Zechariah 11:1-17


Download audio

Zechariah 11:1-17

I will confess to you that I have found this the most difficult chapter I have encountered so far in Zechariah; I mean I have found it very difficult just to figure out what is meant verse by verse and what individual statements mean. Perhaps you will gather some of that difficulty as we go along.

In considering chapter 10 last time we observed that chapters ten and eleven form a unit in that both chapters are concerned with true and false leadership. We have that theme introduced in 10:2; it surfaces again and again by contrast in the remainder of chapter 10, and continues very obviously to be the theme of chapter 11. Again in chapter 11, as in chapter 10, the Lord contrasts his own leadership of his people with that of false shepherds. There is more here than simply a meditation on faithful leadership, but that is the overarching theme of these two chapters. Leadership is not a new issue in Zechariah. We already noticed that the two central visions of the eight night visions concerned the two leaders of the community of recently returned exiles, Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor. The prophecy of Israel’s coming king that we read more recently in chapter 9 led into the treatment of good and bad leadership that we are reading now. The metaphor of the shepherd is new at this point in Zechariah, but is common enough in the rest of the Bible as you know. [Webb, 135]

Text Comment

v.2       The OT prophets were masters of their culture and its literary art. This short poem is a lament or dirge, such a song as would be sung at a funeral or to commemorate some disaster suffered in battle. But here the lament is a prophecy, a forecast of disasters to come put in the form of the sort of lament that would be sung to commemorate them. This is how they will sing when the catastrophe has overtaken them.

Lebanon was famous for its great trees, just as the Pacific Northwest is. But those tall, mighty cedars became a metaphor for pride.

“For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low; against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up and against all the oaks of Bashan … And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low…”  That is Isaiah 2:12-17.

Bashan was what today is called the Golan Heights, the area north and east of the Sea of Galilee. It was once covered with thick forests, but the ground was so fertile that over time the forests were cut down to make room for agriculture and especially for pasture. Hence references in the OT to the “cows of Bashan.” [E.g. Amos 4:1]

v.3       But we are not talking about trees; we are talking about Israel’s leaders. Such leaders are called shepherds frequently in both the OT and the New. The trees are metaphors for the high and mighty among the people. And these are facing judgment in this lament. The thicket of the Jordan — the dense thicket of shrubs on both sides of the river — in those days was a home to lions. Lions, of course, were predators of sheep and other domesticated animals that Israel depended upon. But here the lions are the shepherds whose lair has been destroyed. Shepherds who do not care for the Lord’s flock will be punished!

The first three verses are very like Jeremiah 25:34-38, again a poem calling on the shepherds to wail because the Lord is laying waste their pasture and devastating their flocks. That fact reminds us that false and unfaithful leadership — the cause of Jerusalem’s destruction seventy years before — remains a danger. This lesson must be learned by every generation for itself.

v.4       We are well used to this technique of instruction from Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The prophet is summoned by the Lord to act out a scene that depicts what is to come. In this case Zechariah is to play the role of a faithful shepherd of a flock doomed to be slaughtered.

v.6       In other words, the shepherds are exercising their leadership without regard for the welfare of the people, exploiting them for their personal benefit, and as a result the people themselves have become corrupt and as guilty as their leaders. Here is the sad truth; the false leaders have won the people to their view of things and their way of life. So leaders and people will be punished together. This is, as you may remember, a frequent theme in the prophets. You might want to put Jeremiah 5:30-31 in the margin there against verse 6.

            “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” [Jer. 5:30-31]

This is a fact of life with which all of us sooner or later must come to terms. A person may become a sinner in some large part because of the sins that were committed against him by someone else. The consequences of that earlier sin may be even more horrible in the life of the one who was its victim. Such is the tangled web of sin and of human life. We understand, we sympathize, but we cannot excuse because the sins committed by the victim of another’s sins are themselves the cause of the blighting of still another life or many other lives. If we excuse the sin, the cycle of harm and misery will never be broken. It has to stop. The victims of bad leadership very often, and in some respects through no or at least less fault of their own, come to prefer bad leadership because such leadership confirms them in the opinions they have been taught to prefer. There have always been lots of people in Christian churches where the Gospel is not faithfully proclaimed and the Word of God is not faithfully taught who literally don’t know any better!

