An Easy Yoke
by the Rev. Dr. George Dole, faculty member
of the Swedenborg School of Religion
in the July, 1996 issue of Our Daily Bread

Throughout the Old Testament, the yoke is a symbol of oppression. We find it as early as the story of Jacob and Esau, with a prophecy that at some time in the future Esau will gain the dominion and "break the yoke" from off his neck. (Genesis 27:40). In Deuteronomy 28, one of the principal curses for disobedience to the law is that "you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you...and He shall put a yoke of iron upon your neck until He has destroyed you."

Accordingly, deliverance from enemies is described as a breaking of the yoke. Perhaps the most dramatic instance is the encounter between Jeremiah and Hananiah in our Old Testament reading. To understand it, we need a little background. Under a king name Hehiakim, Judah had become a vassal state to Babylon, obliged to pay regular tribute and to provide soldiers on demand. He rebelled, though, and during the reign of his son Jehoiachin the Babylonian army came and besieged Jerusalem. In the eighth year of his reign the city fell and was despoiled. Jehoiachin was taken captive to Babylon and his uncle was enthorned as a puppet king with the throne name of Zedekiah.

Jeremiah saw that things were going to get even worse. His message was unequivocal. The nation had indeed been disobedient, believing that the presence of the temple would somehow offset their violations of the ten commandments, but there was no way around the words of Deuteronomy. If they did not heed the law, they would serve their enemies. Their enemies would put a yoke of iron on their neck. As a symbol of this, Jeremiah wore a yoke on his own neck. Hananiah had a more welcome message. He announced that the Lord had already broken the yoke of Babylon and that within two years the stolen treasures would be returned. To dramatize this promise, he broke Jeremiah's yoke.

We can well understand that ordinary people would not now what to believe. There had been miraculous deliverances in the past. There were hallowed principles that called for punishment for transgression. In a way, both prophecies came true eventually. The temple was destroyed and the people were taken captive to Babylon. Not two years but two generations later, though, Babylon itself was conquered by Persia and the captives were encouraged to return, bringing with them many of the sacred treasures of their temple.

It would not be all that long, though, before their fortunes would turn again. In Gospel times, Judea was again under the yoke of an oppressor - a fact we may overlook because that particular phrase does not occur in the Gospels. We can be very sure, though, that when Jesus used the word yoke, the first thing would come to his hearers' minds would be the control that Rome exercised over them - the taxes that were collected, the soldiers that patrolled their streets, the young men who were conscripted for building projects or for military service.

Unless we are aware of this background, we cannot realize that Jesus was taking a familiar term and giving it a radically new meaning. He is not talking about breaking the yoke, the way the prophets did. He does not seem to be talking about Rome at all. He recognizes that these people are laboring under heavy burdens and he does promise them rest, but he apparently assumes that they will go on wearing a yoke and carrying a burden. The difference will be that this yoke will be easy, and this burden light.

It al makes sense if we simply recognize that the yoke and the burden are symbols of all kinds of obligation. We pride ourselves on being "the land of the free" but as individuals we often feel severely constrained. Sometimes it seems that what everyone else demands of us or simply expects of us leave us no room to do what we really want to do. Every time we turn around, an obligation is staring us in the face.

IF we could see ourselves through children's eyes, things would look very different. To children, it looks as though adults have the power to make all the decisions. The childhood dream is a little like the vision of the prophets, that some day the yoke will simply be broken. Some day, that is, we will be free of all obligations. There is a touch of this in current social thought, which draws a sharp line between the oppressed and the oppressors. The inequalities and injustices are very real, make no mistake. However, it is an illusion to think that the "oppressors" live and choose in some kind of freedom from obligation. Some of them in fact turn out to be excessively or even obsessively driven individuals. They work long hours under debilitating stress. Their burdens are heavy and their yokes are harsh.

It may be true that these yokes and burdens are of their own choosing and even of their own making. But this is only partly true. They did not invent the social pressures toward "success." We are indeed social creatures. If the freedom we are looking for is freedom from all outside pressures, we might as well give up right now.

From a Christian point of view, this social nature is no accident. The second great commandment is that we love the neighbor as ourselves. The Lord added depth to this in commanding us to love each other as He has loved us.

If we put this together with the idea of freedom, something quite remarkable happens. "Whatever we do from love," Swedenborg said, "appears to us to be free". When we love to do what exalts ourselves at the expense of others, though, we set ourselves at odds with those others. We choose to live in a world that resists our intentions. conversely, when we love others as the Lord has loved us, we find delight in their delight. We choose to live in a world that welcomes our intentions.

Our theology insists that what forms our eternal character, what makes the difference between heaven and hell, is our own daily choosing. We are kept in enough freedom to respond more constructively or more selfishly to our circumstances and the choices we make in that freedom are the choices that gradually form our eternal character. When we choose self-gratification at the expense of others it feels like freedom, but it leads toward slavery. When we choose to discipline ourselves toward what we know to be right, it feels like acting under constraint, but it leads toward freedom.

One Gospel image of this is that of the narrow way that leads to life as opposed to the broad one that leads to destruction. That describes vividly the way things look at the beginning. The broad way is the set of mind that sees freedom simply as the breaking of the yoke. The narrow way is the search for the yoke that fits and the burden that is made for us to carry.

This is the Lord's yoke. If we try to shape it for ourselves, we shape it for our own gratification and run into all the problems that entails. What we need to do is to try to understand the Lord's will, to reflect on his life and his words, and to pursue in our own lives the values that we find there. He understood the people He met. As we try to understand each other, we learn about ourselves as well. He translated that understanding into caring, thoughtful deeds and words. As we try to follow this example we discover our own resistances and our own gifts. We find our own unique ways of being his disciples.

We might way that the Lord does not want to transform us into angels. He wants us to be ourselves and angels at the same time. The psalmist tells us truly that the Lord does not withhold anything good from us. Our deepest happiness does not lie in freedom from all obligations, but in finding the obligations that we love, that bind us into the community we call His kingdom.



In the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah, son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord. Thus the Lord said to me: Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck...

Then the prophet, Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place form Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles..."

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke form the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, "Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years." At this the prophet Jeremiah went his way.

Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals. And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, "Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord."

Jeremiah 27:1-2; 28:5-6, 10-16

Reading from Swedenborg:

When we compel ourselves to resist evil and falsity...there is more of freedom than is possible in any state out of temptations - although at the time we cannot comprehend this - for there is an interior freedom, from which we will to subjugate evil, and which is so great as to equal the force and strength of the evil that is assailing us, for otherwise we could not possibly wage the combat. This freedom is from the Lord, who insinuates it into our conscience, and by means of it causes us to overcome the evil as from what is our own. Through this freedom we acquire an Own in which the Lord can work what is good. Without an Own acquired, that is, given, through freedom, no one can possibly be reformed, because one cannot receive the new will, which is conscience. The freedom thus given is the very plane into which there is an influx of good and truth from the Lord. Hence it is that they who in temptations do not resist from their own will, or in freedom, give way. In all freedom there is our life, because there is our love. Whatever we do from love appears to us free. But in this freedom, when we compel ourselves to resist what is evil and false, and to do what is good, there is heavenly love, which the Lord then insinuates, and through which He crates our Own; and therefore the Lord wills that it should appear to us as ours, although it is not ours.

Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Secrets) #1937


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1999 Bruce DeBoer