The fifth verse of "The Sound of Silence" runs thusly:

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said:
"The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence."

There's already a question about what the neon god is. But why does it say that 'the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls'? What does this signify?


5 Answers 5


Some insight can potentially be gained by comparing and contrasting Simon's later song "A Poem on the Underground Wall," in which a graffiti artist's scrawling of a obscenity on the wall of a subway station is described, in deliberately florid language, as the act of a poet. Similarly, if we ask ourselves what is written on "subway walls and tenement halls," the answer is clearly graffiti. Yet here the graffiti artist is being described as a prophet. In both cases, Simon is instructing us to pay closer attention to the marginalized and the ignored of society, and to give their forms of expression greater respect and attention.

In this, he is in some ways in conversation with Bob Dylan, whose song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," he covers on the same album where "The Sound of Silence" debuted. Where Dylan instructs "writers and critics who prophesize with your pen," as well as mothers, fathers, senators and congressmen, to reserve judgment on their children and the future they are bringing forth, Simon is telling the same people that the future has already been written down for them in the last places they would think to look. Simon's respect for graffiti also prefigures (or prophesies, if you will) the forthcoming adoption of graffiti, and its intrinsic social criticism, as the central visual expression of the hip-hop cultural movement (and its subsequent acceptance as a mainstream, but still socially critical, art form in more recent times).

As Peter Shor noted earlier, there is a notable instance of a prophecy being "written on a wall" in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Like Simon's prophecy, the one in Daniel is a warning, in this case about the immanent fall of the king. It is from here we draw the common English expression "the writing's on the wall" as a premonition of doom.


"...The Words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.."

I believe these lyrics, and the rest of the song hinge on the Old Testament in the book of Daniel, 5:1-31.

At the banquet of King Belshazzar of Babylonia, the last pagan Babylonian king to rule over the Jews, all are feasting on golden plates and goblets, the sacred Jewish vessels, when a ghostly hand appears and begins to write on the wall. The King summoned all of his conjurers and diviners, to whom he offered great riches if they could decipher the writings. None could. So Daniel, a lonely Jew exiled in Babylon, was sent for. He had interpreted other signs and portents and it was hoped that he could interpreted the writings on the wall.

Daniel cursed the King for his cruelty, his greed, his thoughtlessness, his selfishness and his unkindness. He interprets the prophetic message: Belshazzar's kingdom will be destroyed and it will be given to the Persians and Medes.

Belshazzar makes good his word and makes Daniel 3rd in power in the kingdom, an honor Daniel does not wish. Later that night Belshazzar is killed and his kingdom is captured by the Persians and Medes.

The "writing on the wall" has become slang for events have been foretold, things haver been coming for some time with no one paying attention, bad things are about to happen.

I think Paul Simon personally witnessed every day the inequities of our society where so few have so much and so many have so little. He saw sick people suffer when there existed resources to help everyone. No one wanting war and yet violence existing everywhere.

I think in the song, Paul Simon becomes "Daniel", the lonely Jew, and Paul curses our society for it's cruelty, it's greed, it's thoughtlessness, It's selfishness and it's unkindness. A society that, despite it's frantic claims, is also a soulless, godless, "pagan" one, whose "Neon God," is one of commercialism, self aggrandizement, greed and worship of the dollar bill.

It's a society of hypocrisy and lies, so strong and loud that it deafens rational thought, quiets compassionate action, silences truthful words.

Why the "words of the prophets" warning of destruction "are written on the Subway walls, and tenement halls," is, I believe, because these words are not mysterious, not cryptic, need no interpreter or conjurers to divine them, they are so clear, so self-evident that even the most simple, the most common people can understand them. And they have always, in their hearts, knew that that the madness of our self-created society couldn't last forever. It is The People, in fact, who are the ones that have written the words on their own walls, not some God or supernatural presence.

Paul's prophetic dream has, I believe, come true with epidemics of addictions of all kinds, meaningless sex, nomadic marriages, the emptiness of hypocritical religions, endless war, guns and gun violence, abuse of The Weak, new diseases, faithless rulers, a race for escape to fantasy worlds of movie, TV, video games, anything to relieve boredom or gain a moment's instant gratification.

I see even more reason to fear "the sounds of silence" today with a true demagogue as our "leader," a man who can not breath without lying. His callousness, his cruelty, his greed, his thoughtlessness, his selfishness and his unkindness his lifelong to pleasure himself at ever turn, no matter what the cost to anyone else, makes me fear as a nation and society, but also all of the other nation's of the worlds also.

Just my interpretation. -Pete

  • 2
    Hello, and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange! Thanks for writing a well supported answer, but I'm not sure you need to bring politics into it. Could you perhaps delete your last paragraph? Have a good day!
    – auden
    Commented Jun 16, 2018 at 22:58

Jesus claimed that a prophet is without honor in his own country. Where would you find people without honor in modern cities? In other words, where would you find prophets speaking truth that has the stamp of religious validity? Not in churches, not in the halls of power, not in the media, not on college campuses. No, you should go where the poor go. The Old Testament prophets wandered in the wilderness. Today's prophets ride the subway and live in the projects.

  • 1
    Could you source this claim of Jesus? Your answer sounds interesting, but would be improved by a direct comparison between the words of (presumably) the New Testament and those of "The Sound of Silence".
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 8:28

The signs of the profits are the referral to the “Neon” god. It has created human loneliness and/or “inhumane” treatment of each other. In the sake of the name of technology therefore allowing time spent not interacting as social beings.

The Sound of Silence is what we’ve become, some 50 years later. 50 more years from now, how will society be? Will we have Earth left?

  • How does this relate to prophets (I assume "profits" was a typo)?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 10:25

Perhaps a part of the answer is the 'fact' that British graffiti at the time was marked by an emphasis on message rather than imagery. See London's Original Graffiti Artists Were Poets and Political Revolutionaries by George Stewart-Lockhart on Vice, 24 September 2014.

  • Why "the words of the prophets" though?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 16:57
  • my hunch is that he is granting "prophet status" to writers of the graffiti. In other words he was entreating his audience to sit up and listen to what was being written on the walls.
    – cheng kai
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 12:02
  • I don't think, in other words, that he is merely raising the status of the marginalized no matter what they paint on the walls... he is saying the content/message of their WRITING is what is true and should be listened to. Of course S&G were not marginalized, being mega rich, but they would say they were speaking truth in their songs...
    – cheng kai
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 12:06

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.