The season of Lent is a time for fasting and repentance, especially the latter. Ash Wednesday begins the season with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). The ashy cross on our foreheads is a further reminder that we take up our cross and follow Jesus to the grave and, furthermore, that the cross marks us as His redeemed people. We will therefore rise like a phoenix from the ashes in the bodily resurrection when Christ returns, as Easter Sunday also reminds us.
O Brother, Where Art Thou has been a family favourite since the movie’s inception in 2000, thanks to the Coen Brothers’ literary genius. It is a parody of The Odyssey—Odysseus’ journey of returning to his wife through perils like the cyclops, Polyphemus, and sirens while suitors are attempting to marry his wife; and Ulysses Everett McGill’s (representing Odyseus) journey of returning to his wife through perils like the cyclops Bible salesman, Big Dan Teague, and the “sigh-reens” (sirens) who loved up Pete Hogwallop and turned him into a horny toad while a bona fide suitor attempted to marry Everett’s wife.
The movie is also filled with Christology, and the music that the Coen Brothers selected for the film emphasises this. The placement of these songs in the movie, as well as their lyrics, help us to consider the Law-Gospel paradigm of Lent, which is why you should listen to the soundtrack during this season. We will consider each piece of music as they appear in order in the movie’s official soundtrack (excluding the instrumental songs). There are spoilers in this article, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the plot to be spoiled, watch the movie first and return here.
This song by James Carter is sung by African American prisoners at the beginning of the movie when Everett and gang escape prison. It tells the story of a sheriff who tells his deputy to find a dangerous criminal named Lazarus and to bring him dead or alive. The deputy refuses because he’s too dangerous, so the sheriff goes to arrest him himself. Lazarus won’t go without a fight, however, so the sheriff shoots him. But somehow, he’s still alive. They lay him on the commissary gharry (a type of carriage) as poor Lazarus says, “My wounded side.”
Obviously, Everett is Lazarus in the song and Sheriff Cooley, who chases Everett, Pete, and Delmar throughout the movie, is the sheriff. I believe this song foreshadows Everett’s capture at the end of the movie (a different song is sung at this point, which we’ll get to later). It seems that Everett is about to die, but miraculously, the Mississippi River floods and he and his companions escape while the sheriff and his deputies do not. In the song, it appears as if poor Lazarus is about to die, whether that be from the gunshot wound or to be hanged by the sheriff once he’s brought to town. But the song never tells us the fate of poor Lazarus. Perhaps, then, as Everett’s survival tells us, we are to assume that Lazarus somehow survives, at least according to the Coen Brothers’ interpretation.
What does this tell us of Christ? First, the name Lazarus is an obvious biblical correlation. Not only did Jesus have a relative named Lazarus whom He raised from the dead (John 11:38-44), but He also tells The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) to make several points, one of which is that not even the resurrection from the dead will convince the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. In both the historical account of Jesus raising Lazarus and the story, the men have miraculously survived, just like we are to assume in the song. Thus, with either Lazarus as the Lazarus in this song, the song tells us of Christ’s power over death—that even when death seems to be the end for us, the reality is that we shall live.
At the same time, however, perhaps we can also see Jesus as Lazarus in this song, especially in the words, “My wounded side,” calling to mind the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus’ side to make sure He was dead (John 19:34). By all rights, Jesus was dead, but He was not dead for long. For three days later, He rose victoriously from the grave, and He would have St. Thomas touch His wounded side as proof that He is the bodily resurrected Jesus he always knew (John 20:27). Either way, the song reminds us that Jesus has power over death—that He is the firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18), and we shall follow after Him in our own death and resurrection by virtue of our Baptism (Romans 6:3-5).
The Big Rock Candy Mountains
This song is sung in the opening scene of O Brother. Whatever the Big Rock Candy Mountains represent, that is the destination for Everett and gang. It is “a land that’s far away” that has “crystal fountains.” It’s “a land that’s fair and bright,” and so on. It’s a humourous, fun song. It’s a place with “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs” where “all the cops have wooden legs, and the bulldogs have rubber teeth.” It’s a place “where there ain’t no snow, where the rain don’t fall, the winds don’t blow” and “you never change your socks, and the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks.”
