The Rejected but Still Redeeming Shepherd
Passage: Zechariah 11:4–11:17
Sermon from Zechariah 11:4-17 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: Zechariah: Return & Restoration (Part 17)
Delivered on January 31, 2016
Grab a Bible and let’s turn to Zechariah 11:4. You can find that on page 798 if you’re using one of the pew Bibles.
4Thus said the LORD my God: “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. 5Those who buy them slaughter them and go unpunished, and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the LORD, I have become rich,’ and their own shepherds have no pity on them. 6For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares the LORD. Behold, I will cause each of them to fall into the hand of his neighbor, and each into the hand of his king, and they shall crush the land, and I will deliver none from their hand.” 7So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders. And I took two staffs, one I named Favor, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep. 8In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. 9So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. What is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed. And let those who are left devour the flesh of one another.” 10And I took my staff Favor, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples. 11So it was annulled on that day, and the sheep traders, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the LORD. 12Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. 13Then the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter. 14Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. 15Then the LORD said to me, “Take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd. 16For behold, I am raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for those being destroyed, or seek the young or heal the maimed or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs. 17“Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be wholly withered, his right eye utterly blinded!”
Zechariah 11 is by no means an easy chapter. It has been called the most difficult chapter in the book, and even the most enigmatic chapter in the whole OT. I tell you that up front so you’re aware of the broader discussion that’s worth reading into. You will get my take on Zechariah 11, and I hope to lead you in a way that’s faithful to the word of God, and leaves you edified in Christ. But, as Paul would say in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “test everything, hold fast to what is good.”
I also tell you that up front because we have some initial groundwork to do before we get started. To begin, God would occasionally have his prophets dramatize his message. They would act out different scenes to symbolize the way God was dealing with his people, or would deal with his people (e.g., Isa 20; Ezek 4-5; Hos 1-3; Zech 6).
In our passage, the Lord asks Zechariah to perform two symbolic acts that are related (11:4, 15). In the first act, Zechariah is asked to represent God by playing the role of a faithful shepherd. In the second act, Zechariah is asked to play the role of a foolish shepherd that the Lord raises up and then judges. That’s how the passage breaks down.
But something else we need to address up front is this: what are these symbolic acts referring to? A popular approach says that these two symbolic acts represent only future events. Everything to this point has been future-oriented; and, hey, by the way, doesn’t Matthew 27 quote from this passage to talk about Jesus? Yes, to both assertions. But the Old Testament can point forward to Jesus in more ways than just direct prophecy.
And, the main difficulty I have with the strictly-future approach to both acts is that, not just Zechariah but Ezekiel as well—they both assume that Judah and Israel remain a divided people already; and they then promise the reunion of God’s people, such that they’re never divided again (Ezek 37:21-22; Zech 8:13; 9:10; 10:6-7; cf. Hos 1:11). But in verse 14 here the brotherhood between Judah and Israel gets annulled. That doesn’t make sense to me as a future happening if they’re already divided under Zechariah’s ministry.[1. The strictly future approach is also difficult for me in that the proposals usually offered—like those from the Greek period or from the Roman period—don’t really square with the details of Zechariah’s actions as well as the period before the exile does.]
So the approach that I take to chapter 11 is to see the first symbolic act as representing past events, and the second symbolic act as representing future events.[2. One other approach says that these two symbolic acts represent a strictly present struggle in the Israelite community that ends up reversing the hopeful message of the former prophets. But that approach results in Zechariah contradicting the former prophets; and Zechariah makes it very clear that he is building on the former prophets (e.g., Zech 1:4; 7:7).] In the first Act, Zechariah is dramatizing the history of Israel from before the exile to the present situation in Zechariah’s day (cf. Ezek 4:4-5).[3. Another example where something like this happens is when God asks Ezekiel to lie on his left side for 390 days to symbolize the long period of Israel’s apostasy before lying on his right side for 40 days to symbolize the present generation’s experience of God’s wrath in exile.] He uses the past to explain the present, in other words; but as we’ll see, this rehearsal of the past also points to the future typologically—that is, by the patterns it sets. Then, in the second Act, Zechariah is dramatizing the struggles with false leadership that his people will face till the end of time.
