Great Texts of the Bible
The Burden-Bearing God
Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden.—Psalm 68:19.
The occasion of this psalm was the removal of the ark to Zion after it had been returned by the Philistines. Under the figures of a military invasion and occupation and settlement of the land, David represents Jehovah as Leader conquering His enemies, possessing Himself of their land, choosing a city for the seat of His Empire, and advancing in triumphal procession to enter upon His chosen residence. In the passage of the ark, the sign of God’s presence, through the land to the site on Mount Zion, chosen as the religious Metropolis of the world, David sees a repetition in the religious realm of the earlier march into and occupation of the country in the birth-time of the nation. His mind runs back to that first victorious advance of God through the desert at the head of His chosen race; to the entrance of the victorious people into the land of Canaan; to the establishment of Zion as the place of His settled worship; and he sees in this second and more illustrious establishment of Zion as the place of God’s rest not only the security for the blessedness of his own land, but the promise of a universal dominion, of which the fitful gleams of peace and happiness that they had as a nation under the new monarchy formed but a faint and imperfect foreshadowing.
And then, as he thinks of the splendid issue of this Divine occupation of Mount Zion, and the establishment there of the true worship, he breaks forth into a direct ascription of praise to God. He looks back on the long years of the Divine patience and forbearance; on not only the special times of deliverance, but the day-by-day guardianship and sustenance of God, and as he does so he says:
“Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden,
Even the God who is our salvation.”
In the Authorized Version this verse reads thus: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits,” the last two words being in italics, to show that they are not in the original. In point of fact, the Hebrew is equally capable of both interpretations, and may be rendered either, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily burdens us,” that is, “with benefits”; or, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden.” The great objection to the rendering which has become familiar to us all, “who daily loadeth us with benefits,” is that these essential words are not in the original, and need to be supplied in order to make out the sense. Whereas, on the other hand, if we adopt the suggested emendation, “who daily beareth our burden,” we get a still more beautiful meaning, which requires no forced addition in order to bring it out. There is a still more attractive rendering found in several of the ancient versions: “Blessed be the Lord who daily beareth us.”
The Inevitable Burden
Perhaps the most perplexing element in life is the wide sway of the Inevitable. The area of our freedom of choice is so painfully limited that, though we are turned into a capacious garden, stored with an incalculable wealth of flower and fruit, yet we can do so little ourselves, and are of so little account, that we are fain to despise our inheritance and neglect the care of our flower-beds and the watch of the fruit-trees. The life we contrive for ourselves is unexpectedly broken up or overpressed, till it has none of the shape and little of the beauty we intended; indeed, it sometimes seems little more than a central thoroughfare for the irresistible steeds of fate. The youth descries his far-off goal, and with measureless pluck and brightest hope sets out resolved to reach it, but is tripped up before he has travelled many yards; and though he rises, gains his feet and attempts the herculean task a hundred times, it is to find himself nearer indeed, but only to what is now a receding mark. The man of business builds his barns larger in time for them to be burnt by the desolating fire, or sends his boat to sea to be destroyed by the despotism of the storm. Pettiness and weariness eat the heart out of the life of artist and artisan, patriot and poet, and make existence and toil poor and bitter as the apples of Sodom. Thus life not only has its burdens but, in a true and not ignoble sense, it is itself a burden.
1. There is the awful burden of personal existence. It is a solemn thing to be able to say “I.” And that carries with it this, that, after all sympathy, after all nestling closeness of affection, after the tenderest exhibition of identity of feeling, and of swift godlike readiness to help, each of us lives alone. Like the inhabitants of the islands of the Greek Archipelago, we are able to wave signals to the next island, and sometimes to send a boat with provisions and succour, but we are parted, “with echoing straits between us thrown.” Every man, after all, lives alone, and society is like the material things round about us, which are all compressible, because the atoms that compose them are not in actual contact, but separated by slenderer or more substantial films of isolating air. Thus there is even in the sorrows which we can share with our brethren, and in all the burdens which we can help to bear, an element which cannot be imparted. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness”; and neither “stranger” nor other “intermeddleth” with the deepest fountains of “its joy.”
