Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 14:1-20) transports me to the fun world of misheard lyrics (such as thinking Sprintsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freezeout was Tell the Devil You Can Freeze Hell). The particular lyricosis I’m remembering now took place in 1971 at the Oakley house, when I had just turned ten and my twenty-year-old brother, David, excitedly brought a new eight-track home. He and his fraternity buddy Mike Cauble took turns listening to it on earphones, and wouldn’t give me a turn. I’ll make my confession now; I swiped the eight-track every chance I got when Dave wasn’t around and listened to it on our quadraphonic stereo. I don’t know how many times he listened to it, but I am sure I wore it out sneaking to play, trying to figure out guitar licks and chords to this mesmerizing music. It was Led Zep’s untitled fourth album, which is famous for having the greatest rock song of all time, Stairway to Heaven. And while I spent a fair amount of time learning that song, I spent more time listening to a deep cut, The Battle of Evermore. Page’s mandolin work must have tapped into my bluegrass roots, and the lyrics, with their Biblical references (Prince of Peace) and mythical imagery (I’d later appreciate the Lord of the Rings connection) captured my imagination. What strikes me as funny now, and what carried me from Isaiah to Zeppelin, is the misheard lyric. At that time, I was listening to my dad teach a weekly Bible study on the book of Revelation, and he spent a lot of time talking about ancient Babylon and its modern day incarnations. Heady stuff for a ten year old. Anyhow, I’d get my new Conn guitar out and try to master the chords while singing, I hear the horses’ thunder down in the valley below, I’m waiting for the angels of Babylon, waiting for the eastern glow. Only now, in checking the lyrics, do I find that Robert Plant wasn’t singing about the angels of Babylon, but the angels of Avalon. Just as well that I heard it wrong, because it motivated me to practice the song more and improved my ear (at least for the guitar riffs).
Isaiah was singing about the so-called angels of Babylon here in this passage. He and his glee club were gleefully singing out the fall of these angels, these kings who feigned divinity, who thought they ruled the universe, only to find that the grave welcomed them the same as it did all tyrants before them. Even the trees would join the mighty chorus, taunting the downfall of the mighty. This passage has captivated more than Zep fans, even the revivalist camp meeting baptists joined the taunts, as their hymn How Can I Keep From Singing (often mistakenly referred to as a Quaker hymn) has the lines: When tyrants tremble sick with fear and hear their death knell ringing, when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing? This passage must have captivated the pregnant mother Mary as well, for she sang a similar song celebrating what her infant son’s ministry would signify: casting the mighty down from their thrones and sending the rich empty away. Along with this casting down emphasis, the prophet also includes some interesting imagery of rising from the grave, describing how ghosts and ghouls of empires past would rise up to greet the fallen king. Shady characters would rise up from their underworld thrones to welcome the newest member of their hall of shame. But in the end, even these maggot-ridden shades don’t provide hospitality to the fallen king of Babylon; they cast him out of the grave where he suffers the worst humiliation, his corpse is trampled underfoot like loathsome carrion, the prophet says. An image to delight every ten year old boy I know. Parents, get your kids reading Isaiah!
And at the risk of really corrupting the youth, have your children listen to Zeppelin as a soundtrack to their weekly Bible study. Don’t believe all those rumors of devil worship and back masking. Maybe you could ease into it with the Robert Plant duet with Alison Krauss, where they even sing a spiritual about death and the hope of rising up to heaven, Your Long Journey. And then, you can go back to the young Plant with his Led Zep mates, and point out a song from Physical Graffiti whose title comes straight from the Isaiah passage (Trampled Underfoot), although to be honest the lyrics have nothing to do with tyrants falling (it’s all about auto-mechanics, at least that’s what I thought it was about until I got older). The chorus should have given me a clue. Talkin’ about love. . .
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.