A bar borne upon a person’s shoulders, from each side of which loads were suspended (compare Isa 9:4), or a wooden bar or frame placed over the necks of two draft animals (usually cattle) when drawing a farm implement or a wagon. (Nu 19:2; De 21:3; 1Sa 6:7) The latter crossbeam was generally held in position by two bands, each encircling the neck of one animal. Some yokes, instead of having bands, had straight bars that projected down along each side of the animals’ necks and were secured by thongs tied across their throats. Yokes were also fastened to the animals’ foreheads at the base of their horns. Yokes borne across the shoulders of humans in ancient Egypt to carry water and other burdens were about 1 m (3 ft) long and were equipped with straps at the ends for attaching loads.
Original-Language Terms. The Greek terms (zy·gosʹ, zeuʹgos) that convey the idea of a yoke are drawn from the word zeuʹgny·mi, which means “yoke; couple; join; bind; unite together.” Usually two animals were yoked together, so the Greek word zeuʹgos can denote a “pair” or “yoke” of animals, such as a “pair of turtledoves.” (Lu 2:24; 14:19) The Hebrew term tseʹmedh somewhat corresponds to the Greek word zeuʹgos and can designate a “couple” (Jg 19:3, 10), a “pair” (1Sa 11:7), a “span” (1Ki 19:19, 21), or an “acre,” the measure of land that a span of bulls can plow in a day (1Sa 14:14; Isa 5:10). An entirely different Hebrew word (ʽol or ʽohl), however, refers to the instrument used for yoking or uniting things together. (Nu 19:2) Another Hebrew term (moh·tahʹ, yoke bar) is associated with yokes (Le 26:13; Isa 58:6, 9; Jer 27:2; 28:10, 12, 13; Eze 30:18; 34:27) and at 1 Chronicles 15:15 refers to the poles by means of which the Ark was carried. The Greek word zy·gosʹ, besides designating a yoke, can apply to various objects that unite two or more things. For example, the beam of a pair of scales ‘yokes’ two pans together; thus, zy·gosʹ is rendered “pair of scales” at Revelation 6:5. Like the Hebrew ʽol (Ge 27:40; Isa 9:4), zy·gosʹ could also describe the yoke bar used by an individual for carrying loads, equally distributed on either side of the bar.
Figurative Use. Slaves often had to carry burdens (compare Jos 9:23; 1Ti 6:1), and for this reason the yoke appropriately represented enslavement or subjection to another person, such as Esau’s subjection to Jacob (Ge 27:40), or subjection to a ruler or nation (1Ki 12:4-14; 2Ch 10:4-14; Eze 34:27), as well as oppression and suffering. (Isa 58:6-9) An iron yoke denoted severer bondage than a wooden yoke. (De 28:48; Jer 28:10-14) And removing or breaking the yoke signified liberation from bondage, oppression, and exploitation.—Le 26:13; Isa 10:27; 14:25; Jer 2:20; 28:2, 4; 30:8; Eze 30:18.
When the city of Jerusalem fell to King Nebuchadnezzar, the inhabitants came under the heavy yoke of submission to Babylon. This yoke was especially hard on the old men, who had not endured such a thing earlier in life. (Compare Isa 47:6.) Evidently alluding to this in his lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah said: “Good it is for an able-bodied man that he should carry the yoke during his youth.” By learning to bear a yoke of suffering while young, an individual will find it much easier to bear a yoke in later life, and that without losing hope.—La 3:25-30.
Whereas individuals and nations have dealt oppressively with others, Jehovah God has never placed an oppressive, hurtful yoke upon his faithful servants. Through the prophet Hosea, Jehovah reminded Israel of his merciful treatment: “With the ropes of earthling man I kept drawing them, with the cords of love, so that I became to them as those lifting off a yoke on their jaws, and gently I brought food to each one.” (Ho 11:4) So in Jehovah’s treatment of the Israelites, he acted as one who lifted off or pushed back a yoke far enough to enable an animal to eat comfortably. It was only when they broke their yoke of submission to God (Jer 5:5) that they came under the oppressive yoke of enemy nations.—Compare De 28:48; Jer 5:6-19; 28:14.
The Law given to the nation of Israel was a yoke, for it placed them under obligations and responsibilities to Jehovah God. Being holy, righteous, and good, what the Law prescribed did not work injury to the Israelites. (Ro 7:12) Because of their sinfulness and imperfection, however, they were unable to keep it perfectly, and therefore it proved to be a yoke that ‘neither they nor their forefathers were able to bear’ (for it resulted in condemnation to them for breaking the Law). This point was made by Peter, when showing that it was not necessary to impose upon non-Jewish Christians the obligation to observe “the law of Moses.” (Ac 15:4-11) The Law itself did not bring slavery, but sin did. (Ro 7:12, 14) So for an individual to try to gain life by keeping the Mosaic Law perfectly not only would be impossible but would also mean letting himself “be confined again in a yoke of slavery,” because, being a sinner and a slave to sin, he would be condemned by the Law, which provided no truly effective sacrifice for sins, as did Christ’s ransom.—Ga 5:1-6.
In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jews found themselves under the yoke of the Mosaic Law and, additionally, burdened down with many traditions of men. Concerning the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus Christ said: “They bind up heavy loads and put them upon the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.” (Mt 23:4) Hence, from a spiritual viewpoint, the common people especially were “loaded down.” So Jesus could say: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls. For my yoke is kindly and my load is light.” (Mt 11:28-30) If the “yoke” Jesus had in mind was one that had been placed upon him by his heavenly Father, then this would signify that others could get under the yoke with him and he would assist them. On the other hand, if the yoke is one that Jesus himself puts on others, then the reference is to submitting oneself to Christ’s authority and direction as his disciple. At Philippians 4:3 the apostle Paul was likely referring to a particular brother in the Philippian congregation as a “genuine yokefellow,” that is, one under Christ’s yoke.
Since marriage binds husband and wife together, it is like a yoke. (Mt 19:6) Hence, for a Christian to marry an unbeliever would result in an ‘unequal yoking’ (2Co 6:14), making unity in thought and action very difficult.