The Big Rock Candy Mountains in a fun, playful way, represents Paradise. It’s the perfect place—no trouble, no bad weather, filled with good food and drink, and peace. This Paradise is the new creation, which Christ will bring down to us when He returns in glory. This theme will appear in some of the other songs.
You Are My SunShine
You Are My Sunshine sounds like a happy tune, but it’s quite despondent. Simply read some of its lyrics:
You are my sunshine,
my only sunshine.
You make me happy
when skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dear,
how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
The other night, dear,
as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear,
I was mistaken
and I hung my head and cried…
I’ll always love you
and make you happy.
If you will only say the same.
But if you leave me
to love another,
you’ll regret it all some day…
You told me once, dear,
you really loved me,
and no one else could come between,
but now you’ve left me
and love another.
You have shattered all my dreams.
There’s more to the song, but it’s not quite the happy song we thought it to be, is it? We should consider this song in the entire context of the movie. The whole point of Everett escaping prison was to return to his wife and daughters. His wife and children are his sunshine; he will always love them. He doesn’t want this to be taken away from him. But much to his dismay, his wife left him for another, shattering all his dreams. Still, though, he tries arduously to win his wife’s heart back.
Now, what in the world does this song have to do with Christ? Consider the Book of Hosea. God has the prophet Hosea marry a prostitute who will continually be faithless in the marriage to make this point: Israel has been an unfaithful wife to God, but He still loves her, and He will do whatever it takes to win her back. He wins her back through the blood of Christ. Christ dies for His Bride, the church. When she was faithless, He was faithful and died the death she deserves. And He is coming again to inaugurate the marriage feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-10). Jesus’ return will be a heavenly wedding celebration between Christ and His Bride, the church.
During Lent, we repent of our faithlessness, and God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We are like an unfaithful bride, but we are the sunshine of God’s love. He always loves us, even when we are faithless. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). God has every right to divorce us. Instead, He remains faithful even when we are faithless and forgives us our sins.
Down to the River to Pray
This is clearly a baptismal hymn, which O Brother portrays when Delmar and Pete get baptised. Delmar is the first to go. The Gospel clearly speaks to him in the words of this hymn. The singers invite all to come “down in the river to pray” to “wear the robe and crown” of Christ. This brings to mind Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ” (see also Revelation 6:11; 19:8; 22:14). Delmar tells the exciting news to Pete and Everett that the preacher told him all his sins were washed away. Hearing this Good News, Pete runs down in front of all the other people to get baptised. Their sins get washed away—yes, even the crimes that landed them in prison, whatever those were.
Everett, of course, cannot believe this. After all, how can water do such great things? Well, as it just so happens, the Small Catechism answers this question:
Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5-8)
And as Luther writes in the Large Catechism, there is nothing visibly “dazzling” or glorious about it, as Everett clearly sees (LC, Part 4, 13). Nonetheless, God does His great and glorious work of washing away all our sins, even the sins of babies. Everett cannot seem to wrap his mind around this simple means of grace. The Word of the Cross is “folly” to him (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
It is important to remember your Baptism during Lent—that Christ has washed all your sins away. Yes, even that one that bugs you so much.
I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow
I wrote extensively about this song here, but I will repeat certain things here. First published as an American folk song by Dick Burnett in 1913, I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow is arguably the anthem to the movie. Everett sings this song as if by improvisation. He is a man of constant sorrow. I’m not going to cover the entire song, but some lyrics are worth noting, especially the parts in bold print:
I am a man of constant sorrow.
I’ve seen trouble all my day.
I bid farewell to old Kentucky,
The place where I was born and raised [or as it’s sung, “where I was borned and raised!”]
For six long years I’ve been in trouble.
No pleasures here on earth I found.
For in this world I’m bound to ramble;
I have no friends to help me now.
It’s fare thee well, my old lover.
I never expect to see you again,
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad.
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.
You can bury me in some deep valley
For many years where I may lay.
Then you may learn to love another
While I’m sleeping in my grave.
Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger.
My face you’ll never see no more.
But there is one promise that is given:
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.
This song has a psalmic personality. Like some of the psalms, it’s a sad poem, but then it ends in sudden hope (the Gospel). Throughout the song, Burnett—and in this fictional case, Everett McGill—sings about his constant sorrow and his many troubles. He experiences his constant sorrow of saying farewell to Kentucky, possibly his homeland (or perhaps a synecdoche for his lover?). He experiences the sorrow of an unnamed trouble, lack of pleasure in things on earth, saying farewell to his lover (a double farewell!), watching her fall in love with another man, and never seeing her again. Yet despite all this sorrow, much as the penitent and imprecatory psalms do, he ends with hope in the Gospel: “But there is one promise that is given: I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.”
