Bob Dylan was able to tell an entire story in just a few lines of verse. It’s an absolutely beautiful thing. Take the first verse of The Times They Are a Changin.
A repetitious and technically basic guitar strumming carries the song. It is just fast enough to make you to cause some internal tension, but it never sounds rushed. He calls out far and wide “come gather ’round people wherever you roam” and asks them to reevaluate their position in society and in life “and admit that the waters around you have grown”.
He spends just a little extra time to draw out his question – “if your time to you is worth saving” and follows it rapidly with his own answer “then you better start swimmin or you’ll sink like a stone”, but this game of question and answer is just a lead up to what he really wants to say. “The times they are a changin”, which he accents with a blast from his harmonica. This is the centerpiece of all of the song.
That is a truly outstanding level of storytelling. Bob is compelling and leaves you with a chill, and the entire song is less barely over three minutes long.
However, today I also want to talk about another artist, and a specific song that has blessed me many times, and just yesterday I was singing it very loudly in the truck. It has such a well-crafted first verse, that can be written in two distinct, yet equally true and beautiful, ways.
Consider the first verse – “I am weary with the pain of Jacob’s wrestling, in the darkness with a fear” – describing the state of being and then referencing this very famous story immediately gives us an entire perspective on that state. Not just weary, but weary as one would be after years of self-seeking and deceiving family members, years of living in fear, working incredibly hard for a goal only to be conned out of it by his own uncle. And then the next line in the song is magnificently written – because it can be written in two distinct ways and either way is completely accurate.
Option 1. “But He met the mourning-wounded with a blessing, so in the night, my hope lives on”. I take this to mean that He (Christ) met the mourning and wounded man (Jacob) with a blessing. As you know in the story, Jacob wrestled all night long and would not let go of Christ, and his (Jacob’s) hip was thrown out of socket and he received a blessing, a new name, from Christ. Therefore the hope of the songwriter lives on because even though he may be wounded and mourning, Christ will bless him in due time.
Option 2. “But he met the morning, wounded, with a blessing, so in the night my hope lives on”. Reading it this way, I can see a focus on Jacob wrestling all night long, and not letting go. He (Jacob) made it all night long, and even though he was wounded, he received a blessing when the morning came. In this case the songwriter takes heart in remembering the suffering of Jacob, now and his hope will live through the night because he has the example of Jacob to remember.
I don’t know which way Andrew Peterson thinks of when he sings this song, but it blesses me as it is.