Originally, for the next lyrics post, I was going to cover Where The Streets Have No Name. But when I woke up the day before Easter, I was up too early and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I checked U2 Radio just for the heck of it and saw a post on Until The End of the World.
I usually would try to avoid covering a song that somebody else has been talking about recently, but in this case, I can’t help myself. I just really, really like that song and now I can’t get it out of my head.
When I first started obsessing over U2, one of the first things I did was check their discography to see what albums they had, because I knew that they had to have made more than just the four I had. And sure enough, they had a lot more. I went over each one and looked up the theme of each album, and when I first researched Achtung Baby, my thought process was about the same as it was when I first heard Zoo Station: “Ehhhhh…”
I had one of those moments where I really liked the concept behind it, and I really *wanted* to like the music, but I just couldn’t really make myself do it. As someone who’s been a country music aficionado for pretty much literally my entire life, I found ZooTV a little…inaccessible.
(Note: After being thoroughly indoctrinated, I now enjoy ZooTV very much. I guess a little personal growth never hurt anybody.)
However, there was one song to which I could attach myself right from the beginning. Well, I could attach to the spirit behind it, anyway, even if I found the ’90s techno a little…disconcerting.
That song was, of course, UTEOTW. (I use abbreviations now. I feel so cool.)
Actually, I had to research the song after the first time I heard it because I had trouble understanding what Bono was saying in some places. (In my defense, I have bad hearing.) But once it clicked for me, “Oh! This song is about the Last Supper,” then suddenly I felt a lot less guilty about turning on my country and bluegrass roots by listening to a ’90s techno album.
Which is ironic, because apparently this song is a guilty pleasure for some specifically because it *is* about Jesus and Judas.
I guess I have a different opinion on Judas than most people, and my opinion gives my interpretation of this song a different texture than most people’s analyses.
You see, I don’t really think that Judas was evil. *waits patiently for the wave of insults and accusations to pass*
Hear me out.
I believe in hating the sin and not the sinner. It’s hard for me to not take pity on Judas, especially when he showed his remorse by hanging himself (see Matthew 27:3-9).
Judas was a human man. He had a weakness, and the Devil exploited it. Judas made a choice and gave in to temptation, but was he evil?
This seems to be one of the themes explored in Until The End of the World, and because my interpretation of these lyrics depends on this question, allow me to take a moment to explain what my research has told me about Judas and his character.
Judas is referred to with the last name “Iscariot.” There are different theories as to what “Iscariot” actually means; however, the theory that seems the most likely to me is that “Iscariot” comes from the Latin word “Sicarius.” It makes sense to me that Judas was a Sicarius because the Sicarii were a sect of radical Jews akin to the Zealots who were bent on overthrowing Roman rule. They were fond of attending public gatherings, stabbing Roman officials, and then disappearing into the crowd. They would also attack high-ranking Jewish officials in attempts to force a revolt.
Think about it: if Judas was part of a group of insurgents, and he just found out that he’d met the Messiah, he probably would expect Him to crush the Romans and restore the glory of Israel, just as the Jews had hoped. When Jesus began preaching about peace and loving your enemies, it probably was a blow to the things he believed in, but Judas may have still held out hope. But what happened when Jesus began to speak of suffering and death, and how the Messiah had to die? That wouldn’t be something that Judas would want to hear.
In short, Judas is a much more complex guy than everyone gives him credit for, and for the purpose of this interpretation, I’ll assume that Judas was a Sicarius in turmoil.
(But if you want more info, you can check out NewAdvent.org and Ichthys.com, along with a Telegraph article by Peter Stanford and a United Methodist News Service article by Heather Hahn.)
*gets off soap box and looks over the lyrics*
The song opens with “Haven’t seen you in quite a while. I was down the hold just passing time.”
To my Methodist ears, that’s a bit of a red flag, because at first, “the hold” sounds a bit like Purgatory, and I personally don’t believe in Purgatory. (Disclaimer: This is all just my personal opinion. You know that, right?)
However, on further examination, I don’t think it’s actually a reference to Purgatory.
