I would like to focus on a phrase from the 23rd Psalm, one with which nearly everyone in the Christian world at least, is familiar, that relates to an experience common to the entire human race.
In the imagery of Psalm 23:4 “the valley of the shadow of death,” depicting physical danger, overwhelming sorrow, extreme suffering, and “end of life issues,” including death itself. We are reminded that these things will come into every life. None of us are strangers to such happenings, though none of us voluntarily seek them.
What I find exhilaratingly and deeply comforting is that this valley is found in the context of the Lord, who is my Shepherd, and that ultimately I need fear no evil, for He is with me. That’s exactly what the verse says.
Biller Edd Wheeler
There is a songwriter named Billy Edd Wheeler, born in West Virginia. He attended Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina and later Berea College in Kentucky. And he has written, or collaborated on, some of the most popular songs ever, especially in the country and pop fields. “Jackson,” sung by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (1963), “Coward of the County,” a mega hit by Kenny Rogers (1979), and Wheeler’s own hit “Ode to the Little Brown Shack out Back” (1964), are but three examples. Mr. Wheeler is now 88 years old, and still lives in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where I grew up.1
In 1963 a story song Wheeler wrote was released , with narration, by The Kingston Trio, and later covered by Johnny Cash: I first heard “The Reverend Mr. Black recited by a friend in 8th grade during a talent show done by a number of my classmates. It was captivating, even then. This song talks about “that lonesome valley,” that everyone has to walk through, which reminds me of the valley of the shadow referenced in Psalm 23.
He rode easy in the saddle. He was tall and lean, and at first you'd a-thought nothing but a streak of mean could make a man look so down right strong, but one look in his eyes and you knowed you was wrong. He was a mountain of a man, and I want you to know. He could preach hot hell or freezin' snow. He carried a Bible in a canvas sack and folks just called him The Reverend Mr. Black. He was poor as a beggar, but he rode like a king. Sometimes in the evening, I'd hear him sing: I gotta walk that lonesome valley. I got to walk it by myself Oh nobody else can walk it for me. I got to walk it by myself If ever I could have thought this man in black was soft and had any yellow up his back, I gave that notion up the day a lumberjack came in and it wasn't to pray. Yeah, he kicked open the meeting house door and he cussed everybody up and down the floor! Then, when things got quiet in the place, he walked up and cussed in the preacher's face! He hit that Reverend like a kick of a mule and to my way of thinkin' it took a real fool to turn the other face to that lumberjack, but that's what he did, The Reverend Mr. Black. He stood like a rock, a man among men and he let that lumberjack hit him again, and then with a voice as quiet as could be, he cut him down like a big oak tree when he said: You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yourself Oh nobody else can walk it for you. You got to walk it by yourself It's been many years since we had to part and I guess I learned his ways by heart. I can still hear his sermon's ring, down in the valley where he used to sing. I followed him, yes, sir, and I don't regret it and I hope I will always be a credit to his memory 'cause I want you to understand. The Reverend Mr. Black was my old man! You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it by yourself Oh nobody else can walk it for you. You got to walk it by yourself2
It’s quite a story song. A mountain preacher, a giant of a man carrying his Bible in a canvas sack, singing softly as he rides through the valley:
“You got to walk that lonesome valley
You got to walk it by yourself
Oh, nobody else can walk it for you
You got to walk it by yourself.”
His encounter with an enraged lumberjack, who strikes him in the face, only to have the reverend turn the other cheek, like Jesus said in Matthew 5. His words that “cut him down like a big oak tree.”
And the twist at the end; the storyteller is the Reverend Mr. Black’s son!
Let me state clearly that the chorus is both right and wrong. It’s true that we individually die at the end of life, and may go through trials others don’t. In that sense we “walk it by ourselves”. But the child of God never walks through the challenges of life alone, and certainly not through death. “Because He lives, we shall live also.” Jesus said “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He assures us in Hebrews 13, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”3
Facing the hardships of life, facing the end of life, facing Almighty God in judgment are all sobering truths we must deal with. If the Lord is our shepherd, we can face all of life with confidence, including death.
“He’ll hold my hand as over death’s river I go
Then safe I’ll be, in beautiful Heaven, I know.”4
“When I come to the river at ending of day
When the last winds of sorrow have blown
There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.5
How, then, will we respond to the valley of the shadow of death?
We can be in denial that bad things will happen, and be crushed by them when they do.
We can create our own reality, and make up our own end to the story. (It’s what lots of people do today when everyone has their own truth.) But, it’s really not a good idea, because it simply isn’t true.
We can obsess over the future, and live in depression and defeat.
Or we can sing with the Reverend Mr. Black, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley,” walk it hand in hand with our Shepherd, endure the trials that come our way, and awake to eternal life on the other side. We only have to walk it alone in that it’s our own individual experience, but he will be there!