Symbolically, a yoke in the Bible can suggest merely hard work (Lamentations 3:27), but more often it indicates bondage or servitude, as we see in the slavery of the children of Israel in Egypt (Leviticus 26:13). In Isaac’s “blessing” of Esau, the yoke of servitude was placed on his elder son because he became subject to Jacob, the holder of both birthright and blessing (Genesis 27:40). We all placed ourselves under the yoke of bondage to sin (Lamentations 1:14). The yoke is also used to indicate joining of two together in union (II Corinthians 6:14).
An actual yoke is most often made of wood that has been shaped or carved to fit around the necks of two cattle, oxen, or other beasts of burden, allowing them to pull heavy loads, carts, or wagons. Animals are often yoked for plowing as well. Because of their anatomy, cattle are more suited to working with a yoke. Yokes are easy, effective, and economical ways to harness the locomotive energy of the ox.
There are actually three basic yoke designs, based on the way the yoke is used to capture the power of the animals. These variations are called the “head yoke,” “neck yoke,” and “withers yoke.” The task to be done often determines which yoke is best-suited for the animals to maximize their effectiveness.
The head yoke is fitted to use the hard part of the forehead to pull the load. This yoke provides better animal-control and better management of carts or wagons on hilly terrain. An interesting characteristic of the head yoke is that it keeps the yoked animals from fighting and jawing at one another, as it constrains their heads from moving much side-to-side.
The neck yoke, which obviously fits around the neck, gives the animals comfort on uneven terrain and more maneuverability in the field or forest, allowing them to push with their shoulders, neck, and chest. The neck yoke also permits the animals to move faster with more flexibility. The downside to the neck yoke is that it allows the two animals to fight, and if the two are not well-matched, it allows them to pull away from each other. It is also not as well-suited to hilly terrain.
The withers yoke is most suitable for cattle that have a hump. The yoke fits against the withers or hump, keeping the shoulders free from the staves and thus not interfering with the movement of the shoulders. All around, the withers yoke is most flexible.
No matter what the task, the most important part of the yoke and the animals chosen to do the job is how well the yoke is made to fit those particular animals. Heavy work in the field or on the road will quickly show where the weaknesses are in any yoking system.
A good yoke or harnessing system is one that minimizes breakdowns of both animals and equipment. A properly fitting yoke will not produce any discomfort or cause sores to form but allow the animal to work at its full potential. Of course, the yoke does not take away the work but aids the animal in performing the task.
A yoke ties two animals together, and they must work together, or the work will not be done. Cattle are good work animals because they are naturally herd animals and normally work well together. When cattle interact, one will establish dominance over the others, making one animal the leader. A teamster or plowman may have several yokes of animals, but there will be only one leader. In l Kings 19, when Elijah called Elisha to succeed him as prophet, the younger man was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. When oxen are yoked together, however, though one animal is dominant, it should not be recognizable when they are working. Each animal has to pull its own weight.
The animals also need to be close to the same size, age, and breed. If they are “unequally yoked” (II Corinthians 6:14), the team will face great difficulty in getting the job done. For instance, an ox and a donkey are both good work animals, but they do not work well together at all. They are different breeds, different sizes, and have different temperaments. When used together, they are unequally yoked.
The Yoke of Iron
Another type of yoke is the human yoke. These, too, were made of wood and fitted to the shoulders so that a person could carry a load more easily. In Deuteronomy 28:48, God warns the Israelites that, if they failed to serve Him properly, He would allow their enemies to fit them with a “yoke of iron.” Clearly, the yoke of iron—a heavy, uncomfortable, unyielding, confining restraint—is an implement of destruction used by God to punish His people for their sins.
As this passage indicates, people bring this yoke upon themselves through disobedience to God’s law. If we are feeling that our yoke is too heavy, maybe we are wearing the wrong yoke. If so, we need to examine ourselves (II Corinthians 13:5). Have we brought the yoke of iron upon ourselves? If we do not repent, a heavy yoke of sin will destroy us!
How many times do we blame God for our trials, when in fact, by our ingratitude and worldliness, we have fitted ourselves with an iron yoke! When we refuse to recognize our sins or to evaluate our spiritual condition soberly, we are returning to the bondage from which we have been so graciously freed. Jeremiah writes in Lamentations 1:14: “The yoke of my transgressions was bound . . ., and thrust upon my neck. He made my strength fail; the Lord delivered me into the hands of those whom I am not able to withstand.”
l Corinthians 10:13 is a familiar scripture where God tells us that He will never give us a trial that is more than we can handle. He will never allow us to be tempted without providing a way out. In other words, we do not have to sin! We do not have to bring the curse of the iron yoke upon our necks! The apostle John tells us that keeping God’s commandments is not burdensome (I John 5:3). Our “burden” is not as burdensome as we may think; we can always lighten it by doing what God says is right.
Even so, it is not easy. The discipline required to be a disciple of Christ is hard work. Anyone who thinks that the Christian life does not involve work is wrong. Contrary to popular belief, God never said that we would not have to work. He never said we would not have to endure. He never said that the Christian life would be without pain or weariness—but He did say that He would supply our needs and that He would finish what He started in us.
The Easy Yoke
Jesus encourages us in Matthew 11:27-30:
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me, all you 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.
Our Savior Jesus Christ understands perfectly the burdens of this world. He understands perfectly the burden of sin and the devastation it causes. Sin has the power to destroy what God is creating, His Family, but Christ has already defeated sin. We do not have to carry that burden. He did it fully and completely, for when God does something, we do not have to redo it!
When we think of a yoke, we often think of bondage, servitude, or grueling work that will drive us into the ground. Some may recall the movie in which Samson, blind and bald, struggles to push a huge grindstone, and every step of the way is painful. In reality, however, a yoke is nothing more than a tool to do a job, and as we have seen, a well-designed yoke allows the user to work at maximum capacity and efficiency. Most importantly, our Savior has offered us His yoke. Would any other yoke fit us more perfectly?
Recall the details mentioned earlier of two oxen working together in the yoke, and then consider how closely Jesus is working with each of us. We need to picture ourselves sharing the same yoke as Jesus, like a couple of oxen with a load to pull. We should also add to this scene God the Father as the teamster, just as we saw in verse 27 that He has given Christ “all things” needed to get the job done. Jesus is right beside us in the yoke, working diligently to guide us and pull His share of the load to ensure that we finish the job.
What is our reward? Verse 28 says that He will give us rest, “rest for your souls,” as verse 29 adds. Jesus’ yoke is one of rest, the same rest that is discussed in Hebrews 3-4—the rest of God in His Kingdom!
Then, in verse 30 appears Jesus’ heartening proclamation, “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Jesus has already cut the road, so all we have to do is to follow His lead, and we will find rest from all of our burdens.
Written by Ronnie Grahamby