We are not told if when Zechariah uttered this prophecy and acted out this scene there was already underway some rebellion against Zerubbabel on the part of the leaders and the people or rebellion against Zechariah and Haggai; if, once again, they were preferring false leaders to true, unfaithful to faithful as their parents’ generation had done in Jerusalem before its destruction. Or is the warning, at this point, more prophetic, more theoretical, more a putting of the people on guard?

In vv. 4-6 Zechariah is told what he is to do (though the detail is not given) and in vv. 7-12 he actually does it.

v.7       The traditional tool of a shepherd is the staff. Zechariah has two. The names intrigue us and will be explained shortly but already suggest the blessing of life in covenant with God, the blessing that faithful leadership conveys and that false leadership jeopardizes.

By the way, the word translated “slaughter” is otherwise found only in Jeremiah and only in reference to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, which happened in 586 B.C. This is a link, others of which are coming, between this chapter and the New Testament. Jerusalem would be destroyed again in A.D. 70 precisely because she rejected the good shepherd who had come to her.

v.8       The three shepherds are obviously the sort of false shepherds Zechariah has been talking about, but who they are or why three we are not told. Three is one of the numbers that signifies completeness, so perhaps the Lord means only that he has completely purged his people of false leaders. [Duguid, 164] The “one month” simply means, he did it quickly and decisively, as, of course, he did when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews sent into exile.

The point of saying that the Lord grew impatient is to remind them that the collapse did not come at once. The Lord was patient; he removed false leadership and gave his people an opportunity to repent. He sent them faithful shepherds. They had sufficient opportunity and he gave them time to exploit it, but they did not.

v.9       But eventually his patience will be exhausted. The point of no return will be passed. When the sheep do not want him for their shepherd he leaves them to their own devices. That does not lead to peace and prosperity, of course; it never did or does. It leads instead to a dog-eat-dog world in which the stronger consume the weaker. The image of cannibalism hearkens back to what happened when Jerusalem was besieged for some two and a half years by the Babylonian army.

v.10     Remember, Zechariah playing the shepherd, is standing in for the Lord himself. “The peoples” here almost certainly refers to the people of Israel, north and south (cf. v. 14), not the nations, for they were never in covenant with the Lord. Remember the Lord telling the northern kingdom through Hosea that he would call his people, “Not my People.”

v.11     The ESV has “sheep traders,” but few scholars follow that translation. Most have something like “afflicted ones,” indicating that there was or would be a remnant of the people who knew that what was happening was the judgment of the Lord. [McComiskey, 1194, 1198; Duguid, 164]

v.13     So what goes on here? The shepherd seems to be saying, “Look, you have no respect for me; pay me or not, I don’t care.” They, in turn, give him 30 pieces of silver. It was the price of a slave, so the amount of money may suggest how little the community thinks of a faithful shepherd or of the Lord himself. [Boda, 465] The potter probably represents a craftsman association in the temple, necessary because so many clay vessels were required for use in the temple. The money is thrown into the temple perhaps as well because the temple was the center of so much of Israel’s bad leadership. That’s one interpretation. Others suggest that the thirty pieces of silver was a sufficient amount of money but that the Lord is uninterested in payment, however large, by people who have no time for a shepherd such as he is.

