We are in the midst of prophecies of Israel’s restoration and future glory. By and large that is the theme of the second half of the book.
v.1 A wise reader of the Word of God must always remember that the chapter divisions are not original to the text and are often somewhat if not highly artificial. Why talk about asking the Lord for rain? Well, because the previous verse described a time of plenty and prosperity: grain and new wine. You need rain for good harvests. [Webb, 138-139]
The agricultural economy of the Levant, like all agricultural economies of course but much more in the dry Middle East, has always depended on rain and especially the rains that fall in the spring. For that reason it should be no surprise that the gods of the ancient near east were thought to provide rain. That is how they made the fields fertile; they sent rain upon the ground. Baal, for example, was the god of thunder and lightning. Drought was a terrible problem in that part of the world, so a crucial test of Israel’s faith in Yahweh was whether they looked to him for the rain. [Duguid, 154]
v.2 The people of the ancient near east typically placed their confidence for the provision of life in idols — here household gods — and diviners, people supposedly able to predict the future. The point of divination, of course, was that, if one knew the future, he could plan accordingly, avoiding disaster and taking advantage of opportunity. This is still the faith of a great many people in our world, including a host of people smart enough to know by now that no one can reliably predict the future of the stock market, the weather, the football season, or much of anything else for that matter. But so anxious are people for success, so helpless do they feel before the uncertainties of life that they invest hope in these household gods and diviners and, since there is no alternative, refuse to be deterred by repeated failure. “Empty consolation” is exactly right; that’s what idols and diviners sell. You will remember that divination was as strictly forbidden in the law of God as was the worship of idols. Israel’s trust was to be in the Lord and his Word. That was all they needed to know. As Rutherford beautifully summed up the viewpoint of the Bible: “duties are ours; events are the Lord’s.” We cannot know the future and so we are not obliged to attempt to find it out, which is a good thing because we couldn’t if we tried!
As the next verse makes clear, they are not without a shepherd, but a good shepherd, a reliable shepherd, a faithful one.
v.3 The word the ESV translates as “leaders” is literally the term for “male goat,” here used in the derogatory sense of a leader who exercises influence by bullying the rest of the flock.
v.4 A cornerstone, the first part of the foundation of something, a tent peg, something that makes a tent stable and secure, and the battle bow, the great weapon of Ancient Near Eastern battle, are all images of leadership and are so used elsewhere in the OT. [cf. Boda, 441]
v.5 The military imagery may seem far removed from the image of the leader as a shepherd, but, remember, a shepherd also must protect his sheep from predators. A good leader must not only fight for his sheep, but lead them in fighting their enemies, as we will soon read in v. 7. [Webb, 140-141]
v.6 “They shall be as though I had not rejected them” is simply another of the many ways in which the good news of salvation is described in the Bible. All have sinned and been deprived of God’s glory, but he will treat believers as if they had not! “As if I had never sinned or been a sinner,” is how the Heidelberg Catechism puts it!
v.7 Once again Judah and Joseph (or Ephraim) represent the restored people of Israel, the people of God in their entirety. Throughout Zechariah and often in the OT prophets this is an anticipation of Pentecost and the world-wide mission of the church, a church that will finally embrace every tongue, tribe, and nation on the earth. By saying “Judah and Ephraim” or “Judah and Joseph” the principal patriarchs of the south and the north, you are encompassing the entire people.
The Lord had rejected the northern kingdom; it had been destroyed, and its people had been scattered to the winds by the Assyrian conquest, but it will be replaced. To be sure as we know from Kings and Chronicles, some people from the northern tribes survived the Assyrian deportation, had come south, and were assimilated into the population of the southern kingdom. But the northern tribes as distinct populations disappeared and were never restored. As you may know, the fact that the ten northern tribes were scattered by the Assyrians and were lost to human history has led to all manner of speculation concerning what have been called “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” Some have thought that the British and American people are the descendants of those lost tribes — that is, of course, the white, Anglo-Saxon British and Americans, and there are a great many other theories of the same type — but all of these theories are silly. The Bible tells us explicitly how David’s fallen tent is to be rebuilt. It will be rebuilt by the Gentile mission. Christians of any and all backgrounds are the restored Israel of God. [Acts 15]
v.8 Near-eastern shepherds whistle to summon their flocks. This is an anticipation of John 10 and the Lord’s remark about having other sheep not of this fold and of calling them and of their recognizing his voice and following him.
v.11 As you read more and more of the prophets you begin to realize that all of these are metaphors ways of referring to the future victory and triumph of the people of God. There is a reference here to the great act of salvation in the past — the exodus from Egypt — and a new act, bringing the people back from exile in Assyria, which, in the language of the prophets seems regularly to mean replacing the lost northern tribes with a great people drawn from everywhere. Egypt and Assyria stand for all the oppressors of the Lord’s people. Gilead and Lebanon are historic centers of fertility and stand for the prosperity that the Lord will grant his people in the future. And the passage through the sea stands for the power and salvation the Lord is going to reveal when he delivers his people from all their enemies and grants them rest in a place of plenty, happiness and goodness. “I will make them strong in the Lord and they shall walk in his name declares the Lord.”
