Monday, October 31, 2011

Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary

Praise for the Lord #95

Words & Music: John M. Moore, 1952

Dr. John M. Moore (b. 1925) is a Baptist minister from Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Following evangelistic work in Glasgow and Inverness, he emigrated to Ontario, where he served at the Willowdale Baptist Church in Toronto.(Osbeck, 54) Now well into his 80s, Dr. Moore is a member of the Springdale Baptist Church in Stouffville, just north of Toronto, where he recently gave a concert featuring his hymns. For a picture and more information about his life, see Sandra Bolan's article at

Dr. Moore has written over 150 hymns, but his most famous by far is this one, which has entered the core repertoire of a number of religious groups. He is philosophical about the fact that his most famous song was one of his earliest: "Not all your songs get recognition like that."(Bolan) In 1952, Moore was in Glasgow, serving as Assistant Superintendent at the Seaman's Chapel. One day he was called to see a young sailor in Glasgow Hospital, and in the course of the visit shared a tract that was based on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The image of the Pilgrim leaving his burden of sin at the foot of the cross was the inspiration for this hymn.(Osbeck, 54)

Stanza 1:
Days are filled with sorrow and care,
Hearts are lonely and drear;
Burdens are lifted at Calvary,
Jesus is very near.

In the course of the last century a certain type of gospel lyric emerged that at best indulged in gratuitous sentimentality, and at its worst simply reveled in maudlin self-pity. (A relative of mine has referred to these as "Oh-poor-me songs.") Part of this was a reflection, of course, of the very real hardship and suffering of the Great Depression; some of it was a reflection, as well, of the lingering Romantic pathos of 19th-century poetry. The result is often an exaggerated manner of stating the sufferings of this life, a manner that rings especially false coming from the lips of well-to-do suburbanites.

I contend that this is not one of those songs. Moore speaks of "sorrow and care," and every person will encounter these in some measure while living in this world. Job famously said, "Man who is born of a woman is few of days, and full of trouble."(14:1) In the great philosophical inquiry of Ecclesiastes, after Solomon had tried out every pleasure, occupation, and diversion that a king's wealth and power could command, we read:
What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.(2:22-23)
He continues later in the book,
Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.(11:7-8)
There is much joy in life, but we are kidding ourselves if we do not admit that a great deal of it is "sorrow and care."

Moore also speaks of being lonely. It is bad enough to be lonely during the good times; but woe to the person who faces the difficulties of life alone!
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!(Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)
Is life "dreary?" We want to say it is not (Americans revere optimism), but I venture to say that dreariness would describe the lives of many people, much of the time. Disappointments and setbacks come to us all, and in many lives they pile up with little relief; we just learn to manage them better. In addressing the young person who has not yet traveled these roads, Solomon says,
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them."(12:1)
But is this all God wants for us? Ecclesiastes is a deep, powerful book, but we need to remember that it describes life "under the sun," to use the phrase that occurs repeatedly throughout its text. That is to say, it is a series of reflections on life lived on an earthly, not a heavenly level. It arrives at the stoic conclusion that it is best to obey God, enjoy His blessings when we can, and accept the limitations of our knowledge. This is wise, godly advice, of course; but in another way, Ecclesiastes serves to illustrate our desperate need for something more.

Enter Jesus Christ: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."(John 10:10) One of the things that Jesus wants us to have is joy! His birth was announced with joy: "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."(Luke 2:10) He taught a way of love, peace, and joy:
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.(John 15:10-11)
Joy was a frequent theme of Paul the apostle, even though he endured a great deal of hardship and persecution. His closing salutations to the church in Rome are typical: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope."(Romans 15:13)

Burdens are lifted at Calvary,
Calvary, Calvary,
Burdens are lifted at Calvary,
Jesus is very near.

Here is the crux of the matter. (The pun is intentional; isn't it telling that the Latin word for "cross" would come to mean, in our usage, the critical deciding point of some development?) The stoic philosophy of Ecclesiastes says to live a decent, upright life, and make the best of a messed-up world. (This seems to be the point of many world religions, and is noble as far as it goes.) Jesus crashes in like a thunderbolt, if you will, and says, "Yes, it is a messed-up world, but it wasn't supposed to be like this, and I am going to set you right." It wasn't stoic endurance He promised, but relief and renewal:
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)
At Calvary, He "freed us from our sins by His blood."(Revelation 1:5) When we bring our burdens to Calvary and "become obedient from the heart,"(Romans 6:17) then we, "having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness."(Romans 6:18) But this new Master does not burden us again; instead, "now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life."(Romans 6:22)

One more phrase here deserves mention: "Jesus is very near." Throughout history people have traveled long distances, at great risk and expense, to visit some person or place that they believe will give them spiritual insight and comfort. There is something within the human heart that drives them to find an answer, "that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him."(Acts 17:27) "Yet," as Paul continues in that same passage, "He is actually not far from each one of us, for 'In Him we live and move and have our being.'"(Acts 17:27b-28) God is as close to us as the air we breathe, and He does not make it difficult to find Him or to learn how to please Him.
But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.(Romans 6-9)
The Word of God is not in short supply; witnesses to a confession of faith Christ are easily found; water for baptism is not in short supply. Jesus is very near, but too many hearts are far from obedience.

