My Empire of Dirt

All is vanity….but God is the one you must fear (paraphrased from Ecclesiastes 1 and 5).

A few years ago, just months before he died, Johnny Cash covered the song “Hurt,” by Nine Inch Nails. The meaning of the song is debated. Originally an alleged suicide note, Cash’s version has been named an epitaph to his life, but I believe it is more than that. It’s a gospel song, even if it wasn’t written with that intent, and I’ll attempt to prove that here, or at least argue that the theme heavily alludes to our depravity apart from Christ, the futility worshiping ourselves, and the glory of the Cross and what Christ did for us there.

As the first verse implies, to ignore the hurt and the emptiness we feel, we often turn to crutches. We “try to kill it all away,” but when the drug wears off, or the credit card gets maxed out, or the box of chocolate is empty, or person we trusted lets us down, we “remember everything.” We can’t ultimately hide from our sin and idolatry, and we will always come to the end of ourselves. This pattern, without the hope that is found in the redeeming love of Jesus, leads to death.

God spoke to this through the prophet Hosea:

They made kings, but not through me.

They set up princes, but I knew it not.

With their silver and gold they made idols

for their own destruction

(Hosea 8:4, emphasis mine)

The plaintive chorus cries out to “my sweetest friend” (Christ). The speaker offers up his “empire of dirt,” realizing that all he has done, all he has collected, every idol he has served, and every dollar he made, spiritually amounts to nothing (“Everyone I know goes away in the end”).

The final line of the chorus, “I will make you hurt,” alludes to the truth that the depravity of the hearts of all Mankind led our God to sacrifice His Son for us. In his mercy, he gave us eternal life. Jesus willingly went to death on our behalf.

Because of this, our song doesn’t end with our guilt and the meaninglessness of life. Even this song ends with hope of “starting again.”

When God looks at us, he no longer sees the empire of dirt that we are.

He sees His Son, Christ. He sees us as clean.

My prayer is that I would remember the futility of my “empire of dirt” and the things I treasure and cling to for comfort. May I be reminded that “where my treasure is, there my heart will be also” (MAtt 6:21), and pray that God would “create in me a clean heart…and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

(originally by Nine Inch Nails)

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here

What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way


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