A heavy or light yoke? Jesus and the kings of old

“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.” (Jesus. Matt. 11:29-30)

Jesus calls us to rest. He calls everyone who is burdened to a soul-restoring discipleship. These are some of the most precious words ever spoken. They have shaped my understanding of the universal call of Jesus as well as the shape of the Christian approach to obedience. Jesus is our Saviour and our Lord.

The context drips with interpretive implications. His words seamlessly flow from his own personal and thankful prayer to this Father. The Father has given him authority to reveal the most profound things to those he chooses (Matt. 11:25-27). The Son answers authority with a gracious call to “little ones” to find rest in him.

Matthew then recounts two stories that illustrate Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus fulfils that commandment in his person by bringing rest for his disciples and for a man with a withered hand (Matt. 12:1-8, 9-14). Jesus promises rest and then shows it with a visual aid.

Jeremiah’s words clearly lay behind Jesus’ call. Jesus invokes the old ways.

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (Jer. 6:16) 

But what about the word ‘yoke’, that word used for husbandry and servitude? The Greek word lying behind ‘easy’ is elsewhere translated ‘kind’ or ‘virtuous’. While there is no such thing as yoke-less Christianity, the yoke of Jesus is kind.  Where has this language of yoke been used before? Let’s go back to Solomon and his son Rehoboam. They were given authority by God. But how did they use it?

Jesus’ call compared to the kings of old

Jesus is King David’s greater son, but David’s own son and grandson, Solomon and Rehoboam, do not measure up well, especially when it came to laying a yoke on their people. Weakness, pride and stupidity ran rich through that line.

The story is recounted in both 1 Kings 12 and 2 Chronicles 10. When the people come up to the young Rehoboam they make a comment about the recently deceased Solomon and plead to their brand-new king. 

“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.” (1 Ki. 12:4; 2 Chr. 10:4)

They were not exaggerating. Solomon, made the people suffer under a heavy burden and yoke, even and especially, in the building of the temple. ‘King Solomon drafted forced labour out of all Israel’ and made slaves out of the foreigners (1 Ki. 5:13; 9:15-22). All the prophecies about heavy kingship were being fulfilled almost immediately (1 Sam. 8:10-18). 

How did Rehoboam answer this request? He famously rejected the wisdom of the gray-beards and listened to the young bucks. God used his pride to rip most of kingdom away from him (1 Ki. 12:6-15). His childhood friends advised him to lay even more burdens on the apparently rebellious people. Show them who is boss and who is the most manly. 

“Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. 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.’” (1 Ki. 12:10-11; 2 Chr 10:10-11). 

And Rehoboam regurgitated this advice verbatim.

“My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (1 Ki. 12:14; 2 Chr. 10:14)

The result of this was bad news for the people, the king, and the nation. Rebellion fomented and Israel was ripped in two. What can we draw from this comparison?

A. This story about Rehoboam is most certainly behind the words of Jesus

I’m not saying that this story is the only Old Testament reservoir for Jesus’ words. There are many threads tied together in Jesus’ call to rest in him, but the language of yoke and the ideas of heavy or light are found nowhere else in the Bible in such concentration as the account of Rehoboam.

B. Therefore Jesus’ words of comfort are, in some way, about kingship

Yes, they are about discipleship and there is most certainly a comparison with the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, but the comparison is also royal. The prayer of Jesus that immediately precedes recounts his heavenly authority and the following Sabbath debate is, in part, about kingship. In talking about the rest of the Sabbath, Jesus compares himself to yet-to-be-king David who ate the ‘bread of Presence’ (Matt. 12:3). Jesus even describes himself as greater than the temple which Solomon built (Mat. 12:6). And this temple was not going to be built by the ‘hard-service’ of all the people, but only of the king. Rehoboam destroyed the integrity of the kingdom of God, but Jesus restores it with an kind yoke rather than a heavy burden. 

C. Jesus does not have anything to prove when it comes to his own Father

Rehoboam had daddy issues. He wanted to prove that he was more manly and tough than his own father and make his stamp on the people. Jesus is the exact opposite. His light burden and his easy yoke comes from a deep heavenly security that he has in relationship with his Father (Matt. 11:25-30). The richness of that relationship secures our own relationship with him. 

D. The heart of the king is the heart of kingship

In outlining the laws about kingship in Deuteronomy, God’s concern for the king was all about his heart, which must be protected above all else. He must not chase gold, girls or glory and must keep close to God’s word, ‘lest his heart turn away’ or ‘that his heart be lifted up above his brothers’ (Deut. 17:17,19). Solomon’s heart turned away from God and Rehoboam’s heart was certainly exalted over his brothers. Politicians and schmoozing leaders can promise us lighter burdens, but their heart is even more important to guarantee that they are not lying. Jesus shows us his inner being, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). 

E. Jesus’ life resonates with the words of the old advisers to Rehoboam

Let’s hear the advice of the old men. They followed the ancient paths (Jer. 6:16).

And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Ki. 12:7; 2 Chr. 10:7)

What does this language remind us of?  Rehoboam only ever called the yoke, ‘yours’. Jesus calls it ‘my’ before he offers it to those who would learn from him. Jesus also tells us that he came to serve and only then he calls his people to serve as he did (Matt. 20:26-28; Mk 10:45).

F. Jesus is the complete opposite of Rehoboam and Solomon.

He keeps his heart on the Lord. He does not destroy the unity of the people. He builds a temple without destroying the people, but by destroying himself. He speaks good words that come out of his secure relationship with his father. He leads by serving. He lays a burden on people that he himself bears, which he takes on himself. Instead of threatening a whip against his people, he himself is whipped, and in this he brings rest.

Along with its other biblical and theological connections, may the story of Rehoboam make these words stand out in even brighter contrast with all other rival leaders, both ancient and contemporary. In Jesus’ service is perfect rest.

“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.” (Jesus. Matt. 11:29-30)