have had more than a passing knowledge of this book.
Waters recycled the idea of "nothing new under the sun" a few years later in "Dogs", which contains the lyric: "And everything's done under the sun". But this is not the only biblical reference found on Animals. "Dogs" also states "you'll reap the harvest you have sown", a phrase reminiscent of Galatians 6:7-8 ("A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature from that nature will reap destruction..."). The warning is clear, both in Galatians and "Dogs": if you live a violent, untrustworthy, hateful life, you can expect others to treat you with violence, mistrust, and hate. There are numerous biblical passages that apply this agricultural metaphor of 'reaping' and 'sowing' to behavior, such as 2 Corinthians 9:6 ("Whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously") and Jesus' parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, Luke 8:5-15).
"Sheep" contains what is arguably the most obvious biblical reference in the entire Floyd canon--the parody of the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 is possibly one of the most famous and most recognizable passages in the entire bible. The King James Version reads:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The parody in "Sheep" quotes a slightly different translation in the first three lines:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green He leadeth me the silent waters by.
The Floyd version then takes a decidedly sinister turn, playing on the role of sheep as a source of food, and calling to mind that while a shepherd may care lovingly for his flock, he does so in the hope that the flock will become a profitable crop:
With bright knives He releaseth my soul.
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places.
He converteth me to lamb cutlets,
For lo, He hath great power, and great hunger.
(Note the change from 'he restoreth my soul' to 'he releaseth my soul'.)
There is one other passing bible reference in "Sheep" that is often overlooked: "I've looked over Jordan, and I have seen/Things are not what they seem." This line again reflects the same idea that the sheep are so lovingly cared for in order to become a meal for their caretakers. But the 'looked over Jordan' bit is borrowed from the Negro spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":
I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home!
A band of angels comin' after me,
Comin' for to carry me home!
This is not exactly a direct bible reference, but is nonetheless linked to the biblical story of Israel's exodus from slavery in Egypt and its return the Promised Land. The Jordan River runs north-south through the heart of Israel, and the phrase 'over Jordan' and 'over the Jordan' came to represent passing into the Promised Land to take possession of it (see Numbers 33:51-52, Deuteronomy 2:29, Deuteronomy 9:1, Deuteronomy 11:31, Joshua 1:2, Joshua 3:14, Joshua 3:17, 1 Chronicles 12:15). Moses, who was forbidden to lead his people into the Promised Land, was allowed to go on top of a mountain to look over the Jordan River at the land God was giving them (Deuteronomy 3:25, 27). When foreign armies invaded Israel, they were said to have 'crossed over Jordan' (Judges 10:9), and when Israelites were banished from the land or returned, they were noted to have gone 'over Jordan' (2 Samuel 2:29, 2 Samuel 10:17, 2 Samuel 17:22).
Thus, looking 'over Jordan' implies looking from the outside into the Promised Land. As 18th and 19th century American slaves became versed in Old Testament stories, they adopted a lot of Israelite imagery as symbolic of their own plight and adapted these ideas into songs that expressed their feelings about slavery and their longing for freedom, but were disguised as religious songs. This is the heritage of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", as quoted in "Sheep". Waters' lyric depicts a sheep looking 'over Jordan' into what should be the Promised Land, but instead of seeing a paradise, he recognizes that his fellow sheep are being dominated and put to death to serve the purposes of the greedy dogs.
This lyric is used again in "The Bravery of Being Out of Range" from Amused to Death, which states "I looked over Jordan and what did I see/Saw a U.S. Marine in a pile of debris". The meaning isn't quite as clear, but the effect is the same: the phrase "looked over Jordan" sets up the audience to expect images of peace and paradise, but instead the view is one of carnage and unhappiness. Things are not what they seem, indeed.
