Now the chances are that you’re not an agricultural worker who uses mostly ancient methods of tillage to work your soil, so I’ve got a bit of explaining to do.
As with a fair amount of Biblical imagery, we don’t tend to be too familiar with what a ‘yoke’ is (unless it’s a misspelling of yolk in which case, sunny side up with toast, please).
As demonstrated by Danny and Bert in the picture, a yoke is a simple contraption designed to keep two oxen together as they pull the plough along a field. It is an ancient device, so that we find practical advice about its use back in Deuteronomy – of which more in a moment. So for ancient readers this would have been more recognisable language – so get the imagery in your mind for what we’re about to look at.
Curiously the Bible has a fair amount to say likening God’s workers to oxen, but there’s not space to expand on that here, only to look at this particular element of yokes.
Given the nature of the device, it was a fairly obvious requirement that the two animals be rather alike in size, ability and so on, hence: ‘You shall not plough an ox and a donkey together’ – Deuteronomy 22:10. It’s easy to picture the scene: a wonky donkey and a foxed ox trying to hold it together. If you as the farmer didn’t get kicked by the donkey, you might at least end up kicking yourself for having plough lines criss-crossing all over the field. Get two animals together who are alike and can work as one.
That’s the power of the symbol of the yoke. Another curious fact is that Biblically it’s used both as a negative and as a positive picture. On the one hand it can be the yoke of enslavement by a hard-driving master. Isaiah 10:24-27 describe the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from the Assyrian ‘who strikes you with the rod and lifts up his staff against you, the way Egypt did’ – a clear reference to enslavement. How is the deliverance pictured? ‘his burden will be removed from your shoulders and his yoke from your neck, and the yoke will be broken because of fatness’ – or ‘because of oil’. Frequently the farmers in those days would have to use oil or some kind of fat to loosen the yoke after a hard day’s work, before they could remove it. God uses this imagery to describe how his anointing oil breaks the yoke of slavery!
It is also a neutral picture which can become negative under certain circumstances; thus Paul takes up the image in 2 Corinthians 6:14 – ‘Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers’. The truth is perhaps that we all have partnerships in our lives which look very much like oxen partnerships. And if you’re one that has placed your trust in Jesus and you’re trying to walk through life with someone who is very much set on an opposite path, well, the image speaks for itself. That is not to say that the New Testament thinks it impossible for Christians to be married to non-Christians; after all, with people getting converted all over the place, it was bound to happen that (for example) a wife could come to believe while her husband did not. Paul speaks elsewhere about unbelieving husbands being sanctified by a believing wife.
The scenario here in 2 Corinthians is markedly different: it seems to apply to any partnership in general where a believer is struggling with the trajectory of an unbeliever. Paul sets out contrasts which show the opposition he is getting at: “What partnership has light with darkness? …Christ with Belial? …the temple of God with idols?”
But the image of the yoke is also seen as a positive one, at the point when Jesus offers his beautiful invitation:
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I’d not always really thought about what Jesus exactly meant by taking his yoke upon us. Perhaps he’s the farmer and he calls his disciples to share the yoke he lays on us.
Or perhaps he’s the other ox, who has ploughed the field before, God become man so he could be right beside us and speak to us saying “this is the way, walk in it.” I rather think that’s what he meant, and it makes me love him all over again.