Words: Rowland Hill, 1783; altered, G. Rawson, 1853
Music: MERCY, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, 1854; arranged by Hubert Platt Main, 1866
The text of this hymn has come down to us by stages. It first appeared anonymously in Rowland Hill's Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1783) in five stanzas, of which only the first survives in our version at hand. The next major revision appeared in George Rawson's Leeds Hymn Book (1853), also in five stanzas, the fourth of which is the source of the second stanza in our version (with alterations).
American hymnals adapted the Rawson revision with even further changes, as evidenced in the Hymns and Songs of Praise (1874) edited by Hitchcock, Eddy, and Schaff.(Julian, 214) This last hymnal presents the text as we have it, but in four stanzas, of which Praise for the Lord retains the 1st, 2nd, and 4th. There are so many missing, altered, and added stanzas in the various presentations of this hymn that I will not attempt to cover all of them, but the older versions are available through the links provided above.
Cast thy burden on the Lord,
Only lean upon His word;
Thou shalt soon have cause to bless
His eternal faithfulness.
Hill drew the first line of this hymn directly from Psalm 55:22, "Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and He shall sustain thee: He shall never suffer the righteous to be moved." The term "burden" here is something David had to carry, but also had a more abstract implication as "that which is placed upon one," i.e., his lot in life.(Genesius) There are many things that simply fall to our lots because we live in this world; in this Psalm, David laments the general "violence and strife in the city,"(v.9) and also the more personal blow of betrayal by a friend with whom he "took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company."(v.14) Both of these are sadly familiar in any age.
At the end of a dark and distressing psalm, David's one ray of hope is that God will take his burdens. There is a premonition in this verse, at least to us who know the wonderful fulfillment of God's redemption, of the words of Peter: "Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."(1 Peter 5:7) Of course there are sometimes burdens that we have placed upon ourselves because of our own poor choices; none are greater, perhaps, than these. But here we think also of the beautiful words of Jesus:
Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."Matthew 11:28-30)There is a burden to carry as a Christian, but it is not carried alone; and there is the firm assurance that whatever trial or temptation comes, we will "be able to bear it."(1 Corinthians 10:13)
The second line of Hill's stanza tells us how to do it--"lean upon His word." Those who do not understand this, have never had to do it. Where else do we go, when everything around us has gone crazy? The unknown author of the beautiful 119th Psalm spoke wisely of the central place God's word must hold in our lives:
Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors.(v.24)Whatever our problems, that Book has an answer and can make things better. Charles Spurgeon is supposed to have said, "Nobody outgrows Scripture; the Book widens and deepens with our years."
This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your promise gives me life.(v.50)
The law of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.(v.72)
Forever, O LORD, Your word is firmly fixed in the heavens.(v.89)
I have seen a limit to all perfection, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad.(v.96)
Keep steady my steps according to Your promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.(v.133)
Your promise is well tried, and Your servant loves it. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget Your precepts.(v.140-141)
Hill concludes the stanza with the assurance that those who will follow his advice will soon find reason to praise God's steadfast love. As David said, "Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!"(Psalm 34:8) How often do we carry burdens that are too great for us, that we were never meant to handle alone, simply because we do not take advantage of God's help?
Ever in the raging storm
Thou shalt see His cheering form,
Hear His pledge of coming aid:
"It is I, be not afraid."
It is amazing how often the words "Be not afraid," or, "Fear not," came from the lips of our Savior. Even His arrival--the most joyful event in the history of the world to that date!--was heralded by the words, "Fear not."(Luke 1:13,30; 2:10) Jesus told Peter to "fear not" when He called the fisherman to a more noble catch.(Luke 5:10) He reassured Jairus with the words, "Be not afraid, only believe," before raising his daughter from the dead.(Mark 5:36) The glory of Jesus evoked fear in its beholders and similarly reassuring words from the Master, at His Transfiguration,(Matthew 17:7) after His resurrection,(Matthew 28:10) and at His appearance to John on Patmos.(Revelation 1:17)
Jesus did not say "Be not afraid" when He appeared in His glory to Saul on the Damascus road--that rebellious persecutor had every reason to be afraid, until he repented and obeyed the gospel!--but He did reassure the faithful apostle Paul in Corinth, and again in the storm before his shipwreck at Melita, with the same words of comfort: "It is I, be not afraid;" "Fear not, Paul."(Acts 18:9, 27:24)
Perhaps most famous, however, is the occasion referenced in this stanza, when Jesus walked across the waters of Galilee to join His disciples in their boat. Sailors have a reputation for superstition, and I suppose that dealing every day with the known and unknown terrors of the merciless sea would make anyone that way. As the disciples saw this figure approaching through the dark--impossibly, walking on the waves of a storm-swept sea--they cried out in fear, supposing He was a spirit. But Jesus called out to them, "Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid."(Matthew 14:27)
To give credit where credit is due, it was the writings of the late pope, John Paul II, that I encountered the following observation: in every one of these cases where someone was told to "Be not afraid," Jesus was preparing to do something wonderful. In one instance, He was about to arrive in the world. In another, He was calling His disciples. He was about to bring a young girl back from the dead. He was joining the disciples' boat in the storm. He was revealed in His glory at the Transfiguration. He was revealed in His glory after the Resurrection. He had many people yet to be saved in Corinth, though Paul was discouraged. He would deliver Paul and his shipmates alive, and Paul would speak before Caesar. He would deliver the Revelation to John.