What seems to make more sense to me is that this is before Judas’ betrayal, not after his death. This song follows the timeline of Judas’ last days. The first two lines say that he hadn’t seen Jesus “in quite a while,” but the next line is “Last time we met, it was a low-lit room,” and then the lyrics go on to describe the Last Supper. Therefore, the first verse takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before Judas betrays Jesus. The second verse takes place during the betrayal, and the third verse details Judas’ suicide.
So during the first two lines, Judas is approaching Jesus in the Garden. Being “in the hold” could be Judas’ euphemism for “meeting with the chief priests.”
To supplement the album version, I watched two live videos for this analysis: the Slane Castle version and the Live from Sydney version. In the Sydney version, Bono actually sings “killing time” instead of “passing,” which packs a greater punch, as it foreshadows the betrayal.
The next lines describe the Last Supper: “Last time we met, it was a low-lit room. We were as close together as a bride and groom.”
The description of a dim room and closeness actually fit pretty well with what a dinner at the time would be like. They would’ve been reclining, and seated fairly low to the ground. In addition, the whole “bride and groom” thing is really no cause for alarm. In the culture and time period of the Twelve Disciples, men were basically, well, bros. It would have been normal for a bunch of unrelated guys to be such close friends that they ate, drank, travelled, and lived together. The relationship would have been one of brotherhood. In the 21st century, we see intimate friendships, especially intimate male friendships, in a different context than they did in Biblical times, so it’s important that we look at the events of the Bible from the vantage point of Biblical culture instead of looking at things completely from our modern perspective.
Next, Judas describes the first Communion, and this is another point where the Sydney version throws in a twist. The original lyric says, “We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time except you. You were talking about the end of the world.” This makes sense because the “You” refers to Jesus, who spoke at the Last Supper about his upcoming death. However, ZooTV’s Judas shouts: “Except me! I’m still talking about the end of the world.”
This changed lyric fits the song as well, because Judas was planning the death Jesus was speaking of, and he spoke with Jesus about it after he dipped his hand in the bowl and said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” (Matthew 26:25)
The next lines are almost a confession: “I took the money, I spiked your drink.”
Note that Bono is singing this song in the first person. Judas is saying, “I did this to you. I am the one that betrayed you.” Judas is taking responsibility for his actions. In some ways, admitting his mistakes makes him more human. In addition, using modern slang like spiking drinks and, in a later line, “playing the tart,” gives the story of Judas relevance for the modern world: any of us could have been Judas.
After Judas owns up to his actions, though, he tries to justify himself in the next two lines by saying, “You miss too much these days if you start to think. You led me on with those innocent eyes. You know I love the element of surprise.”
To me, this just screams “Sicarius.” If Judas really was a Zealot hit man, then he really would have felt that Jesus had led him on with talk of being the Messiah, while the whole time Jesus knew that He was going to be innocent, and not coming to overthrow Rome. (In addition, it makes sense that a thief and assassin would love the element of surprise, and generally speaking, Zealots weren’t known for rational thinking.)
At this point, we are firmly entrenched in the Garden of Gethsemane, and this is the part where Judas finally gives in and betrays Jesus. “In the garden, I was playing the tart. I kissed your lips and broke your heart. You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.”
Again, this is another part where it’s necessary to look at cultural context. Bono uses modern language to bring Judas and his story closer to us, but historically speaking, kisses were a completely acceptable form of greeting between, well, everybody in Jesus’ culture. Men, women, relatives, friends… It didn’t really matter. Non-romantic kissing was just as common and normal as romantic kissing (perhaps more so).
Anyway, we have yet another point where ZooTV Judas diverges from the other versions: In Sydney, Bono added an extra line: “It’s not the end of the world.”
How true is that?! Even though Judas had no way of knowing this at the time he betrayed Jesus, all of us know that Jesus’ death was definitely not the end of the story.
Next up is the bridge, the repeated shouts of “Love!”
And in ZooTV, this is about the time where Bono begins his slightly—okay, very—bizarre antics with the video camera.
To me, Bono’s shenanigans (if you’ll pardon the engineering parlance) seem like a reflection of the struggle with temptation. This is a rock song, after all, and rock deals with sensuality and sensationalism as much as spirituality. Judas has become in our culture an icon of darkness, temptation, and sin. Bono’s…erm…I’m running out of synonyms for shenanigans…Bono’s craic with the video camera is a manifestation of that inner conflict that exists in all of us.
