“take my yoke.” In this phrase, the word “yoke” is referring to what Jesus is asking people to do: the sum total of his teachings, and he said it was gentle (not “easy”) and light. The word “yoke” is the figure of speech, hypocatastasis, a comparison by implication (see commentary on Rev. 20:2).
In the biblical culture, the literal yoke that was used to harness animals together for work was essential for survival: it was used so animals could plow, thresh grain, and pull loads such as carts. The yoke was not something animals liked to wear, because the loads they pulled were often heavy and difficult. Furthermore, many yokes rubbed sores on the animal’s necks because they were quickly and crudely made.
People also used the word “yoke” figuratively, and applied it to things that were heavy and unpleasant. The hard work that Solomon made his subjects do was called a “yoke” by his subjects (1 Kings 12:4). Enemies put a “yoke” on the people of Israel, placing various kinds of burdens on them (Deut. 28:48; Isa. 10:27; 47:6; Jer. 27:11). The word “yoke” was also used of being a slave, because it was usually burdensome (1 Tim. 6:1). It was foretold that when the Messiah came he would shatter the yoke that burdens people (Isa. 9:4).
The word “yoke” was also used for submission to a system of beliefs, and the expression, “the yoke of the Law” was common in rabbinic literature. “In Jewish literature a ‘yoke’ represents the sum-total of obligations which, according to the teaching of the rabbis, a person must take upon himself. This definition accounts for such terms as ‘yoke of the Torah,’ ‘yoke of the commandments,’ ‘yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, etc.” (Hendriksen: New Testament Commentary). In saying, “the yoke of the Law,” the rabbis were not so much emphasizing the “weight” of the Law, or the difficulty of keeping it (although that could easily be part of the meaning, depending on the context), but rather the fact of being submitted to the system of beliefs that constituted the Law. The Law of Moses was considered a “yoke” because of the restraints it put on people and the amount of effort it took to keep it and obey its precepts.
Although the Law was a “yoke” upon people, whether they found it difficult or a blessing depended upon the attitude of the people. Romans 7:12 says the Law is holy, righteous, and good. The Apostle Peter used “yoke” to represent the teachings of the Law in Acts 15:10: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” Peter did not mean to say the Law was in any way ungodly—he did not feel that way. However, even though he believed the Law was from God and was a good thing, he still recognized that it was a system that restrained and controlled people and no one, not even the Jews to whom God gave the Law, could obey it without sin.
As the Early Church continued, the figure “yoke” was even used for the teachings about grace in the New Testament. The Church Father Clement of Rome referred to Christians as those who come under the yoke of grace. Even the teachings about grace include restrictions and responsibilities that Christians need to heed.
Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” The verbs “take” and “learn” are in the imperative mood, which in this context is an imperative of exhortation but has the overtone of a command. Jesus’ statement was a strong exhortation, made with love. Christ’s “yoke” is still a yoke. Jesus did not say, “I free you from religious bondage; go do whatever you want!” Jesus wants us under his yoke, his system of grace and love. It is gentle and light, but it is still a yoke, and we must have desire and self-control to live under the yoke of Christ.
The yoke Jesus asks us to take was different than a yoke of religious bondage. The people in Jesus’ time had been burdened by the yoke of the religious leaders—their system of religious requirements. In fact, something that does not show up well in English is that in Matt. 11:28 (ESV), when Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden...,” the verb “are heavy laden” (one word in the Greek text), is in the passive voice. This means that the burdens had been placed upon the people (although it is possible, but less likely, that a burden had been placed on them because they picked them up themselves). Little has changed since the time of Christ. Many religious systems are full of man-made regulations that are a great burden, and there is as much need now as there ever was to “learn of me,” learn the truth about Christ and what he teaches, and then take his yoke.
“souls.” The Greek word often translated “soul” is psuchē (#5590 ψυχή; pronounced psoo-kay’), and it has a large number of meanings, including the physical life of a person or animal; an individual person; or attitudes, emotions, feelings, and thoughts. Here it refers to the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the person himself. The person will find rest within himself and be at peace [For a more complete explanation of “soul,” see Appendix 7, “Usages of ‘Soul’”].