Many of the psalms speak of abstract “troubles,” much as Burnett does here. Psalm 27:5 immediately comes to mind, “For [the LORD] will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent; He will lift me high upon a rock.” Another includes an exhortation from God Himself, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15), which David does exactly that in the following psalm.
Like Man of Constant Sorrow, Psalms 27 and 50 also end with hope in the Lord. “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:13-14)! This has striking similarities to what Job says despite his immense suffering, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Psalm 50 also ends with this Gospel hope, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23)!
Similarly, McGill ends the song, “But there is one promise that is given: I’ll meet you on God’s golden shores.” This closing verse is what makes the song psalmic in personality and Gospel in nature. Burnett—and McGill—spends the entire song detailing his sorrows, but then he ends it with the beautiful image of God’s golden shores, bringing to mind the ushering in of the new creation upon Christ’s glorious return. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city…” (Revelation 22:1-2a).
In Psalm 13, David has sorrow in his heart “all the day” (v. 2), yet just as Burnett suddenly ends with the golden shores of God’s new creation, so David suddenly ends the psalm with the hope in that same salvation, “But I have trusted in Your mercy; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me” (vv. 5-6).
This psalm, among others, and Man of Constant Sorrow teach us the most important thing to know and to believe during our constant sorrows: Although sorrow may be constant, we know that we shall appear on the other side of the dark valley of sorrows to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalms 23:6), where we shall find golden shores and a crystal river with the tree of life planted beside it for all to eat from.
Yet perhaps we should see Christ in this song even more. Isaiah 53:3 calls the Messiah “a man of sorrows.” Christ took all our sorrows upon Himself on the cross. He hung as a man of sorrows. In His Passion, He suffered humiliation, that is, sorrow. All but John and His mother rejected Him. You can hear His sorrow in His words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matthew 27:46) and, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Nonetheless, Christ is risen from the dead. His sorrow is ended, and so is ours. As the Man of Sorrows, Christ ends His song of pain with, “I’ll meet you on God’s golden shores.”
Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
As we saw in the previous song, this one also has a psalmic personality. It begins, “Hard times is here and everywhere you go / Times are harder than ever before.” In the movie, Tommy plays this tune during their own hard times. The singer speaks of his low spirit, “People, if I ever can get up off of this old killin’ floor, / Lord, I’ll never get down this low no more. / When you hear me singin’ this old lonesome song, / People, you know these hard times can last us so long.”
This has similarities to Psalm 42, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me” (vv. 5, 11)? Also like the previous song, it is psalmic in singing on troubles, or “hard times.” Again, Psalm 27 comes to mind, “For He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble” (v. 5a). In such times, we have the Lord’s gracious invitation, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Tommy sings, “People, you know these hard times can last us so long.” Common human experience tells that often our suffering can last for a long time, which is why the Psalms are of great comfort to us during hard times because they speak intimately to this common human experience. They speak on the apparent slowness of God, for example, “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me” (Psalm 13:1-2)?
But as the psalmist ends, “But I have trusted in Your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me” (vv. 5-6). Thus, when we lament to the Lord during such hard times, we end with our trust in Him. This is where the singer fails; he does not end his song with trust in the Lord but in the hopelessness of long-lasting troubles. Like the psalmists, our lamenting should lead us to trust in the Lord despite our impatience and groaning.
Keep On the Sunny Side
When Everett finally gets to the town where his wife and children are, a trio is playing this song, bringing a ray of hope to Everett:
There’s a dark and a troubled side of life.
There’s a bright and sunny side too.
Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us ev’ry day, it will brighten all the way
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.
Everett has gone through some hard times, as we all do, but there are also some good times. We all go through dark times, but we experience bright times too. Note especially these lyrics:
Let us greet with the song of hope each day
Tho’ the moment be cloudy or fair,
And let us trust in our Saviour away
Who keepeth everyone in His care.
