Zechariah 11. A Description of Two Shepherds.
Key Notes: The puzzle of a shepherd and an anti-shepherd. OT references to Judas. Episodes of spiritual decline. Tasks of the under-shepherds.
This chapter is one of the most difficult passages of Scripture that I know. The text is dark and pessimistic, and the prophet uncharacteristically resigns and gives up on his people. However, we see that chapter 11 is sandwiched between chapter 10, which is about Israel’s victorious warriors, and chapters 12–14 describing a last great battle for Jerusalem. As is usually the case in Old Testament prophecy, we see an oscillation between spiritual decline and spiritual victory.
A good rule of thumb is to assume that every prophecy has an immediate fulfillment. In all prophecies, we should look for the prophet addressing his own people first, the prophecy making a local application as well as perhaps a distant fulfillment. I think it is best to consider verses 4–14 as Zechariah acting out a parable that was directed at Israel in his times. Ezekiel also acted-out a parable. Ezek. 4–5
A second rule of thumb is that we expect the New Testament to interpret the Old. We had a corollary of this second rule last week: History interprets prophecy. Israel’s history since WWII permits us to explain Zechariah 10. In chapter 11, there is a strong attachment to the Passion of Christ, and that will be a special motive to study it.
11:1–3 The chapter starts out with a lament for the deforestation of Northern Israel. The fir trees of Lebanon, the cypress and cedar, the oaks of Bashan and the thickets of the Jordan are ruined. Deforestation is an ecologic disaster that attends or precedes the wasting of the land. Deforestation may come from overuse, war, drought or disease. These verses have no obvious relationship to the rest of the chapter, and they resonate more with Zech. 10:1–2 in which the people are encouraged to call to God for rain. Perhaps long-term drought was the cause of the loss of trees.
11:4–14 This passage is written in the first person. Zechariah was ordered by God to take up the role of shepherd. There are other shepherds in competition with him. The sheep (Israelites) have been already marked for slaughter and the other shepherds are getting rich from the sale. The sale of sheep translates into killing or enslaving Israelites by leaders who will get money for their evil deeds. God will not intervene and deliver the sheep. In other words, we have a people under judgment, destined not for salvation but for destruction and with no accepted spiritual leader.
Zechariah has two staffs, one called Beauty or Grace and the other Union. Grace probably means the grace of God and Union is the bond between Judah and Israel. 11:14
Zechariah says that he destroyed (dismissed or inactivated) three shepherds in one month. Dozens of lists have been made of the possible names of these three shepherds, but there is no agreement.
These three shepherds continued to trouble Zechariah, and he finally gave up and turned his back on the sheep—the people of Judah and Samaria.
He broke one staff—the covenant of grace and peace--and the other shepherds were aware of what that meant and that it was God’s inspired word.
Then he asked for his wages and was awarded 30 shekels of silver. This was the sum that the Law said must be paid for a slave accidentally gored by an ox (Ex. 21:32)—a lordly price indeed.
Zechariah gave the money to the Temple treasury and then broke his second staff, called Union, signaling a rupture between Judah and Samaria.
Although we have no other information in Zechariah describing a spiritual decline and judgment that came after the Temple was rebuilt, we do have history from Ezra and Nehemiah. Both describe a spiritual relapse after a strong initial building effort. Priests, Levites and leaders (Ezra 9:1–2) had married foreign women from the people left behind by Nebuchadnezzar and had practiced their abominations. (Ezra 9:14). In Ezra’s case, there was quick repentance and spiritual recovery.
In Nehemiah’s time, spiritual relapse occurred again after a firm covenant had been made to honor the Law. (Neh. 10:28–39). There was backsliding that involved the High Priest and the Samaritans. This time the recovery was not complete.
So Zechariah’s three shepherds could be three individual mis-leaders or a generic collection of priests, Levites and government officials.
There is, however, no overlap in time between Zechariah (520—490 BC) and Ezra (458—445 BC), so we must assume that a similar spiritual decline occurred during Zechariah’s later life, preceding Ezra.
