Praise be to the Lord, to God our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens. Psalm 68:19.
The ‘atal or burden-bearer was a common figure in the ancient world. He worse a coarse tunic of camel’s hair cloth and carried a strong rope, about four meters long. With this, he could lift and transport enormous weights. Crouching down in front of a seemingly impossibly-huge pile of objects or materials that needed to be moved, he would skilfully arrange his rope without any knots, so as to catch and sustain the whole load; then with a sudden spring he would rise to his feet and transfer the burden to his shoulders and the upper part of his back.
The picture above is from a late 19th century book (Peeps into Palestine by Rev James Neil) and shows an ‘atal at work around that time carrying a burden of suitcases in the port of Joppa.
But here, in Psalm 68, the Psalmist sees God himself as our burden-bearer. The one who daily waits to pick up and carry for us whatever burdens we would otherwise have to carry for ourselves. Not surprising then that when God became flesh and lived among us his invitation was: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
It is important, however, not to finish the quotation from Matthew there, for though Jesus invites us to get rid of one burden, he does in fact also instruct us to pick up another: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” Matthew 11:29-30. In the language of the rabbis of Jesus’ day, a rabbi’s “yoke” and “burden” was that rabbi’s interpretation of God’s law and his teaching on how to fulfil it. So Jesus seems to be saying give me the burdens of your life — like an ‘atal I’ll carry those for you — but take upon yourself the burden of my teaching which — given that it all comes down to loving God and loving your neighbour in the strength that I will supply — is very light indeed.
Going back to Psalm 68:19, that’s just how it was too in the wilderness journey that the Psalmist describes. Every day the Israelites had to pick up the burden of the ark of the covenant that contained God’s law — his blueprint for their life — but every day they were invited too to hand over to God all their other burdens — their hunger, their thirst, their sickness, their need for clothing, their family difficulties … whatever was of concern to them. Many centuries later, Peter would put the initation like this: “Cast all your care upon him, for he cares for you” 1 Peter 5:7. Or as the old hymn puts it:
All your anxieties, all your care,
bring to the mercy seat, leave it there.
Never a burden he cannot bear,
never a friend like Jesus!