I cannot help but think of Psalm 121, “The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (vv. 5-8). During both dark and bright sides of life, the Lord is our Keeper. The word in Hebrew for “keeper” literally means to “watch” or “preserve.” We are in His gracious care all throughout life, even during the dark times; He watches over and preserves us, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:25-34.
I’ll Fly Away
The lyrics are as follows:
Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away.
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joy shall never end
I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, oh, Glory
I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away.
This song plays right after Everett and gang sing Man of Constant Sorrows, which is rather apt. That song ends with hope in God’s golden shores, and I’ll Fly Away begins with hope in “God’s celestial shore” once “this life is over” on “some glad morning.” This song, then, brings us to hope in the bodily resurrection that our Lord will inaugurate when He returns. This is especially a great song to sing on one’s deathbed, “Just a few more weary days and then / I’ll fly away / To a land where joy shall never end / I’ll fly away.” That land, of course, is the new creation. When we die, the song to be on our lips will be, “Hallelujah,” which is Hebrew for, “Praise Yahweh.”
Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby
This song is rather deceptive, just as the so-called sirens are deceptive during the scene in which this is played. They lull the characters into sexual sin and rob them (and Delmar is convinced that Pete is turned into a horny toad).
The song is deceptive because it sounds like a lullaby that a father is singing to his baby, “Go to sleep you little babe… Your mama’s gone away but your daddy’s gonna stay.” But as it continues, we hear, “You and me and the Devil makes three / Don’t need no other lovin’ baby… / Come and lay your bones on the alabaster stones / And be my ever-lovin’ baby.” The song of the sirens is alluring and deceptive, as is the song of the devil. The devil does not want us to be children of God but rather his children of disobedience (Ephesians 2:1-3; 5:6). Let us, therefore, pray the final two prayers of the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,” to resist the song of that vile serpent.
In the Highways
Everett hears his daughters singing this song, which they sing directly after I’ll Fly Away. As that song brings us to hope in the new creation, in the meantime we do the Lord’s work in each of our vocations, as they sing, “In the highways, in the hedges… I’ll be somewhere a-workin’ for my Lord… If He calls me, I will answer… / I’ll be somewhere a-workin’ for my Lord.”
This song is remarkably simple, but its own simplicity makes us think of the simplicity of pleasing God in our vocations. Whether we are in the highways or in the hedges, we’ll be somewhere doing the work of our Lord. Luther taught that any Christian who fulfils their unique duty is pleasing God whether it is the mother breastfeeding her child, the farmer growing his crops, or the married couple having coitus. All these vocations come from God—parent, spouse, sibling, friend, farmer, janitor, governor—and when one fulfils the duties of their vocation, they are pleasing God.
One serves God in this way, Luther argued, whether they are a believer or an unbeliever whom God is using for His purposes. He calls vocations “masks of God, since God [is] hidden within every person’s vocation” (Marty, 105). For example, a doctor pleases God whether or not they are Christian since doctors are one instrument through which God cares for His human creatures. Fulfilling our duties as pleasing God is not a means of good works to earn His favour. Vocations are how God takes care of His creation through His human agents. This means that as a Christian, you are pleasing God when you are a good student, friend, employee, sibling, spouse, parent, etc.
Thus, whatever vocation we are called to serve in, we would do well to respond, “If He calls me, I will answer… / I’ll be somewhere a-workin’ for my Lord.”
I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)
Like I’ll Fly Away, this song is a filler song in O Brother. It’s a somber song, and the following lyrics are noteworthy:
Kiss me mother kiss your darlin’
See the pain upon my brow
While I’ll soon be with the angels
Fate has doomed my future now.
Through the years you’ve always loved me
And my life you’ve tried to save
But now I shall slumber sweetly
In a deep and lonely grave.
Kiss me mother kiss your darlin’
Lay my head upon your breast
Throw your loving arms around me
I am weary let me rest
I am weary let me rest
The character in this song is yearning for his mother, but deep down I think they’re yearning for Jesus. The lyrics reveal that death is near, or at least they think death is near, “While I’ll soon be with the angels / Fate has doomed my future now.” The lyrics also reveal their need for a Saviour, “And my life you’ve tried to save… I am weary let me rest.”
The artist desires to be in their mother’s arms, but once again, these lyrics lead us into even better arms: the arms of Jesus, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). These are gracious words of invitation in both life and death. In life, we can go to Jesus in the Word and Sacraments to find that rest for our weary souls. That’s what the Sabbath is for, after all.