Now this chapter and the one that follows is about bad and good leadership. We have that theme introduced in 10:2 and, if you turn the page, you will see that it is still the theme as chapter 11 ends: “Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock.” Problems with leadership had already surfaced in the post-exilic community. We will consider that theme next time. But there is something else here and very obviously so; something that that deserves our full attention.
The question with which the chapter begins is simply this: “Who or what do you count on for what you need in life?” The story of Israel’s life can be told as simply their constant succumbing to the temptation to count on something else or someone else rather than Yahweh. They counted on other nations to bail them out of political or military danger. They counted on their own prowess to make a success of life in Canaan. And, over and over again, they counted on the idols of the ancient near eastern world of which they were a part. All the while they were being told by the Lord’s prophets to count on the Lord, not on the prince, not on themselves, not on some other country, and certainly not on the ridiculous idols of the nations round about them.
“But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths but they cannot speak; eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” [Ps. 115:4-8]
And you remember the taunting jibes of the prophets. Look, they said, you take some of the wood and make a god out of it; the rest you burn in the fire to warm yourself. Or, you need to hire good craftsman to make your god, since the last thing you want is for your god to fall over! Hello! No wonder then the moments of high satire when Dagon fell before the ark of the Lord or Baal was bested on Mt. Carmel by Elijah’s prayer to Yahweh. And no wonder no one any longer prays to Baal, Chemosh, Marduk, Zeus, or Jupiter. They are dead. They never were alive. We look back on them and find them something of a joke and wonder how anyone ever took them seriously. But today, all over the world, vast multitudes of people pray to Yahweh, to the God of Israel!
Household gods seem more than faintly ridiculous to us today, but we should be careful to heed the Bible’s teaching that idolatry comes in many different forms and we sophisticated inhabitants of the modern world are hardly immune from its lure. In Ephesians 5:5 we read:
“For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person — such a person is an idolater — has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
Or as Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 10:6:
“Now these things [he is speaking of the Exodus from Egypt and Israel’s subsequent unbelief] occurred as examples for us to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters…”
Anything can be an idol, anything that takes God’s place in our hearts, and, in particular anything we are trusting for our lives. That is why Calvin called the human heart an “idol factory” and why John finished his first letter by reminding his readers to “keep yourselves from idols,” as if in saying that he was saying everything about the Christian life. Human beings worship something, all of them do and always. They have been made for worship and in their rebellion against God, they worship anything and everything except God. If they are not worshipping and trusting the living God, they are worshipping and trusting someone or something else. So idolatry is not only the constant temptation of human life, it is the fundamental problem of it. And to some degree that means it is the problem you and I are struggling with all the time.
Sexual pleasure and the desire for wealth can both be forms of idolatry, for not only do people worship such things, love them and desire them, but they count on them for the happiness and success of their lives. We of all people should be the last to doubt this, suffering as we do from a barrage of Viagra commercials and finding ourselves swimming in a sea of ads that, in effect, promise us the kingdom of God if only we will buy this or acquire that. Gambling is the act of an idolater, someone who so wants money, so trusts the power of money to bring him happiness, that he is willing to waste what money he has for the tiny chance of acquiring more money that he does not have. Power, fame, pleasure, health, wealth, education, jobs, hobbies, people — they can all be the idols of someone’s heart, all occupy a place in our hearts, in our confidence and trust that should be occupied by the Lord alone.
As Malcolm Muggeridge put it this way shortly before his death:
“In the twentieth century, man’s created the most disastrous of all images which is himself and he falls down and worships him…. Never in human history have the unworthwhile things of life been presented so alluringly, through advertising…. This is Vanity Fair into every single person’s sitting room, hours and hours of it, day after day.” [Touchstone (Dec. 2002) 30]
And the same is true of divination. There is nothing wrong, of course, with the attempt to make responsible, prudent use of information and to plan for the future as much as it can be planned for, but men have always gone far beyond that and do so as much today as they ever did before. It is one of the deceits of the technological revolution of our time. The dominant role of technology in our life feeds the allusion that we can not only fix every problem, but that we can predict the future. I have long been amused by the fact that the college football rankings are said to be reached by a combination of input from the so-called “human” polls and what are called “the computers.” “Computers,” of course, sounds so scientific and, above all, so reliable!
