The Bible is a lot of things. An ancient book of history. A source of wisdom. The story of a man named Jesus who fundamentally changed the world.
And, as it turns out, the scriptures also happen to be the inspiration for wailing Jimi Hendrix solos, a Pete Seeger anti-war protest song, and a Lauryn Hill breakup ballad. In fact, the Good Book just may be sitting somewhere in your favorite Spotify playlist right now.
To borrow a line from another classic, I’m the “son of a preacher man.” So I grew up with the scriptures. But my father also raised me on The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. I understand that’s an interesting combination, so maybe it’s just me, but when the Bible and great music come together, it’s a combination as potent and beautiful as a Lennon-McCartney writing credit.
No matter where you fall on scripture—from it’s the inspired word of God, to it’s a dangerous mythology with no place in our modern world—one thing can’t be avoided: The Bible can write a mean song.
Below are some of my favorite scripture-inspired tracks. These were chosen with strict guardrails—the lyrics or content needed to quote directly from the Bible, or tie very closely to it.
While ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” and Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” all feature the main character of the Bible, they didn’t make the cut. The lyrics and stories of those songs can’t be read in the pages of the scriptures. Likewise, we can all agree that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a beautiful song, but it only name-checks biblical characters, rather than telling their stories outright. Same with Regina Spektor’s “Samson,” Lady Gaga’s “Judas,” and Nickel Creek’s “Doubting Thomas.”
Not so with the 12 songs listed below. After listening to them, you could swing open the pages of the nearest Bible and also read them. And, I’ll be honest, I’m hoping you do.
Without further ado, the Bible’s Greatest Hits:
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds
Pete Seeger’s song, made an international hit a decade later by The Byrds, is nearly a line-by-line copy of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 from the King James translation of the Bible. Seeger’s arrangement features only two lines of original content: the title phrase (“turn, turn, turn”) and the closing phrase (“a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”). The book of Ecclesiastes was most likely written by King Solomon of Israel around the 10th century B.C. Seeger’s additional lines and melody turned Solomon’s wisdom about the seasons of life into a powerful anti-war protest song.
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4ga_M5Zdn4
“40” by U2
It’s no secret that the Irish rock band finds plenty of inspiration from faith, but “40” stands alone as their most scripture-based song to date. Its words are taken from the first three verses of Psalm 40, an ancient song written by King David of Israel. The book of Psalms stands apart from the rest of the Bible as Israel’s songbook, used in worship at the temple. “40” was released as the final track on U2’s third album, “War,” and 20 years later continues to be a fan favorite and staple of their live shows. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt6bDAQ6gs8
“Save Me” by Dave Matthews
Raised as a Quaker, questions about God and faith have permeated Dave Matthews’ entire catalogue. But “Save Me,” from his solo album “Some Devil,” stands out as a dramatic retelling of Jesus’ temptation by Satan, recorded in the book of Matthew 4:1-11. Matthews’ lyrics paint himself as a traveler running into Jesus, begging for some salvation of his own. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EADFrvg0Qc
“All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix
Popularized by Jimi Hendrix and written by Bob Dylan, the lyrics draw heavily on imagery found in Isaiah 21:5-9. In the original passage, the writer speaks a prophecy against Babylon, having the news of its fall come from riders approaching and hailing watchers on the walls of Jerusalem. As is the case with Dylan, the lyrics can be interpreted in a myriad of directions, but the connections to the ancient prophecy are hard to miss.
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLV4_xaYynY
“When the Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash
One of the last songs Cash wrote before his death, nearly every line and image is borrowed from the Bible. It begins and ends with Cash reading from Revelation chapter 6; it finds him employing distinctly biblical imagery like golden ladders from heaven and virgins trimming candles, and it finds him quoting Revelation 22 to encourage the unjust and the righteous to remain so. The sparse arrangement and Cash’s failing voice combine to create a powerful and weighty song. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9IfHDi-2EA
“White as Snow” by Jon Foreman
Better known as the frontman for Switchfoot, Jon Foreman’s solo work often finds him taking lyrics directly from the pages of scripture. Case in point, the song “White as Snow” is lifted right from Psalm 51. The original context for the scripture is for King David’s confession and plea for mercy after an adulterous affair ending in murder. Foreman’s arrangement of these ancient words leaves them as timely as ever. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gh3cO1rTtqE
“The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens
The final track on indie-darling Sufjan Stevens’ album “Seven Swans,” this song is a turn-by-turn retelling of the Transfiguration of Christ as recorded in Matthew 17. The mysterious story finds Jesus revealing his divine nature to three of his closest followers and meeting with some long-dead prophets. The whole scene culminates in God’s own voice booming from heaven. In Stevens’ hands, it becomes a beautiful singalong.
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JsaE2yZ1Rs
“Blessed” by Simon and Garfunkel
In Matthew 5, Jesus begins his first public teaching with a list of blessings. The onlookers that day must have been stunned, as Jesus pronounced the blessed were actually the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who were mourning. Simon and Garfunkel borrow this same idea in “Blessed,” beginning with a line from Jesus’ sermon and fleshing out their own list of blessings from there—like “blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” At the end of each chorus, they quote Jesus from the cross (himself quoting from the book of Psalms) with an anguished plea: “O Lord, why have you forsaken me?” Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCVnPIE3juc
“Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M.
Although virtually unknown in America, Euro-Caribbean group Boney M. dominated Europe in the 70s and 80s. Interestingly, it was their disco-reggae take on Psalm 137 (with a little Psalm 19 thrown in for good measure) that propelled them to superstar status. “Rivers of Babylon,” originally performed by Jamaican group The Melodians, was certified platinum upon its release in 1978 and, to this day, continues to be one of the top 10 all-time best-selling singles in the U.K. Not bad for a poem originally written to lament the exile of God’s people in a foreign land. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rA6wmf-MUP8
“Forgive Them Father” by Lauryn Hill
A reinterpretation of Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle,” Hill goes biblical on a song exposing hurt experienced at the hands of those who claim to love her. She begins by borrowing a line from the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us our trespasses” from Matthew 6:12) before moving on to a line Jesus spoke during his crucifixion (“Forgive them father for they know not what they do” found in Luke 23:34). Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1SS7SMwWCg
“Romans 10:9” by The Mountain Goats
Prolific songwriter John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats found inspiration in the Bible for the band’s 2009 release “The Life of the World to Come.” All 12 songs on the album are based on, and named after, chapter and verse from the scriptures. But you shouldn’t expect a clear path between the lyrics and the scripture that inspired it. In this song, for example, the life of the narrator is falling apart all around him. His response is to blindly quote this scripture (“If you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart…you will be saved”) and press on, waiting for a salvation that seems to never come. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=be-SfZwJxlE
“Leviathan” by Josh Garrels
Featured on the Portland-based singer-songwriter’s 2016 release “Home,” “Leviathan” is steeped in ancient, Old Testament imagery—especially from the book of Job. His question, “Who can tame Leviathan” is taken from Job 41, while the conclusion of the short song, “Yahweh gives and takes away” is pulled from Job 1:21. The song, like the ancient book of Job that inspired it, confronts one of humanity’s oldest questions: Why do we suffer? And like Job, the answer doesn’t come tied up in a bow at the end. Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px_uZhLx1GM
Want a little more Bible in your headphones? Click here to access a Spotify playlist including all the songs featured above.