We have little outside information about this time in Israel’s history. Josephus is silent. We know that there was a final break between Jews of Judah and the Samaritans of the northern territories in 325 BC. The Jews suffered under the Greek Ptolemies, but that is also more than a hundred years away. We interpret Zech. 11 to tell us that Judah is experiencing another in its many spiritual cycles of decadence and judgment. That is the theme of Judges, and we tend to think those cycles came to an end when David came to the throne. That is obviously not true.
Zech. 11:15–17 Then Zechariah is instructed to take up the tools of a really bad shepherd.
The list of what a shepherd is supposed to do is instructive:
Care for the dying.
Seek the wandering
Heal the injured, the maimed.
Nourish the healthy.
None of those tasks will be done by this anti-shepherd who is cruel to his charges and who is cursed by God.
We have seen an acted-out parable of a good shepherd, in contention with bad shepherds, who gives up and is followed by an anti-shepherd.
The New Testament takes the passage about the thirty shekels of silver and applies it to Judas being paid for betraying Jesus (Matt. 26:15; 27:9,10).
There are two problems with the NT application. The first problem is that Matthew refers the text of the 30 shekels of silver to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah. There are two proposed solutions to that puzzle:
The most common conclusion simply says that Matthew made a mistake. The other interpretation associates texts in Jeremiah’s reference to a potter’s field (Jer. 11 or 32:6–9) with the NT reference to the money from Judas’ betrayal being used to buy a potter’s field.
Neither solution is entirely satisfactory.
The reference to the potter’s field in Jeremiah is remote. The word “potter” (Jer.‘:4–6) and the word “field” do not occur together in Jeremiah. Second, the idea that a NT writer, surrounded as he no doubt was by all sorts of witnesses and kibitzers, would make a simple mistake of fact—Jeremiah instead of Zechariah—and that none of the scribes who copied his manuscript would correct it—is simply unacceptable. It may be that we do not have the manuscript of Jeremiah that contains the reference Matthew is speaking of. Another explanation is that this is an example of melding OT texts that is foreign to our thinking. No source has been identifiied for Jesus' "as the Scripture says, 'out of his inmost being....'" (Jn.7:36). Paul reverses the sense of Hos. 13:14 in his quotation (ICor. 13:55) while remaining true to OT teaching.
The second problem is that in Zechariah’s case, the good shepherd asks to be paid and is reluctantly paid for his work by the bad shepherds. In Matthew we see the opposite—a bad shepherd (Judas) is paid for betraying the Good Shepherd. That does focus the mind. We know that parables should not be made to fit reality in every detail as if they were allegories.
What Zechariah and Christ have in common is a good shepherd in contention with bad ones.
- In the case of Christ, we can argue that He inactivated three bad shepherds—the priests, the scribes and Pharisees—in less than a month (more like four days), between the Triumphal Entry and the Crucifixion. Matt. 21:23–23:39
- In both cases, the end of the good shepherd’s work is accompanied by a purchase equivalent to that of a dead slave.
- In both cases the good shepherd has to resign Israel to its fate. (Matt. 23:37–39). Jesus said their house was left desolate and they will not see Him again until they can say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
(In Jesus, however, we see the reuniting of Jews and Samaritans in Jn. 4 and Acts 8:4–8.)
- We may also see in the cursed anti-shepherd the prophecy of the Antichrist, aka The Beast—“the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Holy Place…” as Jesus foretold (Matt.24:15). His final curse is described in Rev.’:20.
Another application is what is loosely called "burnout". A spiritual leader, such as a president of the Christian student organization, has been known to collapse after his term is over and leave the work, and may even appear apostate. Noah survived the Flood but then got drunk. (Gen. 9:21). Even Elijah, a powerful prophet, after a period of intense conflict with Baalism, was found running away in despair. (IK.19:3) We need to watch out for our leaders, especially during and after times of intense spiritual stress.
Think of yourself as an under-shepherd. You have orbits of people around you that you are responsible for ~ family, work, church and society. Tend to them. Do not neglect them.
“Tend the flock of God that is your charge,
not by constraint but willingly,
not for shameful gain but eagerly,
not as domineering over those in your charge, but as examples to the flock
And when the chief Shepherd is manifested, you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.” I Pet. 5:2–4
Care for the dying.
Seek the wandering.
Heal the injured, the maimed.
Nourish the healthy.