Stanza 2:
Cast your care on Jesus today,
Leave your worry and fear;
Burdens are lifted at Calvary,
Jesus is very near.


Dr. Moore's inspiration here is 1 Peter 5:7, "Casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you." Anxiety, "worry and fear," are a natural part of living in this imperfect world; what matters is how we deal with them. In a fast-paced, stress-filled world, perhaps the majority of people have some problem with anxiety, and a significant number--as many as 18% of the U.S. adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health--are suffering from a diagnosable anxiety disorder at any given time.

Doctors can help, and should certainly be consulted in a situation that has become chronic and debilitating--but no counselor can give us forgiveness of sin, and no pill can give us meaning in our lives. Peter rightly said to Jesus, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."(John 6:68) Psychological and emotional healing can begin when we understand that the God who created us, loves us, and will never leave us; for "not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you."(Joshua 23:14)

Our Savior wants us to be free from worry and fear, and part of it is our perspective on what is really important. Many (perhaps most?) of the things we worry about are ultimately of little consequence, and most do not even come to pass. We are often worrying about tomorrow instead of working for today.
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.(Matthew 6:32-34)
If we seek the kingdom first, and meditate on the fact that our eternal problems and concerns are more than taken care of by the blood of Christ, we can look at the transient problems of today with a much encouraged outlook.

Stanza 3:
Troubled soul, the Saviour can see,
Ev'ry heartache and tear;
Burdens are lifted at Calvary
Jesus is very near.


"Jesus wept."(John 11:35) We all know it as the shortest verse in the English Bible; but what does it mean? In that understatement so typical of the gospels, we are left to work that out on our own. First of all, we need to remember the context. Lazarus was dead, a man Jesus called His friend.(John 11:11) The "King of Kings, and Lord of Lords,"(Revelation 19:16) called this imperfect, mortal man a friend; Lazarus was not just one of his subjects, not just a statistic or an abstraction. I think Jesus wept for the suffering his friend had endured.

We also know that Jesus loved the bereaved sisters, Mary and Martha.(John 11:5) Their home in Bethany was a "home away from home" for Jesus when He was in the Jerusalem area. When Jesus saw Mary weeping, "He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled."(John 11:33) I think Jesus wept for the suffering of the family, even though He knew that suffering was about to turn to joy.

The same passage says that He saw the rest of the people weeping with her, and I think He was in part weeping for all the griefs that sin had wrought in the world, the worst of which was spiritual and physical death.(Romans 5:12) The Son of God, by whom "all things were created,"(Colossians 1:16) wept over the sorrows that creation had brought upon itself, which He was soon to take upon himself on the cross.

Never doubt that "the Savior can see / Every heartache and tear." "For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."(Hebrews 4:15)

About the music:

It is always interesting to look at an example of gospel music from outside the American traditions. It is worth remembering that Ira Sankey (1840-1908), an American and the putative founder of the gospel music style, became a celebrity first in Great Britain during his 1873-1875 campaigns with revivalist Dwight L. Moody.(Hall, 317) Sankey even sang at Charles Spurgeon's famous Tabernacle in London--though Spurgeon insisted that he only do so a cappella!(Michael, 140)

Dr. Moore's style in this song emphasizes melody more than harmony. There are very few chromatic notes at all. He adds a 7th in the alto at the end of the first phrase, and at the end of the stanza, to pull the harmony toward the subdominant (an important harmony in the song's structure, always occuring with "burdens are lifted"). There is also the little chromatic fill in the tenor (F, E, E-flat) leading into the second phrases of the chorus, but that is really a matter of leading the tenor back to its note for the next phrase. There are no chromatic chords for their own sake, so to speak.

The melody, however, is quite striking; the opening "hook" drops down an arpeggio of the tonic chord (A, F, C), rather an unusual way to start a song; but this returns as part of the title phrase, on the word "Calvary," and becomes a unifying factor. Particularly interesting is the leap upward on the word "LIFT-ed" each time it appears; it is the highest note in the melody, and after the restricted range of the opening two phrases, it is a noticeable contrast. Was Moore illustrating the text, perhaps even subconsciously? At any rate, it puts a proper emphasis on the key idea of the song.


Osbeck, Kenneth W. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1985.

Bolan, Sandra. "Songwriter sharing his hymns, stories in Stouffville."'s%20on/attractions/article/934098--songwriter-sharing-his-hymns-stories-in-stouffville

National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Bethesda, Maryland: National Institutes of Health, 2009.

Hall, Timothy L. American Religious Leaders. New York: Facts On File, 2003.

Michael, Larry J. Spurgeon on Leadership, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. A very powerful hymn. I like this song. Burdens are indeed lifted at calvary.