When writing an epic rock song, the finished product must satisfy certain expectations. For example, hits should feature a memorable melody and a catchy rhythm that stays with the listener long after the song has ended, per Master Class. When it comes to lyrics, few subjects prove off-limits. And songwriters have borrowed from other artists, mining the best of various genres, and even turning to ancient literature to spark new ideas. So, it’s no surprise rock lyricists have scoured the Bible to find some of their most iconic verses and stories. According to the Washington Times, the Bible has influenced literature, music, and artwork in America for centuries.
Biblical influences are most evident in songs like The Byrds’ "Turn! Turn! Turn!" quoting directly from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. But the references don’t end there. You’ll also find veiled references to both the Old and New Testaments in songs by the Beastie Boys, Metallica, The Killers, Aerosmith, and more. How prevalent these references prove depends on the songwriter and their ultimate goals for a given song. Here’s what you need to know about rock songs inspired by the Bible.
Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
One of the most prominent examples of a rock song ripped from the verses of the Bible is the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by The Byrds, per Far Out Magazine. Released on October 1, 1965, the song hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard Chart. The Byrds ripped the lyrics straight out of the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes, per The Christian Science Monitor, although Pete Seeger noted the group added the line "I swear it’s not too late," referring to peace. This non-Biblical line supports the song’s robust anti-war message.
But you may be surprised to learn that The Byrds weren’t the first band to perform this song. It all started with The Limeliters, a folk group that debuted the song on 1962’s album "Folk Matinee." But instead of calling it "Turn! Turn! Turn!," The Limeliters titled their version "To Everything There Is a Season." The song came out a few months before the Byrds’ version, thanks to Roger McGuinn who performed with both groups.
Before "Turn! Turn! Turn!" became synonymous with The Byrds, McGuinn also arranged it for Judy Collins. In this arrangement, McGuinn first used the title the song is now associated with. But The Byrds’ version proved the most successful because of the band’s ability to add a psychedelic flavor to the folksy hit.
Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen
With his Jewish background and affinity for Israel, it’s no surprise that Leonard Cohen would turn to the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible for song inspiration (via AISH). According to Haaretz, such is the case with 1969’s "Story of Isaac." It explores the tale found in Genesis of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, before stopping him and providing a ram instead.
Written in 1969, the "Story of Isaac" presents the story of Abraham and Isaac from the point of view of Isaac, as reported by The Jewish News of Northern California. Cohen gives Isaac a voice not seen in the Biblical account. This includes the suggestion of conflicting emotions — total faith and complete terror — on the part of Isaac. Cohen also chose to present Isaac as a small child rather than the grown adult that many rabbis and teachers believe he was at that point in the story.
One of the ways Cohen increases tensions in the song is by emphasizing the boy’s confusion in the face of obedience unto death. This is characterized by the eagle and the vulture symbols, with the eagle representing life and the vulture ominously alluding to death.
Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan would become a born-again Christian for three years between 1979 and 1981, and he put out a couple of gospel albums, per the Independent. But he was born and raised Jewish, having changed his name from Robert Zimmerman (via Call It What You Will).
In "Highway 61 Revisited," he explores the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac like Leonard Cohen. Some critics believe this was his attempt to come to terms with his Jewish heritage within the context of his artistic aspirations. He also explores the impulse of the 1960s to eschew tradition through a counterculture.
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to interpreting this song. According to Jewish Ideas, Dylan also uses the story’s setting to highlight the absurd nature of politics in the United States. In other words, there are multiple ways to translate this song. The lyrics even include allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Dylan uses these Biblical references to point back to what he perceives as the ultimate evil — America’s consumer-obsessed capitalism.
Creeping Death by Metallica
In 1984, Metallica put out the album "Ride the Lightning," featuring the song "Creeping Death" (via Ultimate Classic Rock). Written from the point of view of the Angel of Death described in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, it’s one of the most dread-evoking Passover songs in existence. Passover is celebrated in the Jewish faith and refers to the tenth plague visited on the Egyptians, resulting in the deaths of all first-born sons and cattle.
The band’s inspiration for the song came while working on the album "Ride the Lightning" in Denmark. At one point, they watched 1956’s "The Ten Commandments" starring Charlton Heston. In the film, a fog effect depicts the tenth plague. Although entirely theatrical, it creates a clear image of the "creeping death" that devastated Egypt.
With this imagery in mind, Metallica got to work. Soon, James Hetfield had developed lyrics that put words in the mouth of the Angel of Death: "Slaves, Hebrews, born to serve the pharaoh / Heed to his every word, live in fear / So let it be written, so let it be done / To kill the first-born pharaoh son / I’m Creeping Death." Inspired by the drama of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, the soon-to-be heavy metal giants had stumbled upon their first legendary hit, per Louder Sound.