Dr. McLaren began to feel more keenly the inevitable solitariness of old age, as one by one his contemporaries left him. Reviewing old days in Lancashire, he said on one occasion, “There were three—Stowell Brown went home; there were two—Charles Williams gone—and I am left alone, it is very solitary.” Two of his sisters reached ninety years of age and beyond it, but between 1903 and 1906 they, and two brothers-in-law and a sister-in-law, died. Referring to these family losses, he writes: “I feel as if we were like shipwrecked sailors clinging to the keel of an upturned boat, and seeing one after another lose their hold and sink. But thank God, we shall rise, and not sink when our hands can no longer grasp the seen. Each departure brings us sensibly more face to face with our soon-coming turn. May the gate open a little as we draw nearer it, and give us some beam of the light within. Let us keep nearer to the Lord of life and we shall be ready for our passing into life.”1 [Note: E. T. McLaren, Dr. McLaren of Manchester, 242.]
2. Then again there is the burden of responsibility, which each has to bear for himself. A dozen soldiers may be turned out to make a firing party to shoot the mutineer; and no man knows who fired the shot, but one man did fire it. And although there may have been companions, it was his rifle that carried the bullet, and his finger that pulled the trigger. We say, “The woman Thou gavest me tempted me, and I did eat.” Or we say, “My natural appetites, for which I am not responsible, but Thou who madest me art, drew me aside, and I fell”; or we may say, “It was not I; it was the other.” And then there rises up in our hearts a veiled form, and from its majestic lips comes, “Thou art the man”; and our whole being echoes assent—Mea, culpa; mea maxima culpa—“My fault, my exceeding great fault.” No man can bear that burden for me.
Mr. Gladstone sometimes so far yielded to his colleagues as to sanction steps which he thought not the best, and may in this have sometimes erred; yet compromises are unavoidable, for no Cabinet could be kept together if its members did not now and then, in matters not essential, yield to one another. When all the facts of his life come to be known, instances may be disclosed in which he was the victim of his own casuistry or of his deference to Peel’s maxim that a minister should not avow a change of view until the time has come to give effect to it. But it will also be made clear that he strove to obey his conscience, that he acted with an ever-present sense of his responsibility to the Almighty, and that he was animated by an unselfish enthusiasm for humanity, enlightenment, and freedom.1 [Note: J. Bryce, Studies in Contemporary Biography, 452.]
3. Closely connected with the burden of responsibility there is another—the burden of the inevitable consequences of transgression, not only in the future, when all human bonds of companionship shall be broken, and each man shall “give account of himself to God,” but here and now. The effects of our evil deeds come back to roost; and they never make a mistake as to where they should alight. If I have sown, I, and no one else, will gather. No sympathy will prevent to-morrow’s headache after to-night’s debauch, and nothing that anybody can do will turn the sleuth hounds off the scent. Though they may be slow-footed, they have sure noses and deep-mouthed fangs. “If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself; but if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.”
While Farrar dared not set limits to the infinite mercy of an all-merciful God and Father, none ever pointed with sterner finger to the ineluctable Nemesis that attends on sin. “The man who is sold under sin is dead, morally dead, spiritually dead; and such a man is a ghost, far more awful than the soul which was once in a dead body, for he is a body bearing about with him a dead soul. Better, far, far better for him to have cut off the right hand, or plucked out the right eye, than to have been cast as he has been, now in his lifetime—and as he will be cast until he repents, even beyond the grave, into that Gehenna of aeonian fire! It shall purify him, God grant, in due time; but oh! it shall agonize, because he has made himself, as yet, incapable of any other redemption. So that if any youth have wickedly thought in his heart that God is even such an one as himself—that he may break with impunity God’s awful commandments, that he may indulge with impunity his own evil lusts, let him recall the sad experience of Solomon, ‘Walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.’ Let him remember the stern warning of Isaiah, ‘Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so shall their root be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.’ ”1 [Note: R. Farrar, Life of Dean Farrar, 269.]
4. The burdens grow with the growing life of man, so that the more the man has the more he has to carry; the severer the test of what he is in himself, of his conscience and heart, his sympathy and will, his faith and love. The boy strong, agile, without work and without want, is as free from care as a frisky kitten. The man solitary, without friend or home or responsibility, carries all his cares under his hat, and the thinner his life, the less there is of anxiety. But the father of a family is the bond of the house, the support of wife and children, and must bear himself erect under the cares of the home, of business, of parish, and of State. Add life, and you add care. Enlarge your world, and you increase your burdens. All strong emotions, all really great ideas, outleap our individual life, and carry us to the larger, deeper, fuller life of the world. Therefore the greatest life is the most burdened, and the saintliest soul feels the mystery and greatness of human life most of all. To the Greek, life is sunshine and joy; beauty swims in upon the soul; his spirit is glad and he carries no care; but the Hebrew, with his stern, inexorable righteousness, his awful sense of stewardship, his solemn knowledge of a “covenant with the Eternal,” cries out for deliverance from the taint of guilt and the burden of perplexity; and of all the Hebrews it is the man of widest culture, maturest thought, and loftiest aspiration who exclaims, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?”