"Another Brick in the Wall, part 3" contains yet another biblical reference that has passed into popular language, and is used by many who may not be aware of its origins. The lyric "I have seen the writing on the wall" is a common idiom meaning that future events have been clearly foreseen by interpreting the obvious signs, usually with ominous connotations. It comes from chapter 5 of the book of Daniel, in which a banquet given by the wicked Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) King Belshazzar is interrupted by the miraculous appearance of a human hand writing a cryptic message on the plaster wall near the king's lampstand. Daniel, an exiled Hebrew whose knowledge and wisdom in interpreting dreams had been recognized by earlier kings, is brought in to offer an interpretation. He reads the four-word message and foretells that the king has 'been weighed on the scales and found wanting', and that God would end Belshazzar's reign and give his kingdom to the Medo-Persians (Daniel 5:25-28). That very night, Belshazzar was captured and killed, and Darius the Mede took over his kingdom.
"Towers of Faith", the pre-film song from Roger Waters' When the Wind Blows soundtrack, has several references to religious institutions and figures ("The Prophet"--referring to Muhammed, the founder of Islam; Shiites, the Pope, Jesuits) without really referring to anything truly biblical in origin. Thus, these are beyond the scope of this article. It does, however, mention Jesus (in the lyric "This land is Jesus' land"), the central figure of the Christian faith. (In case you are extremely unfamiliar with the bible, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John deal explicitly with his life and ministry, and the remainder of the New Testament focuses on his teaching.)
There is also the lyric "And Jehovah looked up from the Sea of Galilee beneath". "Jehovah" is a transliteration of "Yahweh" (or "YHWH", also known as the Tetragrammaton), which is the proper name of God. The name Jehovah/Yahweh is usually translated "Lord" or "LORD" in English bibles, and Jews have traditionally spoken the name "Adonai" (a Hebrew word meaning 'Lord') when reading scriptures aloud. (Jewish tradition forbids the speaking of this name, or even erasing or throwing away a written version of the name. This has led some to adopt the written form "G-d"--as found in the Division Bell CD booklet lyrics for "Take it Back"--which may be thrown away or erased without offending religious Jews.)
The Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Kinneret) lies in the northern portion of ancient Israel, and is connected to the Dead Sea (which lies to the south) by the Jordan River. Jesus' hometown of Nazareth is in the region of Galilee, and it was in this area that he spent most of his public ministry (see Matthew 4:12, 23-25). It was along the shores of the Sea of Galilee that Jesus first met the disciples Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20).
Jesus was near the Sea of Galilee when he performed some of his most memorable miracles, such as feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fishes (John 6:1-13) and healing numerous blind and crippled people (Matthew 15:29-30). And it was on these waters that Jesus walked (John 6:16-20).
In The Final Cut, "The Post War Dream" opens with the lines "Tell me true, tell me why, was Jesus crucified/Was it for this that Daddy died?". It is a rhetorical question, expressing Waters' anguish over the fact that though his own father sacrificed his life to make the world a better place, the world hasn't really lived up to that promise. He extends this anguish, figuratively, to the death of Jesus, who was crucified and thus sacrificed his life for the sake of all mankind. (Compare Mark 15:24-25, Hebrews 9:26, and 1 John 2:2.)
Waters invoked Christ's crucifixion again in "It's a Miracle" from Amused to Death, which states:
She said meet me
In the Garden of Gethsemane my dear
The Lord said, "Peter, I can see
Your house from here"
The Garden of Gethsemane was an olive grove that Jesus and his disciples frequented (John 18:1-2, Matthew 26:36). It was here that he prayed after the Last Supper, and here that Judas betrayed him (John 18:3, Matthew 26:47). (The lyric suggests a woman's enticing the speaker to a familiar place in order to betray him.) The bit about Peter refers to the disciple Simon Peter, who seems to have been one of Jesus' closest personal friends. Specifically, it alludes to a (rather dumb) joke:
A huge crowd had gathered as Jesus was nailed to the cross. As Jesus surveyed the crowd, he saw St. Peter at the back.
He strained to call to him, "Peter! Peter!"
Peter tried to get through the crowd, pushing people as he went.
Still Jesus cried, "Peter! Peter!"
"I'm coming, Lord!" shouted Peter as he worked his way through the crowd. Eventually he reached the foot of Jesus' cross, and asked, "What is it, Lord?"