In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone writer Jann Werner, Bono said, “People are always forcing you to make decisions between flesh and spirit. Whereas I want to dance myself in the direction of God. I go out drinking with God. I am flirtatious in the company of God. I am not a person who has to put God out of his mind to go out on the town. It’s a key point. The divided soul of Marvin Gaye, Elvis — these conflicts tore them apart. And they don’t tear me apart. I reckon God loves all of me.”
My interpretation of Bono’s goings-on with the camera—and his general style of performing all through the Achtung Baby era—is that he’s looking at our modern world where temptation is everywhere and offering instant gratification (another meaning behind “You miss too much these days if you start to think?”). His actions here could easily be an example of him making a statement about a world where everything is portrayed—or rather, jazzed up by the media—as being *either* secular or religious and *either* good or bad, with no in-betweens or compromises.
Now that that’s taken care of, the next section to look at is the third and final verse. The one that, apparently, is the most problematic. Which is awkward, because it’s actually my favorite part of the song…
The first few lines of the last verse go like this: “In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows. But my sorrows, they’d learned to swim. Surrounding me, going down on me, spilling over the brim.”
I always figured that those lines were a straight-up description of Judas’ suicide. Judas was remorseful, sorrowful, and he tried to return the coins he’d been paid with, but it didn’t help him; he still hanged himself. He realized that he had betrayed innocent blood, and the guilt was crushing him.
As for the spilling over the brim part, I interpret that as being a way of saying that his remorse was out of control. The imagery here could also be an allusion to Psalm 23:5, where David says, “My cup runneth over.”
And, after further research, I found out from Acts 1:18 that after Judas hanged himself, his decomposing body fell to the ground and burst open (you’re welcome for that pleasant imagery). So the spilling over the brim could possibly even refer to Judas’ lost organs.
Moving away from the grotesque stuff now, the next lines are: “Waves of regret and waves of joy. I reached out for the one I tried to destroy. You, you said you’d wait until the end of the world.”
To me, this sounds like a happy ending for Judas. The waves of regret obviously refer to his guilt and shame over betraying Jesus, but the waves of joy sound to me like he’s seeing heaven after he died. In addition, in Jewish culture, committing suicide was actually an act of honor in certain circumstances. Thus, for Judas, suicide was likely both a relief from emotional turmoil and a path to redemption.
Reaching out for the one he tried to destroy, i.e. Jesus, also sounds to me like repentance, like he’s making things right with God.
I have difficulty believing that if someone reached out to God, He’d say no.
And the last line definitely sounds like Matthew 28:20, where Jesus says, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the world.”
These words are an inspiring message for all of us—maybe even for Judas.
Because Jesus will wait, until the very end if necessary, for all of us to return to Him, and when we return, He will never leave us alone.
When I was about three-quarters of the way finished with this article, I went back and read the U2: Into The Heart entry on Until The End of the World. I hadn’t gotten that far into the book yet, and when I read that part, my initial reaction was this: “Where did that come from?!”
Because honestly, I don’t see it.
For those of you who haven’t read U2: Into The Heart, the book basically says that this song is all about sex.
And I don’t buy any of it.
I’m still brand-new to U2, so I know nothing about Niall Stokes other than what I read in the book, so I don’t know if he came up with that interpretation on his own or if he heard it from another writer or if he got it from Bono himself. But wherever that idea came from, I refuse to let Niall Stokes or anyone else guilt me into removing this song from my road trip playlist. Even if Bono intended for this song to be about all those things that Stokes says it is, I don’t think that matters.
I like this song, and I like the message that I hear when I listen to it—with my own ideas, not anyone else’s.
When I hear that unmistakable intro, I think of a redemption story.
I think that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a rocking horse is a rocking horse, and Judas Iscariot is Judas Sicarius.
But the end of the day (or at the end of the world), it doesn’t really matter what I think about this song, or what Stokes thinks about this song, or even what Bono thinks about this song. What matters is what *you* get out of it when you listen to it and think about it. What *you* hear is what you should judge the song on.
And if you don’t like this song, that’s okay.
Because after all, is this song really the end of the world?