In any case, as you know, in the New Testament all of this is regarded as an anticipation of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, their betrayal of him into the hands of the Romans, and his execution. The most faithful, the most caring shepherd Israel ever had was spurned and rejected by the people as one of his closest associates took 30 pieces of silver to betray him. That, in turn, led to the utter destruction of Jerusalem once again in A.D. 70, as complete a destruction as that by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.

v.14     That rupture between north and south occurred centuries before, but its aftermath was still being felt and nothing so powerfully made the point that rebellion against the Lord would lead inevitably to divine judgment. Israel, the ten northern tribes, didn’t prosper because she rejected Yahweh; she disappeared. And that history serves as an example of still another fundamental principle of life in this world: when a people’s relationship with God is fractured, their relationship with other people is likewise broken. This is, in a profound way, the story of both the church and our world, both in micro- and macrocosm: people alienated from one another because they are alienated from God.

v.16     Zechariah is next commanded to play a shepherd again, but this time a foolish, unfaithful shepherd. Again the Lord raises this worthless shepherd up indicating that it is divine punishment to be given unfaithful leadership.

Who is this worthless shepherd? There has been a great deal of speculation as to whom this worthless shepherd might be, everything from contemporaries of Zechariah to various Roman emperors, but perhaps we should take the statement generally, as a warning that people who prefer false teachers are not only likely to get them, but will incur the Lord’s wrath as a result. Thus far the Word of God.

During the time the temple was being rebuilt the community (the church) had good leadership: Haggai and Zechariah the prophets, Joshua the High Priest, and Zerubbabel the Governor. But that had not been the case before. In fact, if you interrogate the prophets and ask why Israel’s faith in Yahweh collapsed as completely as it did, first in the north and then in the south, the answer that is repeatedly given is that it was unfaithful leadership that undermined the people’s faith and obedience. As Jeremiah put it in his so-called “Sermon on Apostasy” (Jer. 2) and then many times thereafter,

“The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.”

“Shepherds” in the OT, could refer to kings, prophets, or priests. The prophets predict a special condemnation and punishment for the leaders of the people of Israel, who have encouraged and abetted their apostasy.

“Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture.” [Jer. 23:1]

So chronic is the problem of bad leadership in the church that Zechariah in the waning years of the 6th century B.C. warns his contemporaries against its return. As we know, by the middle of the following century, by the time Ezra and Nehemiah appeared in Jerusalem, the spiritual quality of the leadership of the church was already in serious decline. Ezra and Nehemiah’s reforming work was in large part an effort to undo the damage already done to the people’s spiritual life by unfaithful leadership. And when Malachi wrote sometime later, it was necessary for him to take on the leadership directly for failing to do its duty before God and man. Malachi made no bones about the fact that the spiritual malaise of his time was the fault of the priests.

“…you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I will make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” [Mal. 2:8-9]

In the period stretching between Malachi and the appearance of Jesus, more than four centuries, during which time the Jews were subject to foreign powers and often severely oppressed — times that called for a very high order of leadership — false shepherds were more common than faithful ones. The Lord’s own commentary on this period of Jewish history is given us in John 10:7-10:

“I tell you the truth; I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers… The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” [Cf. Webb, 136]

So what we have here in Zechariah 10 and 11 is a window on the history of the kingdom of God in the world, across the entire course of that history. When the church is well-led the people of God prosper; when it is not, unbelief creeps in, eventually takes over, and generations of God’s people fall under God’s wrath. You are Americans. You want to believe that it doesn’t make any difference what other people do. You’re your own man; you’re your own woman. But you’re not. Over time the quality of leadership will tell for good or for bad and that for everyone. The church has often been led by unfaithful men; unfaithful to the truth of God’s Word and unfaithful to their responsibility to care for their congregations as the people of God.

We tend to think of the patristic period, the first five centuries of Christian history after Pentecost, as a kind of golden age of Christian ministry, with so many great men whose names are rightly celebrated still today as exemplars of what a Christian minister should be: Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Chrysostom, the two Gregories, Ambrose, Augustine, and on and on. But the more one reads that history the more one realizes how many heretics there were in the church’s ministry, how many time-servers, and how many spiritual cowards. If you can believe this, it was Chrysostom himself, surveying the church of his day — this was in the middle of the Arian controversy — who once said that he didn’t think most of the church’s ministers were saved men. [Cited in the preface to Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, xxiv] “Let few be teachers,” we read in James, “for theirs will be the greater condemnation.”