Whatever we are afraid of, we know God will see us through it; "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all."(Psalm 34:19) We also know that "the testing of [our]faith produces steadfastness."(James 1:3) But we also need to remember that the very things that cause us fear may only be preludes to something better than we could have imagined.
He will gird thee by His pow'r,
In thy weary fainting hour;
Lean then, loving, on His Word;
Cast thy burden on the Lord.
This final stanza (at least in our version) is of more questionable authorship than the preceding two, which are almost certainly by Hill and Rawson respectively; the final two lines actually cobble together lines from the first stanza. The first two lines, however, further the thoughts of the hymn with a consideration of another aspect of burdens: it is not their weight alone that wears us down, but also the length of time they must be carried.
We can all relate, at some point, to the statement of Agur in the Proverbs: "I am weary, O God, and worn out."(Proverbs 30:1) Agur was a good man, full of faith and humility; but he was at the limit of his endurance. Significantly, though, he knew where to go for help: "Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him."(Proverbs 30:5)
It is best to understand from the outset that the Christian race (to use one of Paul's favorite metaphors) is a marathon, not a sprint. Now, I am no athlete, but if you compare an Olympic sprinter to an Olympic marathon runner, the differences are obvious--the bulging muscles that give explosive speed over a short distance are not going to serve so well over a distance of miles. The lean, trim build of a successful marathon runner is a balance instead of both speed and endurance. And though we do not know whether Paul wrote Hebrews, it is certainly a Pauline sports metaphor that begins the 12th chapter, vividly illustrating this point:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.The admonition to endure is frequent throughout the New Testament, and in Paul's letters often takes the form of the following: "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."(Galatians 6:9) We are running not only for ourselves, but for the sake of others to whom we may do good. It is for this reason that runners in training are so often seen together--the presence of another runner is an encouragement and a challenge to do one's best.
But in the end, we cannot depend on another runner, or even on ourselves. There are times when the distance yet to go is overwhelming, and we do not see how we can go on. We need a "second wind," or maybe a third or fourth. Here is where faith keeps us in the race--we have a source of renewal that is always at hand, always ready, and always reliable:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.(Isaiah 40:28-31)
About the music:
MERCY (also called GOTTSCHALK) comes from one of the most colorful figures in the musical history of the United States. At a time when Lowell Mason and the Boston establishment were busily "elevating public taste," the meteoric career of pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) showed that the still-young nation had much more to offer musically than just a careful copy of German Romanticism. The son of a German Jewish father and a French Creole mother, Gottschalk grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana; not surprisingly, he followed the French rather than German path in classical music, and sought his education in Paris rather than Leipzig.
At the time of his premature death he was probably the most famous classical music performer in the New World. Sometimes called the "Creole Chopin," Gottschalk's works were typically in the light style of the Parisian salons. A few of his works, however, such as "The Banjo," are attempts at a fusion of African American and European classical elements--a blend that would underlie much of the future of American music.(Kirsch)
The work on which this hymn is based was a piano piece titled "The Last Hope" (Op. 16). (Click here to view a full score; the tune proper begins on the third page of music after considerable introductory flourishes.) Written in 1854, this became one of Gottschalk's signature works, and one of the most popular piano compositions by an American composer in the 19th century. Though Gottschalk admittedly grew to despise it after being asked to play it at every concert, sales of the sheet music no doubt softened the blow. Legends about its origins, and its relationship to Gottschalk's numerous amorous adventures, are too abundant to mention.(Starr)
Though Gottschalk was closer to Chopin or Liszt in his overall style, the earnest lyric style of this melody reminds me of the Songs without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. One of these has been adapted as a hymn as well--CONSOLATION, sung with the lyrics "Still, still with Thee"(PFTL #596), "Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face"(PFTL #229), and "We would see Jesus"(PFTL #723). Gottschalk's MERCY is also sung with other lyrics, including "'Tis my happiness below"(PFTL #693) and "Holy Spirit, Light divine"(PFTL #233). These two piano tunes were just begging for lyrics!
In Praise for the Lord, and many other hymnals, the hymn arrangement of Gottschalk's "Last Hope" is attributed to Edwin O. Porter and dated to 1880. More recent research has determined, however, that it was actually the work of Hubert Platt Main (1839-1925) in 1866.(Offergeld) Main was a junior partner of William Bradbury (1816-1868), and after Bradbury's death formed the gospel music publishing house Biglow & Main. Main wrote well over 1,000 hymn tunes, but few if any are in common use. He was also an avid book collector, and his collection later formed the nucleus of the music section of Chicago's Newberry Library.(Cyberhymnal, "Main")
Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner, 1892. http://books.google.com/books?id=aBDpAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover
Genesius, Wilhelm. "Yahab." Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, from Blueletterbible.org. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3051
Kirsch, Adam. "Diary of a one-man 'Grateful Dead'." New York Sun Book Review. http://www.nysun.com/arts/diary-of-a-one-man-grateful-dead/33974/
Starr, S. Frederick. Program notes quoted in "The Last Hope." Art of the States. http://www.artofthestates.org/cgi-bin/piece.pl?pid=276
Offergeld, Robert. "More on the Gottschalk-Ives Connection." Institute for Studies in American Music Newsletter 15 (May 1986): 1-2 and 13.
"Hubert Platt Main." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/a/i/main_hp.htm