And Jesus replied, "Hey! I can see your house from here!"
(I told you it was rather dumb.)
"It's a Miracle" also makes passing mention of God in the repeated lines "By the grace of God Almighty", which isn't necessarily a reference to a specific biblical passage. Similar passing mentions of God occur again and again in parts 1 and 2 of "What God Wants" ("God wants goodness/God wants light... What God wants, God gets"), "Perfect Sense, part 1" ("Man is a tool in the hands of the great God Almighty"), "Us and Them" ("God only knows it's not what we would choose to do"), "I Can't Breathe Anymore" ("But with or without God on my side/I know that I really will"), and "Home" ("Could be the pilot with God on his side").
The name of Jesus is used by the teacher in "The Hero's Return" ("Jesus, Jesus, what's it all about?" and "Jesus Christ, I might as well be dead"), but this is less an earnest prayer to Christ than a common, vulgar exclamation of frustration and disgust. Similar uses are found in "The Tide is Turning" ("Jesus Christ, imagine what it must be earning"), "One of My Turns" ("Oh my God! What a fabulous room! Are all these your guitars?") and "Arabs With Knives and West German Skies" ("Oh my God, how did they get in here?").
At least twice, Waters has invoked the name of Jesus for what appear to be reasons of rhyme alone. In "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk", his first recorded solo writing credit, he rhymes "Jesus bled" with such inanities as "I'm in bed", "Achin' head", and "Choke on bread". And in "Radio Waves" he rhymes "Jesus saves" with the song's title phrase.
In issue #17 of Spare Bricks, this column featured "Each Small Candle", which contains the lyric "The samaritan Serb turns and waves goodbye". As I explained in that issue, the description of the soldier as a 'samaritan' is a reference to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The parable tells of Jewish traveler who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Two Jews, a priest and a Levite, subsequently pass him by, but pass by without offering aid. He is finally aided by a Samaritan, who is held up as an example of mercy and a loving 'neighbor'.
Samaritans were a people in the northern portions of Palestine who were descendants of mixed marriages between Jews and foreigners transplanted to the area by the conquering Assyrians some 700 years earlier (see 2 Kings 17:24, 29, 32-33). At the time of Jesus, there was open hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans over religious and social matters (see Luke 9:52-53, John 4:7-9, 20-22). Just as the parable endorses love and mercy that show no such bias or prejudice, Waters' song praises the Serbian soldier who breaks rank to commit an act of kindness toward an Albanian woman.
And finally, for the sake of completeness, let's return to Raymond Briggs' book and film "When the Wind Blows", and a bit of scripture quoted by the characters. "Hilda's Hair", from Waters' soundtrack, incorporates the following bit of dialogue between Jim and Hilda, as they die of radiation sickness following a nuclear attack on Great Britain:
Jim: I shall fear no Evil... They rod and Thy staff comfort me, all the days of my life... lay me down in green pastures... I can't remember any more...
Hilda: "That was nice, really. I liked the bit about the pastures."
Jim: "Oooh yes, yes... Into the valley of the shadow of death..."
Hilda: "No more, love... no... no more..."
Jim: "Rode... the six hundred"
In the film (and the book which inspired it), Jim and Hilda are suffering from radiation sickness and have crawled into their useless, homemade fallout shelter for what would be the last time. Hilda wonders if they should pray, and after a couple of false starts Jim begins quoting anything that comes to mind that sounds appropriate, including old hymns. He then quotes a few lines from Psalm 23 before his memory fails him, and Hilda finds this soothing.
Finally, Jim recalls a less comforting line reminiscent of Psalm 23 ("the valley of the shadow of death" is a common alternate translation of the line translated as "the valley of death" in the King James version), and then continues by reciting "rode the six hundred", revealing that he is no longer remembering the Psalm, but instead the first stanza of Lord Tennyson's famous poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade":
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
That this 140-year-old poem borrows imagery from the 23rd Psalm only serves to re-emphasize the bible's impact on English literature, from Shakespeare to Tennyson to Waters and beyond.