Our previous post explained how Jesus was asking the towns of Galilee to accept his kingship when he invited them to put on his yoke. This world’s rulers are often domineering and demanding. They wear their people out and weigh them down, giving them no rest. By contrast, Jesus reigns to benefit his people. He is gentle and humble at heart. He gives his people rest, as the Creator intended from the beginning.
Even the greatest kings of Israel had ruled to benefit themselves. Solomon imposed “hard service” and a “heavy yoke” on his people (1 Kings 12:4). Then it got worse when Israel’s kings failed and the people were forced to accept Babylon’s yoke on their neck.
The Book of Lamentations tells us how they felt. Each chapter is a poem. The first (Lam. 1) is a carefully crafted acrostic — 22 verses, each one starting with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, beth, …). The second poem is also an acrostic, with an increasing sense of urgency. The third poem (Lam. 3) trebles the grief: 3 short sharp verses starting with aleph, three with beth, and so on — 66 verses in all. The fourth poem is an acrostic too, but the verses are shorter and the tone more abject. The final poem (Lam. 5) has 22 verses, but the acrostic structure has fallen apart like their nation, sinking into despair.
The Abrahamic project had died. God had called Abraham from the land of Babel to a Promised Land. Now Babel had taken control of the Promised Land, as the necks of God’s people bend to Babylon’s tyranny:
Lamentations 5 (ESV)
5 Our pursuers are at our necks; we are weary; we are given no rest. …
8 Slaves rule over us; there is none to deliver us from their hand. …
12 Princes are hung up by their hands …
16 The crown has fallen from our head …
They don’t doubt that God is sovereign, but they do wonder if they still have any place in his plans. The book ends tragically, with a desperate final plea from the crushed people:
Lamentations 5:19–22 (ESV)
19 But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.
20 Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days?
21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
600 years after Babylon’s invasion, the Jewish people were still under foreign domination. They were still “harassed and cast down like sheep with no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). They had no rest, for their oppression had never ended.
In the darkest region, “Galilee of the gentiles” (4:15) Jesus began to proclaim that the time for restoring God’s reign had arrived (4:17).
God’s anointed prince had arrived. The crown, fallen from Israel’s head, would be given to him. The kingdom of heaven — the throne of YHWH — would be restored on earth through him. Jesus was the categorical answer to their desperate plea. God had not utterly rejected them: he sent his anointed ruler to restore them.
But what sort of king would Jesus be? Would serving him be any different to the yoke of their oppressors?
- Jesus’ reign is for the glory of the Father, the wisdom of non-power (11:25-26).
- Jesus’ reign reveals his Father, our heavenly sovereign (11:27).
- The yoke of Jesus’ kingship is not a heavy burden on his people (11:28-30).
Like the rest of the world, they needed to hear this from him:
Matthew 11:25-29 (my translation)
25 At that time, Jesus responded, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you concealed these things from the wise and educated people, and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, because this was pleasing in your presence.”
27 “Everything was handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the son the way the father does. There isn’t a person who knows the Father the way the son does, and those to whom the son wants to reveal him.”
28 “Come to me, everyone worn down and weighed down. I will give you rest. 29 Accept my yoke over you and let me train you. I’m gentle and humble at heart. You’ll find rest in your life. 30 My yoke is easy; my burden is light.”
What others are saying
Joel Willitts, “Matthew and Psalms of Solomon’s Messianism: A Comparative Study in First-Century Messianology” in Bulletin for Biblical Research 22:4 (2012), 39:
Matthew’s Jesus is the legitimate Davidic king, the personification of Wisdom who calls upon Israel, those who are “wearied” (κοιτιῶντες) and “burdened” (πεφοπτισμένοι), to place themselves under his political authority as the wisdom-king of God’s kingdom. … Matthew’s Jesus promises that the kingdom over which he rules is nothing short of the longed-for eschatological rest for the people of God.
Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 423:
The Sirach passage [51:25–26] is often cited as the background for Jesus’ statement and recently has generated much discussion about Jesus claiming to be Wisdom incarnate. But the contrast between Sirach and Jesus’ saying is distinct. …
In addition, the yoke is also a familiar metaphor in the Old Testament to describe Israel’s subjection to foreign oppression: “With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest” (Lam. 5:5 rsv)
[previous: Invitation to rest]