Shadrach by the Beastie Boys
"Shadrach" debuted in 1989 on the Beastie Boys’ album "Paul’s Boutique," and it makes direct reference to the Book of Daniel, according to Aquarium Drunkard. It explores the story of the three Hebrews — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — who refuse to worship the statue built by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The king condemns the three youths to a horrific death inside a fiery furnace in retaliation. But when the men get forced inside, a miracle occurs. Not only do they remain untouched by the flames of the fire, but a fourth man appears with them.
In the Beastie Boys version, the iconoclastic rap trio fashions themselves as modern-day versions of the rebellious Hebrew men. According to Pop Matters, the band manages to pull this comparison off without sounding over-the-top. That’s quite an achievement for a band comparing themselves to Biblical characters. They also pack their song with plenty of literary and pop-culture allusions. These include diverse references to everything from J.D. Salinger to Charles Dickens, Batman to AC/DC.
The song doesn’t explicitly state how the Beastie Boys ultimately relate to the three Hebrews. But the contrast does get minds thinking. Maybe it refers to the band’s outspoken stance against intolerance. Or, perhaps it’s got more to do with the place rap occupies in the contemporary sphere. There are likely associations with the Beastie Boys’ identity as Jewish men from Brooklyn and their unlikely role in the hip hop scene, too.
Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk by Pink Floyd
Pink Floyd’s 1967 album "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" represents a fun romp with acid rock that would change the face of music for the better. According to Far Out Magazine, this album remains one of the band’s most significant works.
On the album, there’s only one song credit for bassist Roger Waters, the track "Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk" (via Bill Kopp’s "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to the Dark Side of the Moon.") The song features veiled allusions to one of the New Testament’s most famous and miraculous stories. Found in John 5:8, it describes the episode where Jesus heals a paralytic man who has spent years sitting on a mat. Then, he tells the healed man to pick up his mat and walk.
The song communicates a fascination with the Bible, and it also indicates the obsession Waters would develop regarding medical and biological matters. These themes would be explored in greater depth, in collaboration with Ron Geesin, in songs that dropped in 1970. What’s more, Waters continued mining the Bible for verses and stories that inspired him. This is obvious in "Dark Side of the Moon," where he pulls material from the Old Testament’s wisdom literature, the Book of Ecclesiastes.
The Calling by The Killers
The disco-rock hit "The Calling" by The Killers appears on their fifth album, "Wonderful, Wonderful" (via The Guardian). Caravaggio’s painting "The Calling of Saint Matthew" initially sparked this song, and Caravaggio’s painting, in turn, drew inspiration from the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew.
In a nod to the source material, The Killers asked Woody Harrelson to read verses Matthew 9:10-12 for the track. These verses tell the story of Jesus supping with sinners and tax collectors before the Pharisees question why he keeps such company. Jesus’ response remains iconic, "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick" (via Uproxx).
According to Billboard, the band uses the recording of Harrelson’s voice to introduce the song during live performances. It proves effective as the actor’s highly recognizable voice fades into organ playing and then a gospel- and blues-inspired work. Brandon Flowers comes in with vocals that mention Biblical concepts, including the Kingdom of God. These references allude to the band’s Mormon roots and have helped earn them the reputation of playing what The Guardian describes as "sleazy religious rock."
Adam’s Apple by Aerosmith
This list wouldn’t be complete without taking about Aerosmith. The band has long been known for their raunchy, sexual innuendos, which proves no less true when making Biblical allusions. According to VH1, Steven Tyler wrote and arranged "Adam’s Apple," a re-telling of the Fall from Paradise story of Adam and Eve as found in Genesis 3.
Of course, Tyler’s take on the age-old story includes sassy one-liners and metaphors about sexual awakening. Coupled with Joe Perry’s incredible guitar lead, it’s simultaneously cheeky and sensual. Tyler’s lyrics exemplify this mood: "Man he was believer/ Lady was deceiver / So the story goes but you see / That snake was he / She just climbed right up his tree."
One of the main themes of this song is the concept of temptation. And it just goes to show that people have been struggling with the same ideas for millennia. But Steven Tyler makes it an especially entertaining and irreverent take on Original Sin with all of his delicious and naughty double-entendres (via Thomas Erlewine’s "All Music Guide Required Listening: Classic Rock").