Now, as anyone knows who thinks about this at all, the so-called “computers” are really just calculators. They serve to spit out a ranking according to algorithms developed by the very human creators of these ranking systems. Their advantage is that they calculate very quickly. But those calculations could be done by hand. But if they were done with pen and ink on a legal pad, no one would think to say that the college rankings are the result of a combination of the human polls and the legal pads! That would be equivalent to saying that the rankings are just the result of guesses by a variety of human beings. That doesn’t sound very scientific. What is more, the computers are exactly as likely to be wrong — and they are wrong as often as not — as the coaches or sports writers who rank the college football teams, each according to some theory of his own. If the computers could predict the outcome of future games there would be a lot of people by now made rich by betting on college football. They’re aren’t! Stanford was favored to beat Michigan State; Georgia favored to beat Nebraska; Baylor was favored to beat Central Florida, and Alabama was heavily favored to beat Oklahoma. Oops, oops, oops, and oops.
But that bit of divination is chump change compared to the economy and the stock market. Thankfully we all saw the collapse coming in 2008 and got out of over-priced real-estate just in time. Oh, wait a minute; we didn’t. Well, at least we could predict how the economy was going to recover as a result of this step by the government or that. Oh, wait a minute; we didn’t get that right either. Never have a people been so confident that they can predict the future as we are today. And never has there been less reason for that confidence! And I’m not talking about the millions who read their horoscope in the paper or who consult psychic hotlines. I’m talking about highly educated people who imagine that the future is now accessible to them ahead of time because their powers of prediction now have a “scientific” basis. Baloney. They are no more reliable than the court officials who studied livers to learn what to tell the emperor was coming next or the oracle at Delphi, who was at least smart enough to couch her predictions in terms vague enough as to mean virtually anything. Alexander the Great wouldn’t invade Asia until she told him that she saw a great victory. She didn’t tell him who the victor would be or how long he would be victorious. Too bad she didn’t tell him to be sure to be home before his 33rd birthday!
The brute fact, forced upon our attention a hundred ways in Holy Scripture and confirmed a thousand ways in our observation of human life is that the idols of the human heart are just that: idols; false gods, cheap imitations of the real thing. They cannot save; they cannot even help in the meantime. They are worthless. They are a distraction. The only one who can help us is the God who made us and the world and everything in it; the God who rules over all things and knows the future because he has determined the future himself; the God whose goodness, love, and justice we can count on absolutely, and the God who has revealed his purposes and intentions, his expectations and desires for our lives in his Word. Where does our help come from? Our help comes from the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth!
And that is the theme here and emphatically so. Let me take you on a quick run through this tenth chapter. It begins with the imperative: “Ask rain from the Lord,” the point being as the first two verses make clear, he is the one, the only one, who controls the weather. But now go on. In v. 3 we read “for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock.” That is, he is not only able to help, he is willing. Now follow the thread as we proceed:
- In verse 4 “from him shall come…” from him… from him… Three times we are told that what we need will come from the Lord.
- Now in v. 6 the Lord himself speaks: “I will strengthen… I will save… I will bring them back… and I will answer them.” The Lord alone can do those things and he will.
- In v. 8: “I will whistle for the sheep… for I have redeemed them…
- In v. 10: “I will bring them home… and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and Lebanon.”
- And, finally, in v. 12: “I will make them strong…”
The entire chapter is an emphatic contrast between what idols and diviners can’t do and what Yahweh has done, can do, and will do. The whole point of that contrast is that it is vain to look for what we want and need to those things that can’t deliver the goods. It is a reminder to Israel that when they trusted their idols and their diviners they ended up either dead or slaves in some faraway country. When they trusted in the Lord they walked out of bondage in Egypt weighed down with the wealth of that great nation.
It has always amazed me, and I am sure it has you as well, that people, even intelligent and highly educated and thoughtful people, are so unthinking about the idolatries of their lives. You don’t have to be a genius to realize that while money can buy you many pleasures, you still have to die and you can’t take your money with you. Fame, power, celebrity, pleasure, success in one’s career, even family and marriage and children — all the many sorts of things people count on in this world, count on for their lives, to make their lives worthwhile, happy, and successful — all of it is so terribly temporary, so short-lived, so evanescent.
But no one puts it to himself or herself this way: “I’d like to be rich for a short time before I die,” or “I’d like to be famous before I am completely forgotten,” or “I’d like to fill my life with pleasure before the pain descends upon me.” And they certainly never say, never even imagine to themselves, “I want some really temporary wealth, pleasure, or fame, before I begin paying for my idolatries in the world to come.” Alexander, whom I just mentioned, was the most powerful human being on the planet, for a few years, but what good did that do him when he got sick and died at 33 years of age? And, if there is a judgment, as there certainly is, those few years of conquest and murder may have cost him an eternity of additional woe.