Who can tell us of the power which events possess—whether they issue from us, or whether we owe our being to them? Do we attract them, or are we attracted by them? Do we mould them, or do they mould us? Are they always unerring in their course? Why do they come to us like the bee to the hive, like the dove to the cote; and where do they find a resting-place when we are not there to meet them? Whence is it that they come to us; and why are they shaped in our image, as though they were our brothers? Are their workings in the past or in the future; and are the more powerful of them those that are no longer, or those that are not yet? Is it to-day or tomorrow that moulds us? Do we not all spend the greater part of our lives under the shadow of an event that has not yet come to pass? I have noticed the same grave gestures, the footsteps that seemed to tend towards a goal that was all too near, the presentiments that chilled the blood, the fixed, immovable look—I have noticed all these in the men, even, whose end was to come about by accident, the men on whom death would suddenly seize from without. And yet were they as eager as their brethren, who bore the seeds of death within them. Their faces were the same. To them, too, life was fraught with more seriousness than to those who were to live their full span. The same careful, silent watchfulness marked their actions. They had no time to lose; they had to be in readiness at the same hour; so completely had this event, which no prophet could have foretold, become the very life of their life.1 [Note: M. Maeterlinck, The Treasure of the Humble, 51.]
Here in our little island-home we bide
Our few brief years—the years that we possess.
Beyond, the Infinite on every side
Holds what no man may know, though all may guess.
Earth, that is next to nothing in the sum
Of things created—a brief mote in space,
With all her aeons past and yet to come.
How we miscalculate our size—our place!
Yet are we men—details of the design,
Set to our course, like circling sun and star;
Mortal, infinitesimal, yet divine
Of that divine which made us what we are.
And yet this world, this microscopic ball,
This cast-up grain of sand upon the shore,
This trivial shred and atom of the ALL,
Is still our Trust, that we must answer for.
A lighthouse in the Infinite, with lamps
That we must trim and feed until we die;
A lonely outpost of the unseen camps
That we must keep, although we know not why.
Maker of all! Enough that Thou hast given
This tempered mind, this brain without a flaw,
Enough for me to strive, as I have striven,
To make them serve their purpose and Thy law.1 [Note: Ada Cambridge, The Hand in the Dark, 12.]
The Psalmist employs here that name of God which most strongly expresses the idea of supremacy and dominion. Rule and dignity are the predominant ideas in the word “Lord,” as, indeed, the English reader feels in hearing it; and then, side by side with that, there lies the thought that the Highest, the Ruler of all, whose absolute authority stretches over all mankind, stoops to this low and servile office, and becomes the burden-bearer for all the pilgrims who put their trust in Him. This blending together of the two ideas of dignity and condescension to lowly offices of help and furtherance is made even more emphatic if we glance back at the context of the psalm. For there is no place in Scripture in which there is flashed before the mind of the singer a grander picture of the magnificence and the glory of God than that which glitters and flames in the previous verses. The majestic greatness of God described in its earlier part seems purposely intended to heighten our sense of the wonder and blessedness of this God stooping from heaven to take on Himself the burdens which rest on His children on the earth.
And if we look deeper, this is not a case of contrast. It is not that there are sharply opposed to each other these two things, the gentleness and the greatness, the condescension and the magnificence, but that the former is the direct result of the latter; and it is just because He is Lord, and has dominion over all, that, therefore, He bears the burdens of all. For the responsibilities of the Creator are in proportion to His greatness, and He who has made man has thereby made it necessary that He should, if we will let Him, be Burden-bearer and our Servant. The highest must be the lowest, and just because God is high over all, therefore is He the Supporter and Sustainer of all. So we may learn the true meaning of elevation of all sorts, and from the example of the loftiest may draw the lesson for our more insignificant varieties of height, that the higher we are, the more we are bound to stoop, and that men are then likest God, when their elevation suggests to them responsibility, and when he that is chiefest becomes the servant.
1. God takes our burdens upon Himself.—There are burdens that men can help us with, but the heaviest burdens are those they cannot touch. “The heart knoweth its own bitterness.” The burden of a hidden grief, of a besetting sin, of a lifelong trial of disease or of sorrow through the wrong-doing of others—men may not help much here. But God can and does help. He enters into the very life of those whom He teaches to trust Him. It is not they themselves who do the good things and speak the kind words and think the holy thoughts that go to the upbuilding of their spiritual house. It is God. He “worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” And so of the care that is cast upon Him. He bears it as He bears the sin. He is in the burdened soul, and so, though the outward and visible trial be unremoved, yet God bears it, for the Divine strength is in the heart. God infuses His own power into the soul, until the downward pressure is no longer felt, and the burden is known to be effectually “cast upon the Lord.”