Adam Raised a Cain by Bruce Springsteen
One of the Old Testament’s grimmest and most shocking stories takes place in Genesis 4 and involves two brothers, Cain and Abel, per Britannica. It has plenty to say about humanity and familial relationships, and none of it proves particularly pleasant. The tale describes the disintegration of the two brothers’ relationship, culminating in the brutal murder of Abel by Cain. But few people use this anecdote to focus on Adam’s role in the whole scenario.
That’s where Bruce Springsteen comes in. "Adam Raised a Cain" appears on Springsteen’s album "Darkness on the Edge of Town," per Northeast Public Radio. He uses the source material to explore father-son relationships and the familiar plot to explore profound questions like how much we can and can’t escape from the image of our parents. After all, Cain was a byproduct of his father, Adam, to various degrees. The result is a dark song hinting at the human condition’s vast complexities.
In a 1978 interview with Creem magazine, Springsteen talked about how he used the Bible as inspiration: "I was thinking of writing that particular song, and I went back trying to get a feeling for it" (via American Songwriter). He also delves into one of Cain’s most famous lines about whether he’s his brother’s keeper. According to The Times of Israel, Springsteen indicates that we’re all one another’s keepers.
Get Out of Your Own Way by U2
As an Irish band with strong Roman Catholic roots, it’s no surprise that the Bible has influenced U2’s songs. In "Get Out of Your Own Way," the band turned to the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-11), per Genius. These verses, which come from the New Testament, are meant to instruct the people to deal with one another compassionately. The Beatitudes also offered comfort to those feeling downtrodden, including the impoverished, the humble, and the mourners.
But U2 turns the Beatitudes on their head, showcasing the values running 21st-century society. "Blessed are the arrogant: for theirs is the kingdom of their own company / Blessed are the superstars: for in the magnificence of their light we understand better our own insignificance / Blessed are the filthy rich: for you can only truly own what you give away, like your pain." Dash House has dubbed these lines the anti-Beatitudes. These verses go against the spirit of the original message and represent an indictment of contemporary culture.
U2 collaborated with Kendrick Lamar on this track, and his voice reads the anti-Beatitudes as an outro. Interestingly, Lamar chose not to rap these lines. Instead, he speaks them, resulting in a preaching quality. The outro cuts off early, giving the impression it flows into the next song. Ultimately, "Get Out of Your Own Way" calls out the underbelly of contemporary culture, including its celebration of wealth, fame, and arrogance.
Holy Diver by Dio
After Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio fronted Black Sabbath until his own dramatic departure. Going solo, he wrote "Holy Diver" in 1982 (via Louder Sound). The song contains plenty of religious allusions, with some people seeing it as a description of Jesus’ Harrowing of Hell, per Rocking in the Norselands. Christianity reports the Harrowing of Hell refers to the period between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection when Jesus descended into Hades and … well, gave it hell. But others see a more nefarious tale in Dio’s lyrics, namely the fall of Satan from Heaven.
Dio never cared much about clarifying his song lyrics. In a 2004 interview with Banger, he urged people to use their imaginations (via Rocking in the Norselands). But in that same interview, he did open up a bit about the imagery that filled his head when he wrote it, "Holy Diver is a religious song, based on a religious attitude … about a Christ figure who is in another place — not Earth — and who has done exactly the same there as we apparently experienced on Earth."
Whatever the ultimate meaning of "Holy Diver," the song became an instant hit and remains a classic today. This despite one of the few things that Dio definitively said about it — that it highlighted the selfishness of humanity. One thing’s for sure. It cemented Dio’s reputation in heavy metal despite his bitter parting with Black Sabbath.
Prodigal Son by The Rolling Stones
In 1929, Reverend Robert Wilkins sang about the Prodigal Son in "That’s No Way to Get Along," according to Goldmine Magazine. Inspired by the famed parable that Jesus used to teach the crowds, Wilkins’ song saw several reincarnations by other performing groups. Among the most famous would be the Rolling Stones’ cover.
But in an ironic twist, the Rolling Stones lifted the song from The Reverend Robert Wilkins without giving the country-blues singer any credit, per Stephen Davis’ "Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones." Apparently, they skipped Exodus 20:15 and the seventh of the Ten Commandments, "You shall not steal." This is especially rich considering the song details the main character running off with his father’s money. After flagrantly spending it all, the son returns home impoverished and ashamed.
Like Wilkins’ original version, the Rolling Stones use spare instrumentation throughout the song. And Mick Jagger even affects a slight accent in keeping with the Southern Blues atmosphere (via Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon’s "The Rolling Stones: All the Songs"). Because Wilkins was still alive, kicking, and performing at Blues festivals when the Rolling Stones stole his song, they got in trouble for nabbing his work. The debacle prompted Wilkins to record an album entitled the "Original Rolling Stone," which includes his song renamed "Prodigal Son," as reported by Goldmine Magazine.