And the more one reads church history the more one realizes that the thread that ties together all ages of church history is the unending struggle between the church’s faithful ministers and her unfaithful ones. Indeed, it may be said that the history of the church is the history of her great men, both good and bad. Looking back, it beggars the imagination that it was the leadership of the church that wished to execute Martin Luther for teaching that sinners were justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Even Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, admitted that Luther encountered the church as an enemy of the gospel. We forget that the last great period of Christian martyrdom in the English speaking world — the Covenanter period in Scotland — pitted Christian ministers and Christian Kings against Christian ministers and Christian nobleman; shepherds against shepherds.

We in the Presbyterian Church in America are a separatist church; that is, we came out of other Presbyterian churches. Actually, in the case of the northern Presbyterian section of the PCA, it was not so much a coming out as a being thrown out. If you can believe it, faithful ministers were defrocked and in some cases they were excommunicated because they protested against the church supporting missionaries who didn’t believe the gospel! Christian ministers and elders did that!

Of one thing you can be sure, the ministers who threw faithful shepherds out of their church in the 1930s would have hotly denied and would have been bitterly offended by the suggestion that two generations later their church would be promoting abortion and homosexuality, would tolerate in her membership open hostility to historic Christianity, and would be dying on its feet. But that is what happens when the Lord turns away from his people because they have preferred unfaithful shepherds to faithful ones: “What is to die, let it die. What is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed.” As Richard Sibbes once explained, “The office of a minister is to be a wooer, to make up the marriage between Christ and Christian souls.” [Cited in Murray, Spurgeon vs. Hyper-Calvinism, 54] But there are a very large number of people in so-called Christian churches whose ministers not only have never done that for them, but wouldn’t know how to do it if someone asked them to.

A serious Christian can’t help but wonder how it happened that once great churches are now empty shells; that sanctuaries that were crowded with eager listeners of the Word of God are now virtually empty, if they haven’t been sold to be turned into a nightclub or condominiums. A Scottish Free Church minister, Iain Campbell, published a few years ago his doctoral dissertation, an intellectual biography of George Adam Smith, the Scottish pastor and biblical scholar and professor who, with others, was instrumental in popularizing in the Presbyterian and Protestant world the German skepticism toward the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Smith wrote a number of very influential books and, though you may not recognize his name, he was a household name in the Presbyterian world of both Great Britain and America in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

Born and raised in an earnest evangelical missionary’s home, raised in a believing church, and deeply influenced by the evangelistic campaigns of D.L. Moody and Ira Sankey, Smith nevertheless, under the influence of some very able teachers, became enamored of the new teaching coming out of Germany and became one of its champions in his work, first as a pastor, and then as a professor. At one point, Smith remarked,

“Modern criticism has won its war against the traditional theories. It only remains to fix the amount of the indemnity.”

He meant that the old confidence that believers had in the historical reliability of the Bible had been shattered. The question that remained was how much damage to the Christian faith itself had been done. At first this generation of men imagined that evangelical faith would be untouched by the new theories about the Bible. Indeed, they argued that only by accommodating the Church’s message to the new scholarship could the church stay in the race for the soul of the nation. They were sure the gospel would flourish in Scotland as a result of this new way of thinking about the Bible. By the end of their lives, however, some of them were unsure how much of the gospel actually remained and in the case of others, including Smith, it is hard to tell precisely what they still believed. False teaching does not usually spring up overnight in the church. It does not confront the belief of Christian people directly. It progresses step by step and often takes even its teachers unawares. They begin believing most things; they end believing very few. But the result is easy enough to see, wherever one looks in church history and in contemporary Christianity: false teaching once embraced by the Lord’s people, causes the Lord to withdraw and the church to die.