In other words, chapter 11 points both backwards and forwards. And it’s in this way that it prepares them to receive the good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. You see, chapters 9 and 10 promised us that a future King was coming; and when he came, his rule over his people would be like God shepherding his flock. Chapter 11 prepares the people to receive that Shepherd-King by basically saying this: “Hey, don’t reject the good Shepherd when he comes for you. Listen to his voice. Embrace him.”
Act 1: The Faithful Shepherd
So with that bigger picture in mind, let’s look now at some of the details of our passage. We’ll spend most of our time on Act 1, where the Lord commissions Zechariah to become a faithful shepherd.
The commission and the looming problem in Israel
In verse 4, we get his commission: “become shepherd of the flock.” God wants Zechariah to act out the role of a shepherd, and by doing so, he will represent God’s care for his people. More on that will come shortly, but first he explains Israel’s mess.
They are a flock doomed to slaughter, verse 4 says. Why’s that? Well, because look at the way they’re being treated in verse 5: “Those who buy them slaughter them and go unpunished, and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the LORD, I’ve become rich.’” We talked about this a while back with nations like Tyre and Greece buying and selling Israelites into slavery. Nations are cashing-in on Israelites, and then gloating over it, as if the Lord won’t hold them accountable.
So there are false shepherds outside Israel mistreating the people. But even worse, there are false shepherds inside Israel who don’t even care about it. It says, “even their own shepherds have no pity on them.” How could this possibly be?
Well, verse 6 explains that this terrible situation is no accident. Rather, it’s due to a judicial act by God: “For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares the LORD. Behold, I will cause each of them to fall into the hand of his neighbor, and each into the hand of his king, and they shall crush the land, and I will deliver none from their hand.” The picture is a flashback to God giving over his people to the nations, the nations destroying their land, and God leaving them for destruction.
The faithful shepherd representing God’s care
What can they learn from this situation? Well, God has a lesson for them to learn, and we see it come out as Zechariah steps into his role as the faithful shepherd who represents God. That’s important to remember: he represents God. Verse 7, “So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders. And I took two staffs, one I named Favor, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep.”[4. The Hebrew is difficult here, but the NIV helps us not to miss an important group of people. The NIV translates verse 7 like this: “So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered, particularly the oppressed of the flock” (so also NASB, NET). There’s the flock in general, and then there are the oppressed ones within that larger flock. They come up again in verse 11, and seem to represent a remnant paying attention to the Lord’s word while the large majority reject the prophet/shepherd in 11:12. In other words, not everybody in Israel is viewed in the same light as the false shepherds. God shepherds the whole flock but for the sake of the remnant.]
“Favor”—we find that word applied to God in only two places, namely, Psalm 27:4 and Psalm 90:17. And I find Psalm 90:17 to be most helpful in this case. It comes as a prayer: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us.” To shepherd God’s people with Favor, was to say they had favor with God. And you can see this throughout Israel’s history that God set his favor upon them more than any of the other nations. They were his possession. Then there’s also “Union.” Sometimes the noun refers to the binding of a chord (e.g., Hos 11:4). For God to shepherd his people with Union was for him to bind them together as one people.
The other way his care gets symbolized is by the swift removal of threats to this Favor and Union—“in one month I destroyed the three shepherds,” he says. So perhaps this demonstration occurs over a month, and in that month, Zechariah acts out the removal of three shepherds. But if his acts symbolize something else in Israel’s history, the point isn’t necessarily to go looking for the identity of three shepherds removed in one month—though you can try. I mean one study listed close to fifty different interpretations from church history on who these three shepherds could possibly be.
If you think you know the answer, then tell me. Just don’t miss the point. The point is to ask how Zechariah’s act functions. Interestingly enough, three groups of false shepherds were already mentioned in verse 5 as the buyers, the sellers, and then Israel’s own shepherds. The main point, I think, is that even when Israel deserved nothing, God still cared for them with Favor and Union while chasing off their enemies—sometimes even removing their own false shepherds from leadership as a mercy to his people.
The faithful shepherd is rejected by the people
The sad part of this story is that despite all the favor God showed to Israel, they continued to reject him. And from the rest of verse 8 to verse 14, it seems like all that was once bound up unravels as God’s patience grows thin.