But this character is nearing death, or they at least think they are. Jesus’ invitation is especially true, then. Replacing “mother” with “Jesus,” we get, “Kiss me [Jesus] kiss your darlin’ / Lay my head upon Your breast / Throw Your loving arms around me / I am weary let me rest / I am weary let me rest.” And, of course, He does just this. As St. Paul says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Jesus is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
However, we must be careful not to mix analogies. Jesus is not our “mother”; He is the Son of God. To avoid this confusion, then, it might be best to think of the church as our mother, as the Church Fathers did. As St. Clement of Alexandria once said, “Calling her children about her, [the Church] nourishes [Christians] with holy milk, that is with the Infant Word” (The Instructor of the Children, 1:6:42.1). Since the church is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), and we are baptised into Christ as well as the church, we can therefore think of Baptism as being the womb of the church, our mother (cf. John 3:1-8).
With this analogy, perhaps we can think of the church as our mother upon whom we lay our weary heads—she is our refuge, our mother who feeds us the Word and Sacraments. The Psalms support this metaphor. Let’s look at Psalm 121 again. It begins from a place of isolation, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come” (v. 1)? As I read this psalm, I imagine the psalmist somewhere outside Jerusalem, wandering around in the wilderness. As he is lost and alone, he looks up to the city set on a hill (Matthew 5:14) and he sees Zion where God has promised to be present among His people, and the psalmist remembers, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (v. 2)!
The church is our Zion where God has promised to be present in His Word and Sacraments to deliver us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Thus, in life and death, we can lay our weary heads on the church’s bosom—her Word and Sacraments with which she feeds us, resting in the comfort of forgiveness, life, and salvation that she gives us in these means of grace.
A rendition from Ralph Stanley’s O Death, this song is sung at a KKK meeting, of all places, that Everett and gang stumble upon and discover that they’re about to kill their black friend, Tommy. The song switches between the perspective of Death and that of the person who’s dying. The dying person begins, “Won’t you spare me over til another year / Well what is this that I can’t see / With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me.” Then Death takes over, introducing himself, “Well I am death, none can excel / I’ll open the door to heaven or hell… / The children prayed, the preacher preached / Time and mercy is out of your reach / I’ll fix your feet til you can’t walk / I’ll lock your jaw til you can’t talk,” and so on. The song goes on until it ends with the person begging Death to spare him for another year.
This song reveals the habit we have of bargaining with death. We eat unconventional healthy diets and exercise to avoid death. We get Botox injections and plastic surgery in vain efforts to retain our long lost youth because old age reminds us of death. We use all kinds of lotions and dye our hair a “youthful” colour for the same reason. But we are merely deceiving ourselves. A healthy diet and exercise may give you a longer life, but you are only delaying the inevitable. Death will come to knock on your door to claim what it’s owed. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). As the character in this song knows quite well, it is futile to bargain with death.
Just as Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and shall return to dust—that we will die—so this song also reminds us of this fact. It therefore reveals to us our need for a Saviour—someone to save us from Death. Who can do such a thing? Certainly we can’t, as the character knows quite well.
On Ash Wednesday this year (2022), I preached on Matthew 16:13-18, 21-28 on the mark of the cross. I believe the following from my sermon fits well here:
Jesus said to Peter, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against [the church].” We usually interpret this as the gates of Hell attacking the church, myself included. But what are gates? They are fortifying structures; they are forms of defence meant to keep things out. Gates don’t go on the attack; they guard whatever is behind those gates. In His death, Jesus breached the gates of Hell and proclaimed His victory over it, and then he rose from the dead of His own power! Satan thought he struck a major blow to God and His people when he struck Christ’s heel with nails on the cross, but in His death, Jesus assaulted death itself by striking the head of that vile serpent [Genesis 3:15]. The cross of Christ broke open the gates of Hell! And unlike Hollywood portrayals, demons did not come breaking forth from its depths; rather, the Living God invaded Hell and conquered it!
Therefore, as we take up our cross and follow Jesus to death, the church is constantly assaulting the gates of Hell and invading its depths, and they cannot prevail because you are children of the Living God, whose Word quite literally gives you life. The gates of Hell are assaulted wherever the Living Word of God is preached, read, and sung—wherever it is upon your lips and hearts. The devil cannot stand to hear God’s Word upon your lips in prayer, reading, and singing. Wherever the Word of God is, the devil and his demons are overthrown, for the Word made flesh entered his domain and overthrew the devil’s authority. This is why Satan cannot stand the Word wherever it can be heard, because he is powerless against it, because it broke down his gates and destroyed his servant, Death.
