Interpretation: Thunder On the Mountain

I submit to you this rumination:

Mister Pitiful

I’m still listening to the songs from last year’s Modern Times and
letting things pop out at me in a random way. I have no unified theory
regarding the record, or none I could articulate. Yesterday I was
listening to Thunder On the Mountain (actually a live version from St.
Paul, Minnesota on October 29th last) and it was the last line of the
song that stayed in my head, as last lines often will.

For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

“For the love of God;” that’s an expression (albeit a little old-
fashioned these days) in relatively common usage which generally means
no more and no less than “for Pete’s sake.” “For the love of God, shut
up!” is something one might say to a noisy fellow patron in a movie
theater. There would likely be little religious significance to the
phrase in that context.

Is that how Dylan is using it here? Could he just as easily have
written, “for Pete’s sake,” or, “for cryin’ out loud, you ought to
take pity on yourself?”

You can certainly think so. If you don’t think that God is
particularly present in the song previous to that line, there might be
little reason to think that Dylan is suddenly inserting Him into it in
some significant way. To my ears, however, God has already been
present between the lines in the previous verses, and so this overt
invocation of God in the final line seems deliberate. (And on a more
general level, I think Dylan has proven himself to be an habitually
deliberate chooser of words, and one who is careful when singing about
the Main Man.)

The title and recurring image of the song — “thunder on the mountain”
— evokes the voice of God, I think, in a Biblical context — not that
yours-truly is an expert on the Bible. But there’s Exodus, Chapter 20:

"And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the
noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people
saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses,
Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us,
lest we die."

And Psalm 29:

"The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory
thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters."

Each verse of the song has something in it with a religious and in
particular a Biblical resonance, if you care to hear it that way. I’m
not going to do a complete litany here, because I’m interested in
getting to the last line, but there’s the references to the expansion
of the soul, to being a “servant both night and day,” seeing “what
others need,” and so on — not in an overly precious context, but in a
rollicking one, of-course, as befits the melody. The singer is upfront
about being “no angel.” The notion of “confession” appears in the
second to last verse, and I think I mentioned before in this space
that I think it evokes the idea of confessing one’s faith, as opposed
to confessing a crime.

"I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed — no need to confess again"

[confessare, from L. confess-, pp. stem of confiteri "to acknowledge,"
from com- "together" + fateri "to admit," akin to fari "speak." Its
original religious sense was of one who avows his religion in spite of
persecution or danger but does not suffer martyrdom.]

So, if you assume that the reference to God in the last line is not a
just a throwaway phrase, then the line changes from being a simple
statement or admonishment ( “you ought to take pity on yourself”) to
being a kind of argument ( “for the love of God, you ought to take
pity on yourself.”)

As such, it’s a strange argument on the ears. Firstly, “self-pity” is
more commonly put on the vice side of the ledger, rather than in the
virtue column. Why would pitying oneself do anything to, let’s say,
arouse one’s own love of God?

Well, maybe the kind of self-pity being talked about here is not the
kind you wallow in self-destructively, but rather that kind that is
allied to understanding and compassion. To pity oneself can be merely
to comprehend one’s own mortal predicament. It’s one that deserves
pity. Another Dylan reference reflects off of it — one of his
references in Chronicles to something his “grandma” told him. She had
“instructed me to be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is
fighting a hard battle.” Everyone is fighting a hard battle. No
exception made there for people who happen to have a lot of money, or
good looks, or great power. According to grandma, they’re all fighting
a hard battle — everyone you’ll ever meet. Including, of necessity,

Another Bible quote might reflect off of it in a different way (James,
Chapter 4):

"For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a
little time, and then vanisheth away."

No matter who you may be, no matter your accomplishments and honors,
no matter how many bridges you build or CDs you sell, your life is
“even a vapour,” that briefly appears and then is utterly gone.

Absent this comprehension of one’s human predicament — absent this
self-pity — one indeed might have little reason for the “love of God,”
i.e. for one’s own love of God. If you look in the mirror and see only
someone strong, self-sufficient and fearless, then maybe that is
someone who isn’t inclined to prostrate himself to an Almighty — to
humble himself before God.

If, on the other hand, one looks in the mirror and sees a pitiable bag
of bones that will amount to exactly nothing at the end of it all,
then one might begin to contemplate the lengths to which God has gone
to reveal Himself and to show His love for such passing vapors of the
earth as oneself, and one might begin feeling the kindling of a
reciprocal love for that same loving God.

And, in a Biblical sense, there’s not anything more basic and
important than actually loving God. It’s in both the New and the Old

"And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with
all thy soul, and with all thy might."

So, perhaps in a certain sense that this one line of this one song
might prompt a person to contemplate, failing to have pity on oneself
could be the greatest pity of all.