It is highly ironic, then, that none other than George Adam Smith himself was the first pastor of the Queens Cross Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. He was called to be its organizing pastor in 1882.  I say that is ironic, because it was to this same Queen’s Cross congregation, just up the road a mile or so from Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, that the practicing homosexual minister came a few years ago, whose installation by the Aberdeen Presbytery led to the recent exodus of congregations from the Church of Scotland and the hastening of the demise of the national church. The Church of Scotland had long ago plummeted from its tremendous influence in Scottish national life at the end of the 19th century, but it is finding new ways to achieve a virtually total irrelevance today. “What is to die, let it die.” But the seeds of that death were sown when Scottish Christians made their peace with the false teaching brought them by their worthless shepherds. George Adam Smith, in his day, would have hotly denied that his teaching was sowing the seed of naked unbelief in his church. He would have been offended at the suggestion that he was in fact destroying the Church of Scotland, or that it was to destroy his church within several generations. The idea would have been deeply offensive to him. But that is what he did and what his teaching did!

Now how do we apply a text like this to ourselves? Some of you might well be thinking: “what does this have to do with me?” Isn’t the presbytery supposed to judge the fitness of ministers? Well, yes and no. In fact there are several ways for you to take heed to the warning of this chapter, all of which are important.

  1. We are to care that the teaching we hear and the leadership we receive is faithful to the Word of God. That is not always a simple task, given that at a number of points even earnest Christians don’t see eye to eye about what is the teaching of the Bible. What is more, laymen are likely to defer to the judgment of scholars; they certainly can be intimidated by them. But when you open the Scriptures you find that they are addressed to ordinary Christians, to the people, if you will. Christians are, in fact, commanded to “search the Scriptures,” to believe what they teach, and to obey what they command. You are taught, here in Zechariah, but in many other places in the Bible, that wolves will come seeking to devour the sheep and that you should remain on guard against them and have nothing to do with them. In Holy Scripture the responsibility for that judgment is placed in your hands and you are held accountable for that judgment and, as we read here in Zechariah 11, you will suffer together with your children if you do not exercise that judgment according to God’s Word.What is more the promise that the Holy Spirit would direct us into all truth was made not to scholars, or even to ministers, but to believers in general. As John writes to all believers in his first letter, again in the context of the appearance of false teaching in the church, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” John expects you to be able to tell the difference between the truth and a lie so far as the Word of God is concerned. He even goes on to say, “But the anointing you have received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.” [1 John 2:20-21, 27] The judgment of the individual believer in such cases, therefore, is not only a right, but a duty.
    The fact is when false teaching has appeared in the church throughout the ages, it has always been spotted by large numbers of ordinary Christians. They can tell that it doesn’t jibe with the Scriptures and usually can tell that it represents some accommodation to ideas popular in the culture. False teaching makes its way in the church because there are so many Christians who want the false teaching to be true!You are to be like the Bereans whom Luke described as particularly noble because they searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was teaching them was true. That is one of the reasons why I include so much commentary on the text as we read it before preaching the sermon. I want you to know the Bible. I want you to understand it. I want you to be able to read it for yourself with comprehension and appreciation. A faithful shepherd doesn’t want to do your thinking for you; he wants to help you understand the Bible for yourself; he wants to make you competent to apply its teaching to any and every life situation.
  2. We should, as a congregation of Christians, care that the church’s ministers are being well-trained in loyalty to the Bible and the gospel, and do our part to support such teaching in our own land and around the world. We will have an opportunity to do just that with the Deacons’ special offering next Sunday night. There is probably nothing we do that has such wide-ranging good effect as contribute to the preparation of faithful ministers, whether in Africa or India, Cuba, the South of France, or the United States.
  3. And, finally, we are not to miss the connection made in the Gospel between this text and the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. The thirty pieces of silver was Judas’ reward; the worthless shepherds put Jesus into the hands of the Romans and demanded his execution. And Jerusalem was leveled as a result. Jesus is the true and faithful and good shepherd and our hope and the hope of the whole world lies in embracing him as our shepherd, recognizing his voice, following him, and never letting him out of our sight. The true test of any under-shepherd is his loyalty to the shepherd, and no Christian or Christian church will go far wrong if he is or she is or the church as a whole is always listening hard for the voice of the Lord, determined to follow him come wind, come weather.