The Man Comes Around

This song is about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Cash’s portrait of this great moment is both haunting and biblical. The lyrics are lifted right out of Scripture and are presented at one and the same time as a stern warning and a comforting hope.

The song begins and ends with the first and fourth horses of the apocalypse as described in Revelation 6:1-2 and Revelation 6:8. These two horses come forth in the time of Tribulation when Jesus breaks the first and fourth seals from the scroll given to Him by God the Father (Revelation 5:1-7). These horses represent the beginning-of-the-end, before Christ returns to reign on the earth. This then, is the premise of the song: Jesus is coming back. Are you ready for Him?

Jesus is the “man goin’ ’round takin’ names.” He is the Judge and not everyone will be judged the same. For some – and only some – “there’ll be a golden ladder reaching down” and it will bridge heaven and earth. The Bible teaches that Christ himself is the ladder who grants entrance into eternal life (Genesis 28:12; John 1:51).

The Return of Christ, however, is a fearful event, an event that will make “the hairs on your arm… stand up.” When He comes, there will be “terror in each sip and in each sup.” At that moment, the only thing that will matter is what you have done with Jesus. Will you partake of His communion cup (Matthew 26:27-28)? Or will you, like Judas, the chief betrayer, “disappear into the potter’s ground” (Matthew 27:3-8)?

When Jesus returns, God’s Kingdom will be fully established. God (both the Father and the Son) is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last (Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). We are all middle dwellers, men and women who receive our existence from Him and who are powerless to have the last word against Him. When Jesus returns, trumpets will resound in heaven (Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; Revelation 11:15-19) and multitudes of angels will sing in exaltation (Revelation 5:11-12). For the redeemed – “the born” – this is sheer glory. Alternatively, for rebels – “the dyin'” – this signals the end and is to be greeted with weeping and the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Luke 13:28).

In light of this, our proper response today is to be ready now for when that awful, wonderful Day shall come. We ought to be like the wise virgins who carefully tended to the wicks of their lamps by taking extra oil with them (Matthew 25:1-13). Even while we are responsible to be ready, however, Cash adds a note of hope into his chorus. God, in His sovereign grace, will make it impossible for any of the elect to resist His salvation, so that all predestined for salvation will be like Paul, the one-time opponent of Jesus and His Gospel, who could not continue to “kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14) when he came face to face with the resurrected Christ.

While we wait for Armageddon, there will be no shalom, no peace (Matthew 24:6-14). The wickedness of humanity will continue to pollute the world, which makes the hope for Christ’s return, when “the father hen will call his chickens home,” all the more desireable. This allusion draws on Matthew 23:37-39, combining paternal (Father) and maternal (Hen) affection in God toward His children. These gathered “chickens” are “the wise men [who] will bow down before the throne… And at His feet they’ll cast their golden crowns” (Revelation 4:9-11).

The Day of Christ’s Return is still far off, a day to be anticipated or feared. Cash closes out his biblical imagery by acknowledging that between this day and that Day very little will change. Quoting Revelation 22:11 (Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still), Cash finishes his apocalyptic vision. Although unsung, the very next verse in Revelation captures the hope and terror of this song:

“Behold,” says Jesus, “I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)

Enjoy this song, and worship along with Johnny Cash as he sings about the watershed moment of all history (2 Peter 3:1-13).

And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder:
One of the four beasts saying: “Come and see.” And I saw.
And behold, a white horse.

There’s a man goin’ ’round takin’ names.
An’ he decides who to free and who to blame.
Everybody won’t be treated all the same.
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down.
When the man comes around.

The hairs on your arm will stand up.
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground.
When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marching to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Till Armageddon, no Shalam, no Shalom.
Then the father hen will call his chickens home.
The wise men will bow down before the throne.
And at his feet they’ll cast their golden crown.
When the man comes around.

Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still.
Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still.
Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.
Listen to the words long written down, When the man comes around.

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers.
One hundred million angels singin’.
Multitudes are marchin’ to the big kettle drum.
Voices callin’, voices cryin’.
Some are born an’ some are dyin’.
It’s Alpha’s and Omega’s Kingdom come.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
The virgins are all trimming their wicks.
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree.
It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

In measured hundredweight and penny pound.
When the man comes around.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts,
And I looked and behold: a pale horse.
And his name, that sat on him, was Death.
And Hell followed with him.

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