In the Old Testament the English word "burden" is translated from the Hebrew word massa [a'C;m]. It is used of a donkey's burden ( Exod 23:5 ). In Numbers 4:15 it is used of the items the sons of Kohath carried as they moved the tabernacle from place to place in the wilderness. Another kind of burden is described in Numbers 11:11, 17, where Moses is bearing the burden of the people and the Lord tells him to gather the seventy elders so that "they will help you carry the burden of the people." In that instance, the burden is not physical but psychological and spiritual. David uses the word in the same way when he is leaving Jerusalem and says to Hushai, "If you go with me, you will be a burden to me" ( 2 Sa 15:33 ). Job asks God if he has become a burden to him ( 7:20 ).
The same Hebrew word is used in reference to a prophetic utterance describing a threat or punishment on a nation or people. Isaiah uses the term in chapters 13 through 23. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Zechariah all have similar sections. Recent translations have tended to render the word "oracle" instead of "burden." The basic concept seems to be that Israel's sinful actions have caused God to be burdened. Therefore, in righteousness he is compelled to judge them.
In the New Testament phortion [fortivon], the Greek word used for burden, denotes the troubles of this life. In Matthew 23:4 Jesus describes the heavy burdens the Pharisees laid upon the people "but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." Obviously this is a burden of legalism. This same Greek word is used to describe a man's load of imperfections and sins in Galatians 6:5. Jesus uses the same word to describe his burden in Matthew 11:30: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." The reason for having a light burden is described in the previous verse: "I am gentle and humble in heart." Burdens will come in this life but they will be light if we have Jesus' approach to life.
Another Greek word, baros [bavro"], is used to describe the decision of the first church council in Jerusalem: "We will not place upon you any greater burden than these" ( Acts 15:28 ). Baros [bavro"] is also used in Galatians 6:2 to describe our Christian responsibility.
Alan N. Winkler
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1. In the Old Testament:
In the Old Testament more than one word is rendered "burden."
(1) massa', from a root nasa' "he lifted up." Thus literally any load is called massa' (Exodus 23:5; Numbers 4:15,24,27; 2 Kings 5:17; 8:9). Figuratively, people are a burden (Numbers 11:11,17; Deuteronomy 1:12; 2 Samuel 15:33; 19:35). A man may be a burden to himself (Job 7:20). Iniquities are a burden (Psalms 38:4). Taxes may be a burden (Hosea 8:10).
(2) In both the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) massa' is translated "burden," as applied to certain prophetic utterances; but both the American Revised Version, margin and the Revised Version, margin have "oracle." Examples are Isaiah 13:1; 14:28, and often; Jeremiah 23:33,36,38, no marginal reading; Ezekiel 12:10; Nahum 1:1; Habakkuk 1:1; Zechariah 9:1; 12:1; Malachi 1:1. As was natural under the circumstances, such oracles usually denounced judgment upon place or people. Hence, probably the translation "burden." But some of these prophetic utterances do not contain denunciation or threat (Zechariah 12). The passage in Jer, moreover, implies that the prophet used the term in the sense of "oraele," for scoffers are reproved for perverting the word and giving it the meaning "burden." Massa', therefore, means something taken up with solemnity upon the lips, whether threatening or not, and the rendering, "burden," ought most likely to be given up.
The word mas'-eth, of the same derivation as massa', is applied to foolish oracles (Lamentations 2:14 the King James Version, oracles the American Standard Revised Version, burdens the American Revised Version, margin, burdens the Revised Version (British and American), oracles the Revised Version, margin; Amos 5:11, burdens the King James Version, exactions the American Standard Revised Version and the Revised Version (British and American)).
Massa' is used also in Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1, and is variously rendered prophecy (the King James Version), oracle (American Revised Version), burden, or the name of the speaker's country (Revised Version margin, the American Revised Version, margin), oracle (Revised Version). The reading is doubtful, but probably the reference is to the speaker's country- -"Jakeh, of Massa" (compare Genesis 25:14), "Lemuel king of Massa."
Other words translated "burden" are from the root cabhal, "to bear a load" (Nehemiah 4:17; Psalms 81:6; 1 Kings 11:28; King James Version margin, charge the King James Version, labor the American Standard Revised Version and the Revised Version (British and American), burden the American Revised Version, margin and the Revised Version, margin, Exodus 5:4,5; 6:6,7; Isaiah 10:27; Isaiah 14:25).
2. In the New Testament:
In the New Testament several Greek words mean "burden."
(1) baros, "something heavy." Burdens of the day (Matthew 20:12), the burden of duty to be borne, a difficult requirement (Acts 15:28; Revelation 2:24). The burden of one's moral infirmities (Galatians 6:2).
(2) phortion, "something to be borne." The obligation which Christ imposes (Matthew 11:30); the legal ordinances of the Pharisees (Luke 11:46); a man's individual responsibility (Galatians 6:5). Whether any clear and consistent distinction can be made between these two words is doubtful. Probably, however, phortion refers to the load as something to be borne, whether heavy or light, whilst baros may be an oppressive load. According to Lightfoot baros may suggest a load of which a man may rightly rid himself should occasion serve, but phortion a burden which he is expected to bear, as every soldier carries his own pack. But most likely too much weight should not be given to these distinctions.
(3) There is also the word gomos, "the freight" of a ship (Acts 21:3); compare ogkos, weight or encumbrance which impedes the runner's progress to the goal (Hebrews 12:1), with particular reference to the superfluous flesh which an athlete seeks to get rid of in training (compare 1 Corinthians 9:24-27), and figuratively whatever hinders the full development of Christian manhood.
George Henry Trever
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