I’m a big fan of the songs of Bruce Hornsby, most famous for his work with The Range. Less famously, he was a notable songwriter who wrote massive hits for other artists, like Don Henley and Huey Lewis & The News. One of these hits that Bruce Hornsby wrote for another band was the #1 hit “Jacob’s Ladder.” This is a song that has a pointed religious and political point, and it is a valuable and worthwhile one, especially because of the symbol of Jacob’s ladder. Let’s take a look at the song and what it means and then look at its larger context.
The first verse of “Jacob’s Ladder” goes like this: “I met a fan dancer / Down in South Side Birmingham./ She was running from a fat man / Selling salvation in his hand./ Now he’s trying to save me./ We’ll I’m doing alright the best that I can./ Just another fallen angel / Trying to get through the night .”
The singer clearly identifies himself with the fan dancer, who might be thought of as an immoral person, rather than with fat man selling salvation and trying to save others. There are many ministers I have known personally who live very well–they eat extremely well, live in fancy houses, drive very nice cars. In the United States, it is also very easy to preach a sort of prosperity gospel, where the wealthy (i.e. fat) are presumed to be righteous while the poor are presumed to be wicked. This is the theology of the Statues of Omri  or of Job’s friends, and it is deeply wicked. It is also extremely common in our day and age. It is noteworthy that the song stands firmly against this particular view of Christianity, despite its weaknesses in failing to stand firmly against sin. The singer recognizes himself as a sinner–as a fallen angel (instead of a fallen human being)–but one who struggles to do the best that he can, without succeeding at meeting the godly standard he knows, recognizing that the world is in darkness and not the light.
The second verse continues much the same way: “Coming over the airwaves / The man says I’m overdue. / Sing along, send some money/ Join the chosen few./ Well mister I’m not in a hurry,/ And I don’t want to be like you./ And all I want from tomorrow / Is to get it better than today.”
Here again we see the same sort of contrast being made. The singer shows a very ferocious hostility to the mentality of “pray, pay, stay, and obey ” that fills many churches, where members are to send in their tithes and sing songs and become part of the chosen few without having developed their capacity of reason to make for a godly society. The kind of radical and thorough change that God’s ways demand cannot be done in a hurry. It takes decades, generations even, and God’s span of time is exceedingly long, far longer than the emotional rush of an altar call from a persuasive and impatient man who needs a lot of money now to build some fancy building to glorify his work. In contrast, the singer posits a much more gradual improvement, seeking to be a little better each day–continuous improvement–even if the ultimate goal is a long way off. As a result, the singer (and writer) makes his stand for a belief system that is far different from the prosperity gospel that is so prevalent these days.
The chorus makes this point plain, and brings us into deeply biblical imagery: “Step by step, one by one, higher and higher./ Step by step, rung by rung climbing Jacob’s ladder.” What does it mean to climb Jacob’s ladder? What is the goal of the singer, and is it a reasonable one? Jacob’s ladder itself is referred to in two locations. In the first, in Genesis 28:12-15, Jacob dreams about a ladder and angels are climbing up and down the ladder between earth and heaven, and God speaks down from the top of the ladder. The second time we see Jacob’s ladder is in John 1:51, where the disciple Nathanael is told that he will see angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man .
What we see in the biblical story is that it is the angels who are ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder, not mankind. It would appear that the writer and singer of this song make a pretty basic mistake in assuming that we are angels or that our destiny is to be angels, a very common error within mainstream Christianity, not recognizing that it is our destiny to be far greater than the angels (Hebrews 1 and 2), to be the Sons of God Himself.
Despite the song’s obvious doctrinal errors, it nonetheless offers an important and genuine perspective of faith. All too often the only picture we see of Christianity is a particularly “right-wing” prosperity Gospel, which blames the poor for their poverty, justifies the exploitation of the weak and powerless, praises the wealthy as being godly despite the corrupt means many of them use to acquire and preserve their wealth, and focuses narrowly on personal morality to the total exclusion of principles of social morality. The singer and especially the songwriter come from a more “left-wing” tradition of the social gospel, which tends to focus (as this song indicates, and even more so Hornsby’s other work like “The Way It Is”) on social evils and their cure to the near exclusion of personal morality.
The correct answer, of course, is that God cares deeply about all kinds of evil, and is neither devoted to left-wing or right-wing politics. The answer of whether God is more concerned with personal sins (sexual sins in particular) or economic sins (exploitation and oppression) is a false dilemma. God is deeply concerned with all matters, because all sins are an attack on His rule and His own order for the universe. A song like this does not tell the whole story, but it does provide balance if all we are used to hearing is right-wing prosperity theology. Truth be told, we ought to present a whole and balanced picture that shows the total picture of God’s ways, including both social justice and godly personal morality. Only by showing the full picture of God’s legal and social order can we be fit models for His ways, so that people will not see us as fat men selling second-rate Austrian Economics and peddling it as God’s word . Being models of God’s ways requires us to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom, without being content to be shills for Fox News.