This chapter gives us another “illustrated prophecy” of Jeremiah’s to the rulers of his day. In this case, it involves not only the king of Judah, but the ambassadors of several small surrounding nations as well. And Jeremiah’s prop of choice this time is a piece of farm equipment-he enters the king’s chambers wearing a yoke meant for two large oxen. God never said being a prophet would be easy…or cool.
Jeremiah’s message is simple: surrender to the coming Babylonian army or suffer the consequences of a loosing battle. Notice that with this message, the illustration of the yoke is not one of impending doom and destruction-it is an invitation. The yoke is intended for two oxen, so there is one free opening in the yoke and Jeremiah invites the king and ambassadors to join him in willing submission to Nebuchadnezzar. In verse 8 he says:
But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the LORD, until I have consumed it by his hand.
God has given the region to the Babylonians and there is nothing Zedekiah or the other nations can do to change that. They, however, feel differently. We know from the Babylonian’s own records that at this time they are facing battle on their eastern border, battle with the Syrian army, and an internal insurrection all at the same time. So it is not surprising that Zedekiah and the others feel confident of their chances to throw of the Babylonian yoke. Throw in the mixture the false prophets who are telling Zedekiah what he wants to hear, and he is sure there is a third way out of this situation.
But Jeremiah is persistent about his two options. Either Zedekiah goes with God and remains in his own land, or he takes his fate into his own hands and suffers the fortune of the looser in battle. (2 Kings 25 details Zedekiah’s rebellious choice and his fate worse than death.) Both choices are yokes, but one leads him to safety and the other to doom.
Paul has something similar to say about the choices before all of us in Romans 6:16-18.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Like Zedekiah we want to be in charge of our own destinies, to be absolutely autonomous. But also like Zedekiah we have only two choices set before us. Either we enslave ourselves to our own shortcomings, passions and sins, or we willingly take on the yoke of Christ and open ourselves to abundance, grace, forgiveness, and life eternal. The autonomous choice is blindness and death; taking on the yoke of Christ is life more abundantly. Christ spoke to his disciples saying this,
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. Matthew 11:29-30