The plainly spoken ballad is the longest song on John Wesley Harding, without chorus, bridge, or a refrain to vary its structure. Like the rest of the album, the instrumentation is very sparse. The story has Frankie Lee responding to suggestions and temptations of his friend Judas Priest, which leave him to die "of thirst" after 16 nights and days in a home with 24 women.
Andy Gill speculates that early verses of Frankie agonizing over Judas' offer of money echo Dylan's business dealings. To Frankie worldly delights are represented as "Paradise," though the devilish Judas recognizes their true price is "Eternity" - Frankie's mortal soul.
Unusually for a Dylan song, "The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest" ends with a moral, telling the listener "the moral of this story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should never be where one does not belong", to help one's neighbor with his load, and "don't go mistaking Paradise/for that home across the road."