The word redemption, all the past which it implies, all the future which it points to, has for me a wonderful charm. I cannot separate the idea of deliverance from the idea of God, or ever think of man as blessed except as he enters into God’s redeeming purpose, and labours to make others free. The bondage of circumstances, of the world, but chiefly of self, has at times seemed to me quite intolerable, the more because it takes away all one’s energy to throw it off, and then the difficulty of escaping to God! of asking to have the weight taken away! Oh there is infinite comfort in the thought that He hears all our cries for rescue, and is Himself the Author and Finisher of it.1 [Note: 1 Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 520.]
2. God’s help is continual.—He daily beareth our burden. He will not suffer us, if we are guided by His teaching and Spirit, to think of Him as simply transcending our life, living above it, and out of it, and looking on it as from a distance; He assures us that He shares it, is in it, and through and over and under all; in it always; Himself bearing the burdens of it, not now and again, at far-separated intervals and in the special crises of our experience; but “daily”—“Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden.” It is the monotonous daily pressure of the same weight, in the same wearying way, that slays the hope in us and makes us sigh for the wings of a dove to bear us away to some place of freedom and rest; and it is exactly that “daily” hour-by-hour burden God Himself carries for us, and with us, and so sustains us and trains us. Like some river that runs by the wayside and ever cheers the traveller on the dusty path with its music, and offers its waters to cool his thirsty lips, so, day by day, in the slow iteration of our lingering sorrows, and in the monotonous recurrence of our habitual duties, there is with us the ever-present help of the Ancient of Days, who measures out daily strength for the daily load, and never sends the one without proffering the other.
In feudal times the peasantry used to build their little cottages beneath the shadow of their lord’s castle-walls so that in time of need they could easily take refuge within the stronghold, and so that by their very proximity to their master’s dwelling he might be reminded that they cast upon him the burden of their safe-keeping. So may we build the frail house of life beneath the shadow of the Almighty, that in the day of sore need we may surely find the way into the secret of His presence.
Never a battle with wrong for the right,
Never a contest that He doth not fight,
Lifting above us His banner so white;
Moment by moment we’re kept in His sight.
Never a trial and He is not there,
Never a burden that He doth not bear,
Never a sorrow that He doth not share,
Moment by moment we’re under His care.1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, A Thornless World, 159.]
3. God hears our burden by sharing it.—A physical burden is one thing, a spiritual another, and there is no such literal transference in the moral realm as to make the spirit oblivious of the existence of such a thing as a burden at all. But in this they are alike, that those who help can help only on condition of themselves undergoing the pressure from which they release others. If you want to relieve any one of trouble, you must bear it yourself. Only so can spiritual release be secured. You give blessing at the price of feeling pain. As has been well said, “There is no bearing of a moral burden without feeling it to be a burden.” And if God bears our burdens, then the pressure and the pain of them become His. Our trouble becomes His trouble, and our sorrow His sorrow. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.”
If any one still insist that it seems irreverence, if not blasphemy, to speak of a suffering God, or to ascribe in any way pain or unhappiness to the Ever-Blessed, then, let me add, it may in some measure meet his difficulty to reflect that all moral suffering contains or carries with it what may be called an element of compensation, in virtue of which it is transmuted into a deeper joy.… And if this be so, then surely what we must find in Christ as the God-man is, not a being who stript or emptied Himself of His essential divinity in order to share in the weakness and suffering of humanity, but a manifestation of God in all the plenitude of the Divine Nature; and the whole life of the Man of Sorrows—His earthly lowliness, His mortal weakness, grief, and sorrow, His loneliness and forsakenness, His drinking of the cup of suffering to the very dregs, yea, in His very crucifixion and death—must be to us the disclosure of an ineffable joy triumphing over sorrow, of a Divine bliss in sacrifice which is the last, highest revelation of the nature of God.1 [Note: John Caird.]
4. It is not the burden, but the burden-bearer, that God sustains.—It is not the heavy sorrow, but the bleeding heart that He takes into His strong keeping. And here we may notice the significant rendering of this text found in some of the most ancient versions: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth us.” So we can give God our burden only by giving Him our life. At this point the figure of a burden fails to represent accurately the toil and trouble of life, unless we remember it is a burden that cannot be laid down. It is bound to our shoulders by the cords of many necessities, Divine and human, and the answer to our prayer for help does not come in a loosening of these cords, but in inward refreshment of spirit. So the exhortation to us to cast our burden on the Lord and this promise of His sustaining grace do not speak to us of an occasional expedient to which the more trying experiences of life may drive us, but of the true relation of our life to God day by day.
