The door it opened slowly,
My father he came in,
I was nine years old.
And he stood so tall above me,
His blue eyes they were shining
And his voice was very cold.
He said, "I've had a vision
And you know I'm strong and holy,
I must do what I've been told."
So he started up the mountain,
I was running, he was walking,
And his axe was made of gold.

Well, the trees they got much smaller,
The lake a lady's mirror,
We stopped to drink some wine.
Then he threw the bottle over.
Broke a minute later
And he put his hand on mine.
Thought I saw an eagle
But it might have been a vulture,
I never could decide.
Then my father built an altar,
He looked once behind his shoulder,
He knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.

And if you call me brother now,
Forgive me if I inquire,
"just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must,
I will help you if I can.
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must,
I will kill you if I can.
And mercy on our uniform,
Man of peace or man of war,
The peacock spreads his fan.

Lyrics submitted by Hosimosi

Story of Isaac Lyrics as written by Leonard Cohen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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Story of Isaac song meanings
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  • +2
    General CommentOy. This is the song, on a scratchy old second-hand LP, that got me hooked on Cohen. The whole album is absolutely brilliant but SO dry that it doesn't work for everybody. If you imagine it to be songs from a desert, more than a room, it begins to make more sense.
    Anyway, this song in particular touches on so much of what his work was about, except for the fact that there's no sex in it. It mines his deep-seated spirituality and also brilliantly reimagines an ancient parable from the point of view of the one who suffers the impact of the teaching; the boy was moments from death at his father's hand, stayed by an act of profound mercy. Cohen evokes the innocence and vulnerability of the boy to show how important it is that we, as a race, aspire to some of that same merciful quality.
    The last lines are wrong up there: "Have mercy on our uniform, man of peace or man of war, the peacock spreads his fan." It's a final prayer. Cohen takes the unusual stand of singling out neither the warrior nor the pacifist for blame -- all men are trying to make their mark on the world, and deserving of and hungry for mercy. It's those who act in an unholy way -- those in power who answer to no one but themselves -- that he wants to correct. It's the early work of a poet, to be sure, but it's usually young poets who look at such big-picture stuff.
    willy61on July 30, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis is the story of abraham and isaac and the bible...the image of the father sacrificing his son because of god, compared with soldiers killing in war
    sparkling_pavementon November 16, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song tells the story of isaac in the Bible, but it has a second meaning,
    Its is also about how an older generation of men sending thier sons to fight in thier war,
    e.g. The peacock spreads his fan = Nuclear bomb
    Driveron November 01, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General Comment"the peacock spreads his fan" adds meaning to the line before - "man of peace or man of war". It suggests that one man can be both. A man can seem to be a man of peace and then spread his fan and show that he isn't. A man can go from "helping" to "killing" if the need be.
    keithroy73on February 26, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI'm not entirely sure what the meaning is, but I think it may have something to do with Leonard's own father, as he died when Lenny was nine years old.
    Thin_Paper_Wallson May 30, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentHe explains it in two lines at the beginning of a live version from "Live Songs" : "This is a song called The Story of Issac, and it's about those who would, ah, sacrifice one generation on behalf of another."
    Later in the lyrics, he admonishes this practice: "You who build these altars now to sacrifice our children, you must not do it anymore..."
    mjenki3on January 23, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI hadn't got the underlying meaning before, about old men sending the young generation out to die. Absolutely brilliant. I like the way he tells the story from Isaac's point of view - emphasising how appalling Abraham's actions were with tiny details like "I was running / he was walking".

    I particularly like the reversal at the end of

    "I will kill you if I must/ I will help you if I can."


    "I will help you if I must / I will kill you if I can."

    I agree with Mr.V above - he's condemning the generals and politicians as worse than Abraham: they have no excuse, no spiritual explanation for their actions.
    chrisrazoron November 09, 2010   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationAbout: 'The peacock spreads its fan'

    I've leaved in India and there, the peacock is reveread as a protector against evil He is often seen close to the goddess on representation of Saraswati, goddess of the arts, if I'm not wrong (hindouism has so much Gods and Goddess and I'm not a specialist).

    But anyway, in Uttar Pradesh, I've seen peacocks fighting against snakes. When the snake is dead, the victorious peacock spreads its fan.

    As in the Bible, snake is the Evil, I would say that the end of the song means that, Evil is (or will be) defeated...
    thierryon August 07, 2011   Link
  • 0
    General CommentIt's about exploitation of the young. His 'father' is a paedophile who comes into the room and abuses him. This symbolises the way young people are expendable in war.
    Toby1974on November 01, 2012   Link
  • 0
    My OpinionAbraham was tested by God. His mission was Holy, but God wouldn't let him sacrifice Isaac. In today's world, there are those who sacrifice our children by means of war for profit. Abraham's thoughts were, no doubt, I will kill you if I must...I will help you if I can. But those who put our children on the altar of war for profit...I think God will help them if He can, but kill them if He must. And the peacock spreads his fan...
    VAMEXon March 07, 2013   Link

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