Figurative Language and Parallelism
The prophecy in Deuteronomy 28 contains both literal and figurative language to express the future experience of Israel. Taking a slightly expanded context, vv.47-51 reads (all quotes are from NKJV, but this one is displayed to illustrate parallel thoughts, which are common in Hebrew, so formatted and given A-C notes to show parallel thought ideas):
47 [A] “Because you did not serve the LORD your God
[B] with joy and gladness of heart,
[C] for the abundance of everything,
48 [A] therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom the LORD will send against you,
[B] in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness,
[C] and in need of everything;
[A] and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck
[B][ n/a ]
[C] until He has destroyed you.
49 [A] The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth,
as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand,
50 [B] a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly
nor show favor to the young.
51 And they shall eat the increase of your livestock and the produce of your land,
[C] until you are destroyed;
[B] they shall not leave you grain or new wine or oil, or the increase of your
cattle or the offspring of your flocks,
[C] until they have destroyed you.
The parallelism indicates aspects of who should have been/will be served (the A parallels), the manner of what that service should have been/will be like (the B parallels), and the outcomes of what that service would have been/will be (the C parallels). The B (parallel manner statement) is missing in the second part of v.48 (represented by "n/a"), whether because the outcome of destruction is the focus, or ...
because the manner is also wrapped into the imagery of the "A" statement. Notice how the "yoke of iron" is a figurative parallel to the idea of servitude to the enemies that God brings, and indeed God is said to be applying the yoke. A yoke invokes ideas of manner in the imagery, for it is bondage, control, and as will be seen, iron indicates unbreakable.
There is also a chiastic parallelism in part of v.48 (which the English of the NKJV parallels the Hebrew text well here) that further points to yoke = servitude implemented by God upon them:
[b] shall serve your enemies,
[c] whom the LORD will send against you,
[d] in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness,
[d'] and in need of everything;
[c'] and He will put
[b'] a yoke of iron
[a'] on your neck
This imagery of the yoke representing service is not only evoked from this passage and the parallelism, however, as it is used that way in the first use of "yoke" in Scripture, in Gen 27:40 where Esau (who fathers the people of Edom) is prophesied to serve his brother Jacob (who fathers the people of Israel), but will break that service as noted using the imagery of breaking the yoke from his neck:
By your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother;
And it shall come to pass, when you become restless,
That you shall break his yoke from your neck.
I venture to say that nearly all Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias and Hebrew lexicons one looks at will note this figurative use of yoke as representing service. For example, the Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB) notes "usually fig. of servitude" and The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE) states "The figurative use of 'yoke' in the sense of 'servitude' is intensely obvious."
So there should be no question that "yoke" in Dt 28:48 is figurative for servitude, not necessarily a literal statement about being yoked by iron (though it should be noted that The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [HALOT] mentions the Arabic word "ġullu a neck ring for prisoners" that appears to have some relation to the Hebrew word for "yoke" [עוֹל; ʿōl], so it is possible some metal chains/bars were maybe used when this comes about, as discussed below).
Regarding the destruction, recall that it is Israel (as a nation) that this prophecy is speaking to, so it is the nation's destruction that is being foretold. While certainly individuals of that nation will be in hunger, thirst, nakedness (from young to old), this servitude that has them losing cattle, grain, etc., is prophesied to occur "until" their destruction. So it is a reference of their service prior to no longer being a nation. It is one nation (v.49) bringing about the service of another nation until the destroying of that nation (v.50-51).
Jeremiah Parallel and Pinpoint of Time
Another answer here has noted the parallel to Jeremiah 28:12-14, which says:
12 Now the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, after Hananiah the prophet had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, saying, 13 “Go and tell Hananiah, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD: “You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made in their place yokes of iron.” 14 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “I have put a yoke of iron on the neck of all these nations, that they may serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; and they shall serve him. I have given him the beasts of the field also.” ’ ”
This passage ties into Deuteronomy 28 in the following ways:
- It is the only other passage in Scripture to mention the iron yoke, which pinpoints that what Jeremiah speaks of is the fulfillment of what Deuteronomy foretold.
- It identifies the nation as Babylon, which pinpoints the nation Deuteronomy foretold.
- It further parallels service to the yoke imagery.
- It explains why the "yoke of iron" imagery, for a wooden yoke can be (and in context was) broken by the hands of Hananiah (v.10) as a rejection of Jeremiah's message and as representing throwing off the service Israel was under to Babylon (v.2, and v.11), so the iron yoke represents an unbreakable service—Israel cannot escape it (Hananiah's prophecy is a lie, v.15).
From the time of that prophecy (Jer 28:1), there was still service to Babylon that intensified during Zedekiah's reign, and the destruction of Israel as a nation was yet to come (Jer 34:2-3, 37:1-38:27), and the siege of Jerusalem itself lasted over a year (Jer 39:1-2). This surely brought some hunger and thirst, but what is interesting is Jer 39:10 (after Jerusalem is destroyed and the nation is no more its own)—
But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left in the land of Judah the poor people, who had nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.
The hard yoke was broken. They were servants of Babylon still, but Babylon tended to treat their captives with some civility (Daniel even makes it into the highest levels of government). It was during their rebellion against Babylon that the yoke of Babylon weighed heaviest (see also the rest of chapter 39 and into chapter 40).
So the yoke of iron prophesied in Dt 28:48 represented the severe servitude of Israel to Babylon during the time of the last years of being a nation, yet under rebellion against Babylonian service, which was not something that would be broken like a wooden yoke could be (as Hananiah falsely prophesied), but would not break and would not be lifted until Israel was destroyed as a political entity in the region (in which the nation of Israel no longer served Babylon, for it no longer existed, though the people still, in part, served Babylon for some time to come).