A father sitting in his study, sent his little boy upstairs to fetch a book that had been forgotten. The boy was long gone, and after a time the father thought he heard the sound of sobbing on the stairs. He went out, and at the top of the staircase he saw his son crying bitterly, with the great book he had tried to lift and carried so far, lying at his feet. “Oh, father!” the lad cried, “I cannot carry it, it is too heavy for me!” In a moment the father ran up the stairs, and stooping down, took up both the little lad and the book in his strong arms, and carried them down to the room below. Before he reached it, the child’s tears were all dried up, and he was leaning on his father’s arm, the burden and the trouble gone.2 [Note: G. S. Barrett, Musings for Quiet Hours, 29.]
5. When God thus bears our burden the burden itself becomes a blessing.—It carries him that carries it. It is like the wings of a bird; it is like the sails of a ship. In many lands the habit prevails, especially amongst the women, of carrying heavy loads on their heads; and all travellers tell us that the practice gives a dignity and a grace to the carriage, and a freedom and a swing to the gait, which nothing else will do. Depend upon it, that so much of our burdens of work and weariness as is left to us, after we have cast them upon Him, is intended to strengthen and ennoble us.
The bearing of God has been likened to a father carrying his child, to an eagle taking her young upon her wings, to the shepherd with the lamb in his bosom. But no shepherd, nor mother-bird, nor human father ever bore as the Lord bears. For He bears from within, as the soul lifts and bears the body. The Lord and His own are one. “To me,” says he who knew it best, “to me to live is Christ.” … It is not the sight of a visible leader, though the Gospels have made the sight imperishable, it is not the sound of Another’s Voice, though that Voice shall peal to the end of time, that Christians only feel. It is something within themselves; another self—purer, happier, victorious. Not as a voice or example, futile enough to the dying, but as a new soul, is Christ in men.1 [Note: George Adam Smith.]
The hindrances that baffle or overwhelm us, the small annoyances that rob our days of zest and sweetness, the body’s perpetual chafing tyranny, in all these we are facing universal conditions, and bidden to realize a universal being. An infinitesimal fraction of the burden that God bears is on our shoulders—but we are not bearing it alone. This spiritual toil is no degrading punishment laid on us merely for our sins, but the measure of our sonship. Infinite patience seems often to be all that is asked of us. But patience is Godlike—patience is love submitting, and enduring, transmuting poison to sweetness in the life, as surely as enthusiasm is love conquering and striving, and flowing out towards God and man. Nor can we draw distinctions concerning their relative value to God.2 [Note: May Kendall.]
The bonds that press and fetter,
That chafe the soul and fret her,
What man can know them better,
O brother men, than I?
And yet, my burden bearing,
The five wounds ever wearing,—
I too in my despairing
Have seen Him as I say;—
Gross darkness all around Him
Enwrapt Him and enwound Him,—
O late at night I found Him
And lost Him in the day!
Yet bolder grown and braver
At sight of one to save her
My soul no more shall waver,
With wings no longer furled,—
But cut with one decision
From doubt and men’s derision
That sweet and vanished vision
Shall follow thro’ the world.1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, A Vision.]
Ainsworth (P. C.), A Thornless World, 154.
Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 27.
Clifford (J.), The Secret of Jesus, 57.
Cuyler (T. L.), Stirring the Eagle’s Nest, 39.
Dix (M.), Christ at the Door of the Heart, 195.
Forbes (J. L.), God’s Measure, 175.
Hamilton (J.), Works, vi. 430.
Jowett (J. H.), Thirsting for the Springs, 41.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Psalms li.–cxlv., 93.
Matheson (G.), Messages of Hope, 145.
Morrison (G. H.), The Afterglow of God, 320.
Neville (W. G.), Sermons, 312.
Raleigh (A.), Quiet Resting-Places, 331.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xlix. (1903), No. 2830.
Talmage (T. de W.), Sermons, vi. 145.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), ix. (1872), No. 793.
Christian World Pulpit, lii. 74 (T. Jones).
Church of England Pulpit, xxxviii. 195.
Clergyman’s Magazine, 3rd Ser., ii. (1891) 247 (H. G. Youard).
Literary Churchman, xxxii. (1886) (M. Fuller), 355.