One Shoulder

June 30, 2024

This verse appears within a prophecy of Zephaniah regarding the end times, a time when all the people of the earth will recognize the truth of God and serve Him as one. There are a great many verses in the Bible that foretell a time when all humanity will recognize and worship God. Throughout the words of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and numerous others, we find a similar vision expressed: that there will come a time when all will serve the one and only God, the God of Israel.

Translation issue

What makes this verse unique is the words used in the closing phrase. The translation we cited here refers to all peoples calling on the name of the Lord and serving Him “shoulder to shoulder.” But many Bible translations disagree. Here are two popular translations, the English Standard and the King James:

For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord. (ESV)

For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent. (King James Version)

The difference is striking. After all, the image of “shoulder to shoulder” is very specific. It names a specific body part. It would be very surprising if the original Hebrew did not mention the word “shoulder.” On the other hand, if the verse is correctly translated by the later two versions I just cited, what justification is there for the first translation, “shoulder to shoulder”? 

One Shoulder

So, what does the Hebrew actually say?

In Hebrew the final words of the verse are shechem echad. Shechem means “shoulder.”  Echad is the Hebrew word for “one.” The precise translation of shechem echad is “one shoulder.”

Those who translate shechem echad as “with one consent” or “with one accord” chose to explain the imagery of Zephaniah’s prophecy rather than translate it. This is an important point. Throughout the Bible, there are situations where translators don’t translate the words directly. Instead, if figurative language is used, they will sometimes “translate” it as though it was not figurative. That’s what these translators did here. By doing this, the translators deprive their readers of the imagery of the text. Obviously Zephaniah was describing all humanity serving God in agreement and unison, with “one accord” or “consent.” But Zephaniah used the imagery of the shoulder to express this.  

Shoulder = Carrying a burden

Throughout the Bible, the shechem – shoulder – is figuratively used to describe the carrying of a load, bearing a burden. For example:

Shechem is also the name of a city in Israel, known today by its Arabic name, Nablus. But the word shechem, meaning “shoulder,” appears 22 times in the Bible. In 15 of these verses the context is the carrying of a burden. In other words, when the word “shoulder” appears in prophetic imagery, we are correct to understand it as alluding to a burden that needs to be carried.

As I said above, those translators who rendered our verse as “one accord” or “one consent” chose to interpret the words of Zephaniah rather than translating them. The Hebrew words simply do not say anything about “consent” or “accord,” which are synonyms for “agreement.” What Zephaniah was clearly saying is that all peoples will “shoulder” the burden of serving God together. These translators lost the important nuance of what Zephaniah was saying. Allow me to explain.

Zephaniah was not merely saying that all peoples would worship God together or even that they would agree. By invoking the image of a shoulder, Zephaniah was describing something much more significant. Namely, Zephaniah prophesied that all peoples of the earth would carry the yoke of the burden of service of God. 

Serving God can be difficult. There are battles to be waged and won on behalf of God’s truth. In fact, the verses leading up to ours describe God’s retribution upon those peoples who have angered Him. In other words, they describe the triumph over evil. In that context, describing serving God as something done with the shoulder implies that we are bearing a burden, carrying a load for God. By translating this phrase as “one consent” we are led to believe that Zephaniah is describing simple agreement in the worship of God, like people gathered to sing God’s praises. This is not what Zephaniah was implying.

One shoulder, not two

But there is another important nuance in this verse. I mentioned above that the Hebrew in this verse is shechem echad, “one shoulder.” Notice that Zephaniah did not say “shoulder to shoulder,” as many translations render our verse. He said, “one shoulder.” So even those translators who correctly translated the word shechem deviated from the original Hebrew. 

The reasoning behind the “shoulder to shoulder” translation is easy to understand. Multiple people do not have a single shoulder. So, if the prophet describes many people serving God “as one shoulder,” it makes sense to translate it “shoulder to shoulder.” But this is still not an accurate translation. And while not as egregious as the translations who ignored the word “shoulder” in this verse, this translation misses an important part of Zephaniah’s message as well.

Considering that Zephaniah is expressing an end-times vision, his language must be understood symbolically. In other words, this verse is not part of a Biblical story of two people carrying a load on their actual physical shoulders. If it was, and the words shechem echad were used, it may then be appropriate to translate the phrase this way. But our verse is part of an end-times prophecy. The imagery of Zephaniah is meant to express a theological vision. Zephaniah could have said “shoulder to shoulder,” using slightly different words. But he did not. Zephaniah wrote “one shoulder.” And this is significant.

Think about the difference between “shoulder to shoulder” and “one shoulder.” Picture two people carrying a burden together on their shoulders. They are standing next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. Although they are sharing the load they are carrying, each is in his own body. If one of them feels pain, the other does not feel it. When they are done, they will go their separate ways. They are shoulder to shoulder, each one a separate body.

But in the imagery of Zephaniah, all the peoples of the earth are serving God as one shoulder. Zephaniah’s vision is of a cooperation that is so profound that they feel each other’s pain. Their efforts are fused. They are in a single body. And when they are done with the task, they will not part. 

The unity described by Zephaniah, the unity of all people in the service of God in the end-times, goes beyond mere cooperation. What Zephaniah describes in this verse is a bonding so powerful that there is a fusing of identities which includes shared pain. He is describing fundamental and permanent unity in service of God.

We are fortunate to live in an age when Christians and Jews, and God-fearers of many nations are joining together to fight the battles of God. Let us pray that we feel each other’s pain and that we never part ways again.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. Rabbi Wolicki is the host of Eyes on Israel on Real America's Voice Network. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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