Lighten the Yoke  

“Lighten the yoke,” the beleaguered people of Israel pleaded with new King Rehoboam.

His deceased father, Solomon, for all his legendary wisdom, had pushed the population to the breaking point. Massive building projects in Jerusalem had become every bit as onerous as Pharaoh’s pyramids, and the people were hopeful that things would be scaled back after his demise. “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you” (First Kings 12:4).

Given three days to consider their plight, Rehoboam consulted his father’s advisers, who counseled him to comply, reasoning that he would gain their eternal loyalty in the process. Rehoboam, however, preferred the advice of his peers, just as young and brash as he, leading him to answer the people, “And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (First Kings 12:11).

The consequences for Rehoboam, so intent upon being served as monarch, were revolting. The leading supplicant, Jeroboam, led his people to turn against the king, plunging the realm into a Civil War from which it would never recover. Lightening an unfair yoke would have saved the kingdom, as well as his reign, but Rehoboam was no servant of the people.

The burdensome yoke that brought Israel’s history to the point of division was a metaphor for the heavy taxation, military conscription, and arduous labor inflicted upon the nation. The yoke is a term from husbandry – a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull.

The yoke caused the animals to work in tandem, lightening the load for each so long as both animals pulled. If one proved weaker than the other, the concept was spoiled, but if both contributed to the teamwork, the result was symbiotic (see Ephesians 4:15-16). 

At least two enduring New Testament illustrations originate around the necks of these animals.

Paul, by referring to the Law of Moses, counseled believers not to become unequally yoked with unbelievers, in the way that oxen and donkeys were wrongly combined (Second Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Deuteronomy 22:10). Because of their different natures and capabilities, they made poor partners; in the same way, fellowship between believers and unbelievers too frequently leads the faithful to compromise and fall into apostasy. Christians must come out from among such people and be distinct; “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (Second Corinthians 7:1).

Jesus, in contrast to the unscriptural impositions of teachers like the Pharisees, offered his followers the lightened burden that Rehoboam denied. His disciples were like children among the self-righteously wise and understanding master teachers and lawyers, yet Jesus reached out to them with patience and gentleness. “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).

The Pharisees and lawyers were guilty of imposing unscriptural and heavy burdens upon the people they taught, influenced, and regulated. Greedy and wicked, they vigorously enforced traditional interpretations of the Law of Moses, including a set of commentaries that became a hedge around the Law. They meticulously tithed even the roots and stems of their herbs, but turned a blind eye to weightier principles of justice and the love of God. “For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers,” Jesus told one of them (Luke 11:46).

The burdens were hard to bear, the kind that Peter described as “a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). By then, some of the Pharisees had actually become Christians, but their bad habits had followed them into the church, where they kept busy by compelling Gentile brethren to be circumcised and to keep the days and diet of the Law of Moses (see Romans 14, Galatians 3). 

This hedge around the Law – unbiblical human tradition, the imposition of opinion, the regulation of harmless behavior – increased the burden and interfered with the gospel’s progress. Peter rejected it: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11). When truth prevailed in Jerusalem, James addressed a letter to the Gentile brethren, making clear that the Judaizing teachers were without authority. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements” (Acts 15:28). The faithful were unburdened of defunct religious customs, as well as the uninspired, though time-honored, traditions of the elders, the commandments of men that were often taught as if they were doctrines of God (Matthew 15:1-9, Revelation 2:24).

Spiritual victory becomes a matter, not of perfect Law-keeping, something even the conscientious Saul of Tarsus had failed, but of devoted faith (Romans 7:7-12). “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (First John 5:3-4).

The implication for our attempts at evangelizing a lost world remain the same. We proclaim the grace of Christ and commend justification by works of faith (John 6:29, James 2:18, First Thessalonians 1:3). We speak where the Bible speaks of the plan of salvation and the conditionality of fellowship, but we lay upon the gospel’s hearers no greater burden, no unscriptural demands, personal standards, or traditional tests.