God’s Red Right Hand

red right hand

There are a few songs that have fascinated me for years from a lyrical viewpoint. One is the traditional folk song The House of the Rising Sun, probably best known by The Animals 1964 recording. It describes a man’s life of “sin and misery” that he can’t seem to escape, always returning to “wear that ball and chain”. 

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 

Another is Red Right Hand by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It tells the story of a sinister figure who stalks the edge of town, taking the form of “a tall handsome man in a dusty black coat with a red right hand”. He can comfort you, heal your soul, get you whatever you need. Yet he seems to cast a shadow “wherever he stands” and “he ain’t what he seems”. He appears in your nightmares we well as your dreams. In fact, you’ll start to see him everywhere, like inside your head and even on the TV screen.  

He’s a ghost, he’s a god 

He’s a man, he’s a guru 

You’re one microscopic cog 

In his catastrophic plan 

Designed and directed 

By his red right hand 

John Milton and Horace 

The reference to a red right hand can be traced at least as far back as John Milton in Book 2 of Paradise Lost. These words come from the mouth of the fallen angel Belial, during an infernal discussion about what course of action they should now take, since God threw them out of heaven. Some, like Molech, propose open warfare. Others, like Belial, argue that they should do nothing that would make their situation is made even worse. 

What when we fled amain, pursued and struck 

With Heaven’s afflicting thunder, and besought 

The Deep to shelter us? This Hell then seemed 

A refuge from those wounds. Or when we lay 

Chained on the burning lake? That sure was worse. 

What if the breath that kindled those grim fires, 

Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage, 

And plunge us in the flames; or from above 

Should intermitted vengeance arm again 

His red right hand to plague us? 

Yet others trace it further back to the Roman poet Horace. He uses the phrase “rubente dextera” or red right hand in an ode To Agustus Caesar (The First Book of the Odes of Horace: Ode 2). 

Enough of snow and dreadful hail has the Sire now sent upon the earth, and having hurled [his thunderbolts] with his red right hand against the sacred towers, he has terrified the city; he has terrified the nations, lest the grievous age of Pyrrha, complaining of prodigies till then unheard of, should return, when Proteus drove all his [marine] herd to visit the lofty mountains; and the fishy race were entangled in the elm top, which before was the frequented seat of doves; and the timorous deer swam in the overwhelming flood. 

The Redness of Burning and Blood 

It may be that Nick Cave got this phrase from Milton or Horace, even both of them. But I’d like to suggest another possible source: the Bible, and the King James Version at that. We know for a fact that Cave is a keen reader of the Bible, and that many of his other songs reflect its imagery and cadence. For example, the title of his other signature song, The Mercy Seat, is a phrase directly taken from the Old Testament, as is its reference to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. 

However, the phrase ‘red right hand’ does not exist in one single verse of the Bible. You have to put a few phrases together. There are many references to God’s right hand, and it is always spoken of in terms of power and violence. 

Thy right hand, O LORD, is become glorious in power: thy right hand, O LORD, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.

Exodus 15:6

Why do You withdraw Your hand, even Your right hand? Take it out of Your bosom and destroy them.

Psalm 74:11

Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand.

Psalm 89:13

But there’s more than this. There are many verses that relate God’s right hand to fire, with its connection to the redness of burning

Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies: thy right hand shall find out those that hate thee. Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. Psalm 21:8-9 

Psalm 21:8-9

There are two passages in particular that take it even further, connecting the hand of God with the redness of wrath, wine and blood

For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them.

Psalm 78:8 (see also Jeremiah 25:15)

Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment…[Where is he] That led them by the right hand of Moses with his glorious arm, dividing the water before them, to make himself an everlasting name?

Isaiah 63:2-3, 12

The Right-Hand Side of God 

Not all references to God’s right hand are so horrific. In general, the right hand of God is a metaphor in the biblical literature and art for God’s omnipotence. It’s similar in meaning to a related phrase that describes God’s power to save his people: “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”. 

This almighty power can be used to strike down his enemies but also to lift up his friends. 

Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand

Isaiah 41:10

In Bible times, to be put at someone’s right hand is a mark of honour and closeness. Jesus himself, after his resurrection, is seated at the right hand of his Father (Acts 2:34; 7:55). In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the sheep are separated from the goats and placed at God’s right side (Matthew 25:33).  

The fear factor of God’s red right hand very much depends on whether you’re a good seed or a bad one. 

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

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