We therefore take up our cross not in fear but in triumph—it is our banner that we carry into the gates of Hell to proclaim our victory over it because Christ our King conquered Death, our final enemy. We march through these gates with the battle hymn of Heaven, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:54-55]. For death is now a tailless scorpion and the devil a toothless snake who cannot prevail against the church of Christ our King.
In the Jailhouse Now
Honestly, this is probably the only song that doesn’t have Christological significance. Everett is trying to convince his wife to remain with him while Delmar sings this song that is essentially representative of their own jailhouse story. However, if we wish to stretch metaphors, we could maybe say that the jailhouse in the song represents Hell. After all, it is sin that landed Ramblin’ Bob and the singer in jail—not necessarily the gambling itself but the greed behind the gambling; and sin gone unrepented does land one in Hell. The judge could be God, who sentences the greedy sinner to the jailhouse (Hell). The song ends with “We’re in the jailhouse now” (and some comical yodeling), and the singer does not escape. So is the sentence to Hell once Christ returns.
If this metaphor isn’t too much of a stretch, we can say this song leads us to repentance of our own sins, especially where greed is involved, and especially because the season of Lent is all about repentance and trusting in Christ’s mercy to forgive us our sins. This song, like some of the others, acts as the second use of the Law: a mirror that reveals to us our sins and therefore our need for a Saviour, who is Jesus Christ.
This is a simple song that exhorts repentance, “You got to go to the lonesome valley / You got to go there by yourself / Nobody else can go for you / You go to go there by yourself / Oh, you got to ask the Lord’s forgiveness / Nobody else can ask Him for you.”
And they’re right, of course. Nobody can make you repent and nobody can repent for you. I like the idea of thinking of repentance as a “lonesome valley.” When you repent, it’s just you and God. At times, repentance can be a lonely experience. This song is sung while Everett and gang are about to be hung by Sheriff Cooley, and they begin repenting of their sins before God (and bargaining). Then, miraculously, the Mississippi River floods and saves them, representing God’s deliverance in their repentance.
It’s almost as if they’re baptised. Even though Delmar and Pete were already baptised (and there’s no such thing as “rebaptism”), we can maybe argue that Everett’s miraculous survival is a baptism of sorts (though not a real one). Furthermore, this song and the scene in which it is sung reminds us of our own Baptisms—that God has washed (or “warshed,” as Delmar says) all our sins away, a vital reminder we need during Lent. Even as we repent in the lonesome valley, the Lord washes our sins away.
This last track is a great hymn to end not just for the soundtrack but also for Lent. The lyrics speak of Christ’s redemption:
My latest sun is sinking fast
My race is nearly run
My longest trials now are past
My triumph has begun.
Oh come angel band
Come and around me stand
Oh bear me away on your snow white wings
To my immortal home
Oh bear me away on your snow white wings
To my immortal home
Oh bear my longing heart to Him
Who bled and died for me
Whose blood now cleanses from all sin
And gives me victory…
“My race is nearly run / My triumph has begun” brings to mind 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.” And 1 Corinthians 15:57, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“To my immortal home” brings to mind the verses just before this, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? Who death, where is your sting'” (1 Corinthians 15:53-55)?
“Oh bear me away on your snow white wings” brings to mind Isaiah 40:31, “but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” And perhaps Psalm 91, “He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and buckler… For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (vv. 4, 11-12).
Lastly, “Oh bear my longing hear to Him / Who bled and died for me / Whose blood now cleanses from all sin / And gives me victory” can bring to mind many Scriptures. Some notable ones are 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Ephesians 1:7, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.” Colossians 1:19-20, “For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.” See also Hebrews 9:11-10:25.
The end of this soundtrack, then, leads us all the way to Good Friday and Easter, just as Lent begins with Ash Wednesday with the ashy cross on our foreheads as we bear our crosses all the way to Easter and onwards, trusting in His sacrifice as High Priest—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). In this last track, as well as Lent and all of life, the Gospel predominates.
Marty, Martin. Martin Luther: A Life. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.