Here in Zechariah 10 we are being reminded that nobody and nothing can give you what you really want and really need except God alone. That is something you and I need to be reminded of ten times every day that we live in this world; it is something we need to be teaching our children repeatedly; and something we need to be bringing up with our workmates and our neighbors. Force them to reckon with what it is they really want. They want to be happy. Everyone wants to be happy. We have an inbred desire for happiness. And there is nothing wrong with that. Just think for a moment about what happiness is for a human being, true and lasting happiness. It is a sense of fulfillment in life, it is having an easy conscience, having our relationships healthy, strong, and loving; it is enjoying the good things that God has put in this world, it is being satisfied to contribute something important to the lives of others, and it is, above all, being at peace with God and so with time, death, and eternity. Armand Nikolai, the professor at the Harvard Medical School, some years ago surveyed psychologists all over the United States and then published the results. He had asked them what they thought happiness requires. Chief among the things happiness requires, according to that survey, is an acceptance of the reality of death.
God holds all of these blessings out before us as a motivation for our seeking him. He has done this in Zechariah already many times. Jesus will do the same thing. He begins his famous Sermon on the Mount by telling us how to be happy. To be sure, he gives us a recipe for happiness that is quite different from what the world recommends, but the end is the same. He is still talking about how to be happy.
“Happy [or blessed] are the poor in spirit…
“Happy are those who mourn…” and so on.
“Man is a slave,” Augustine said, “to that by which he wishes to find happiness.” [Of the True Religion, 69] Well, then, Zechariah is telling us, and the Lord through Zechariah, be sure you are enslaved to someone who can actually make you and keep you happy!
As Pascal put it in his Pensées:
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some men going to war, and others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” [134 in the Modern Library edition]
He is right. Happiness is the great question of human life. If you stop and think about it, you will see that Pascal was right. Everything everyone does, every day, all day is, in one way or another, done with a view to acquiring happiness. You may think that thing you are doing is dull, you may think it is pointless, but you do it anyway because you think you are going to be happier having done what your employer wants you to do than you would be if you are found not having done it. You will be happier with your paycheck than being unemployed, and so on. The whole world is longing for happiness, but the tragedy of this world is that the world continues — in a kind of perverse obsession — to search for happiness where it cannot be found; where it has never been found and where it will never be found. Where does most of the misery in this world come from, indeed almost all the misery in this world? It comes from someone or many someones looking for happiness!
Here’s the rub. If you look for happiness in another person, in some thing, in some predicted outcome, in some status, or pleasure, you will be disappointed. The greatest work of non-Christian ethics remains Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle no one can be happy if his or her circumstances are bad [118; 1096b-1100a). But if that is true, men are doomed never to find anything but a faint and fleeting hint or shadow of happiness. For not only is human life almost always hard in some way, it is doomed to end so much sooner than we wish.
“And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all times, all ages, and all conditions. [In other words, this world, your house, and your heart ring with complaint. So many things you wish were different than they are.]
A trial so long, and so continuous, and so uniform, should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own efforts. But example teaches us little.
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself. [134-135]
So far Pascal. We who are Christians became Christians or remained Christians for this very reason, that we might be happy. But, if so, then how foolishof uswhen through spiritual indolence or unwatchfulness we begin unwittingly to put our trust or to base our hope for happiness in someone else or something else than the Lord himself.
No, whether it is the rain, or the right kind of leader, or forgiveness, or right relationships with others, or adequate provision of food, clothing, and shelter, or the solution to some particular problem or in whatever other way we may be longing for Gilead or Lebanon, the Lord alone can give it to us; so we ought to be looking to him alone, praying to him alone, counting on him alone for what we seek, what our happiness requires.
Here is the challenge of this chapter. Force yourself to see your idols and your diviners for what they are, a bit of nonsense really, soon to be as well thought of as the household gods of the ancient near east, someone’s joke. Think your way clear to what real happiness actually is. If you do, it will remain perfectly clear to you where it comes from. And it is not simply because the all-powerful and loving God can give you what you want. It is more than that. He is what you want! Hence the beautiful conclusion of this chapter. What is the final and perfect happiness all human beings seek and that God has promised to give to his people? It is “to walk in his name” and to be “strong in the Lord.”
Many of you will have read that brilliant and beautiful paragraph near the end of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. [Part IV, chapter 4; p. 153] He is talking about how in the Christian faith and in Christian life and experience everything finally depends upon God being in our life and our being united to him. It’s not simply a matter of God giving us things, it’s our personal union with God, our fellowship with him, our participation in his life.
“There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if he chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?”
There is the summons and the promise of this chapter. The Lord is here; he is offering himself and his life to you. Take it! Take all of it you can possibly get. Get as near to him as you possibly can and stay as near to him as you possibly can. Walk with him, because with him comes everything you ever wanted in your life and much, much more!