Rock of Ages by Def Leppard
In 1983, Def Leppard pursued a bombastic, unwieldy metal sound, and they turned to the Bible for supporting lyrics. That year, they released the album "Pyromania," featuring their hit song "Rock of Ages," an over-the-top rock anthem heavy on cowbell (shout out to Will Ferrell fans), per VH1.
In an interview with VH1, Joe Elliott recalled having the music prepared but no lyrics. He explained, "We let somebody use the studio the night before, and they held a Bible study session. A Bible was left in the studio open to the hymn ‘Rock of Ages.’ So, I picked it up and started singing." The rest would be history. Elliott’s bandmates heard him singing and realized he had the chorus for their next metal anthem.
Besides the Biblical verses in the song, "Rock of Ages" gave birth to one of the great mysteries of headbanger music thanks to the song’s intro, "Gunter glieben glauten globen." (Offspring fans should also be familiar with this bit of Germanic blather as it opens "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"). Although people have long wondered what these words mean, Ultimate Classic Rock reports the answer is both whimsical and frustratingly simple. According to drummer Rick Allen, their producer Mutt Lange had grown tired of counting off "one, two, three, four" during recording sessions. To change things up, he invented the alternative gibberish you hear at the beginning of the recording.
The Fallen by Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos is known for writing confusing song lyrics. Even he has to explain verse meanings to his bandmates, as bassist Bob Hardy confided during an interview with MTV. Kapranos draws inspiration from varied sources for songwriting inspiration, from locals they’ve encountered in their native Glasgow, Scotland, to passages from the Bible.
Kapranos has given two interpretations for "The Fallen" in interviews with various publications. The song features allusions to events from the life of Jesus as told by the four Gospels. He told MTV that the song represents a fantasy of what Jesus would do if he came back to the Earth today … with a catch. The catch is Jesus is reimagined as one of the many characters from the band’s native Scotland. Kapranos explains it’s about "what he’d do and imagining him coming back and turning the rich into wine and drinking them and walking on the mean and maybe getting on Mary Magdalene."
Spin reports that "The Fallen" also chronicles an oddly traumatic incident that happened in Glasgow. The band recalls a musician acquaintance who asked Kapranos to give him a black eye. Soon, people in the pub where this happened lined up to punch the guy. His face and shirt bloodied by all the attention, Kapranos ended up passing out since he couldn’t stand the sight of the red stuff.
The Prophet’s Song by Queen
Brian May of Queen wrote the lyrics to "The Prophet’s Song" after having a dream about something like a worldwide flood, according to Louder Sound. May recalls, "In the dream, people were walking on the streets trying to touch each other’s hands, desperate to try to make some sign that they were caring about other people."
This dream about a universal natural disaster brought to mind Old Testament-inspired references and phraseology, which May liberally sprinkled throughout his lyrics. When it was all said and done, Queen crafted a bombastic 8-minute song filled with theatricality and plenty of change-ups (via the Associated Press).
Initially written in four different parts, this origin provides insights into some of its randomness, rocketing from gentle guitar strumming to heavy plucked sections, layered vocals with arpeggiated guitar riffs to one of the band’s characteristic acapella sections. Perhaps this is why Daniel Ross in "Queen FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Britain’s Most Eccentric Band" compares it to "Bohemian Rhapsody" because of its crazy technical elements. Only it’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" with a Biblical twist.
The Writing on the Wall by Iron Maiden
Bruce Dickinson’s brainchild is "The Writing on the Wall," and it’s got all of the technical mastery and epic lyrics you’d expect from one of heavy metal’s greatest bands, as reported by Polygon. Co-written with bandmate Adrian Smith (guitar), it warns about what happens to those who don’t understand when the tides change and get caught up in the waves (via NPR).
The video has received more than 11 million YouTube views as fans have scoured the footage looking for clues and hidden messages. The video is animated and contains plenty of Biblical imagery in keeping with the inspiration for the song. It also runs thick with metal esthetics, from the post-apocalyptic setting to the band’s mascot, Eddie, portrayed as a hybrid robot samurai.
More particularly, the song is based on the Old Testament’s "Book of Daniel" and tells the story of Belshazzar’s Feast. During the feast, Belshazzar had the silver and gold vessels raided from the Jewish temple a generation earlier brought out to be used for drinking and eating (via Daniel 5:30). This proved a no-no for holy vessels consecrated to God. Suddenly, a supernatural hand wrote a judgment on the wall that only the Prophet Daniel could decipher. A portion of the ominous statement read, "You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting."