Narrow Way (and The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn)

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One of the songs on Bob Dylan’s upcoming album, Tempest, is called “Narrow Way.” I haven’t heard it yet, so I don’t now where Dylan takes it—quite possibly somewhere unexpected.

Yet the phrase is one of those immediately familiar ones that a different wordsmith came up with a little less than 2000 years ago. From Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV):

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Or, via the King James translation:

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

It’s one of the tougher statements of Jesus with regard to salvation, in that he seems to be saying quite bluntly that few will will be saved. It ain’t for me to argue with the Man, but there is a duality that believers wrestle with in Scripture, as in Mark 10:25-27:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

And from John 11:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Merely believing doesn’t seem a terribly high threshold, does it? Maybe especially in this world where we clothe ourselves in beliefs so offhandedly. But the theology will not be settled here.

“Narrow is the way.” It’s no doubt that phrasing in the King James version which was in Ralph Stanley’s head when he wrote “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,” many decades ago, with its chorus:

The darkest hour is just before dawn
The narrow way leads home
Lay down your soul at Jesus’ feet
The darkest hour is just before dawn

Bob Dylan was once asked what was the last song he’d like to hear before he died, and his answer was “Rock of Ages,” which was very hip of him, and Dylan’s own live rendition of that tune owed a lot to the Stanley Brothers. But I’d plump for “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn,” myself (only I’m not quite sure how to arrange for it). It’s a song of immense and immensely inspiriting hope, albeit centered as it seems to be around a deathbed.

The song is so beautiful that it might not be possible to perform it badly, but to my ears the essential version has always seemed to be the one by Emmylou Harris (with Ricky Skaggs) from her album Roses in the Snow.
It is one of those recordings which cannot be improved upon; I think even the angels at the throne would only attempt to reproduce it precisely.

And in this song that narrow way doesn’t sound out of reach; rather, it sounds like it’s laying right in front of us, inviting us in. And that does provide another way of looking at it. The way is narrow, and our feet cannot help but stray from it, and lead us down paths that are wider and yet utterly pointless. Yet it is always possible to find our way back to the narrow way, for the simple reason that it is only through that narrow way that the light can be seen streaming in.

Addendum 9/18/2012: Well, now I’ve heard the Bob Dylan song, “Narrow Way,” and more than once. It’s no gentle gospel ballad, but rather a scorching rock & roll number, comparable to “Tombstone Blues.” I like it a lot. As for spiritual and religious themes, the chorus goes like this:

It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way
If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday

I think perhaps it’s not too hard to see how this reflects on the trouble we poor folk have trying to be perfect, trying to become god-like, and our need, you might say, for a savior to come down and claim us. But some will interpret it differently, no doubt, and that’s OK.

As for the Stanley Brothers, the second to last verse of Bob Dylan’s “Narrow Way” begins with this line: Been dark all night, but now it’s dawn.

I think Ralph Stanley can consider Dylan’s hat to have been well and truly tipped.