Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low; their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.
Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. Isaiah 46:1-4
Jesus said, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:30
Some years ago I witnessed a noisy religious celebration in the centre of Kathmandu in Nepal. A pillar a bit like a smaller Nelson’s Column was being carried through the centre of the city amid great excitement. It looked rather wobbly, and I feared that it might topple over and fall on the worshippers below. But that didn’t happen, and everybody seemed very excited. I didn’t find out for sure, but I think the pillar represented one of the Hindu gods.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us that “there is nothing new under the sun”. And that is certainly borne out when we read these graphic words from Isaiah 46.
The prophet is foretelling a day when the powerful Babylonians will be brought to nothing by God. He pictures their gods Bel and Nebo (their names are reflected in kings such as Belshazzar and Nebuchadnezzar) being carried off on pack animals, presumably strapped on their sides. They are burdens that have to be carried, though not now to a place of worship, as would usually be the case, but into captivity.
Isaiah then goes on to compare the one true God with Bel and Nebo. They are gods that have to be carted around like so much luggage, he says, but Jehovah God is a God who carries you. “I have carried you since you were born… I have made you and I will carry you…”
God here is addressing the nation of Judah as a whole, but he puts it in personal, even tender, terms, for what is true of the nation is true also of individuals: God watches over his people “since your birth”, into adulthood, and then “even to your old age and grey hairs I am he… who will sustain you”.
(Let that, by the way, be a comfort and a blessing to those of us who are feeling the weight of the years! You’re never too old to be loved by God – or to be used by him, come to that. God is as tender as the most perfect mother or father.)
Isaiah’s picture raises a challenging question: Is my religion a burden to me rather than a blessing? (Notice that that word “burden” crops up four times in the first two verses.)
We may be inclined to look down on the worshippers of Babylon as their gods go bumping up and down on the backs of asses or donkeys. We may be inclined (I admit I was) to look down on those Hindus in Nepal as that pillar was hauled through their streets.
But wait a minute – let’s be very careful. We may pay lip service to the belief that our God tenderly cares for us; but is that something that we know and feel in everyday experience? Do we really have that kind of relationship with him?
Earlier I referred to our religion, a word I dislike and do my best to avoid. But there are times when there is no alternative. And there are times when “practicing our religion” (another expression that makes me squirm) can seem terribly burdensome, a weight that we are carrying rather than an inner energy that makes us soar.
The devil whispers in our ear… Have you prayed enough? - as if prayer is nothing but a duty. Do you really have to go to that church meeting later this week? Must you agree to serve on that boring rota? Do you really have to go on being patient with that tiresome person? Can you afford to maintain your financial support for the church or that missionary organization? Isn’t being a Christian really an awful lot of hard work?
Of dear – it all seems so… well, burdensome. We might very well borrow the words of the great hymn-writer William Cowper: Where is the blessedness I knew/ When first I saw the Lord? / Where is the soul-refreshing view/ Of Jesus and his word? Where, indeed!
Let’s have no pretending that this is easy! Following Jesus does involve various duties and responsibilities. And the flame of our faith can burn low and God can sometimes seem far off.
The key is to keep firmly in our minds that precious word relationship. We are children of God, tenderly loved by him. We are followers of Jesus his Son who “walks with us and talks with us along life’s narrow way”.
There may be times to give ourselves a rest from responsibilities which are grinding us down – and that may even include a rest from our normal discipline of prayer or service. God loves to be surrounded by happy children, not miserable, clapped-out servants.
Yes, following Jesus does entail burdens we must carry – that much is clear from Matthew 11:30. But let’s never forget his promise in that verse: his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Is it time you prayed, very simply…?
Lord God, I’m thankful that you’re not a God who needs to be carried. Please help me to rest now and let myself be carried by you. Amen.