In verse 10, he removes his Favor symbolized by the breaking of the first staff: “I took my staff Favor, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I’d made with all the peoples.” Usually “covenant” would recall a particular covenant that God made with Israel. The only issue is that God never breaks those covenants, and everywhere that I could find this phrase, “all the peoples” it’s talking about Gentiles. So this seems to symbolize God removing his restraint on the Gentile nations, so that they have their way with Israel—think of nations like Assyria and Babylon.
Then in verse 14 he breaks the second staff, Union, and that symbolizes the annulling of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. Again, if we’re thinking backwards, then we’re looking at the division of the kingdom into northern and southern tribes (1 Kgs 12). What can we learn from this? Well, when you’re relationship with God is broken, then your relationship with people is also going to be broken. Your first need in broken relationships isn’t the relationship, it’s God. More on that in a minute.
It gets worse in verse 9. He says, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. What is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed. And let those who are left devour the flesh of one another.” That language recalls the curses given to Israel in Deuteronomy 28, and it reminds the people when those curses actually fell on them under the Babylonian captivity (Jer 19:19; Lam 2:20; Ezek 5:10).
And it is some of the most haunting language you can imagine. The most unsettling image is where it says that the most tender and refined woman would begrudge the others in her family her afterbirth and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly (Deut 28:57). So when you hear, “let those who are left devour the flesh of one another,” that’s what it’s talking about.
It’s a terrible thing to be forsaken by the true Shepherd. We utterly need his tender care, and not to have his tender care is awful. This is ultimately what Hell is about: God abandoning people to their own evil, so that they never enjoy his tender care but only experience his terrible curse. But it’s also why Jesus cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” on the cross—he experienced abandonment under God’s curse for us, so that we would never have to. And he will save you from that curse, if you will have him as Savior and Lord.
Don’t repeat the rejection of God’s care in Christ, as we see Israel doing here. They were abandoned because they detested God, verse 9 says. Despite all that he did for them, they’re filled with this inner-disgust for his leadership and care. This inner-disgust even gets illustrated in verses 12-13.
“Then I said to them, ‘If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver.” Thirty pieces of silver isn’t necessarily a small amount of money, especially in light of the conditions after the exile (cf. Neh 5:15). In Exodus 21:32, it was also the amount one owed if a slave was killed—the Law attempting to show that all human life is valuable. But the point is this: how generous is thirty shekels really, when the only reason you’re handing them over is to get the God of infinite value out of your life?
You see, the relationship is so strained at this point, the shepherd is saying, “Look, you don’t have to pay me anything. If you want to, fine. I’m done with you.” And then the people come back, “Oh no, we’re going to pay our share, just as long as you get out of our life. We don’t want you coming back. Take your money and leave.”
Zechariah, of course, received that money not as payment. But as a testimony against them. Verse 13, “Then the LORD said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter [and the quotation continues, as I understand it], the lordly price at which I [the Lord] was priced by them.’ So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter.”
Zechariah tosses the silver into the potter’s house as a way to make yet another connection to Israel’s past. Jeremiah 18-19 use a potter with his vessels to illustrate Israel’s rejection of God’s care. And interestingly enough, Jeremiah uses the same imagery that Zechariah does here: the people will suffer in a Valley of Slaughter (Jer 19:6; cf. Zech 11:4); everyone will eat the flesh of his neighbor (Jer 19:9; cf. Zech 11:9).
If you’ve ever wondered why Matthew 27:9 quotes from Zechariah 11 but then says that it comes from Jeremiah, this is why: Zechariah’s prophecy is building on Jeremiah’s prophecy, and both come together in Matthew 27 to talk about Jesus’ betrayal. We’ll get there in just a minute, but just see here that by tossing the money into the potter’s house, Zechariah again recalls Israel’s past to explain the present. Just like Jeremiah said would happen, you suffered these false shepherds because you rejected the Lord’s care. The point? Return to the care of the Shepherd; don’t reject him any longer. Prepare your heart for his coming, and don’t miss him.
Act 2: The Foolish Shepherd
Then we get Act 2. Zechariah goes behind stage, sets aside the mantle of a faithful shepherd, and puts on the mantle of a foolish shepherd. And this seems to shift gears a little bit and turn their attention from the past to the present and beyond.
Verse 15, “The LORD said to me, “Take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd. For behold, I’m raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for those being destroyed, or seek the young or heal the maimed or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs.”
The imagery here is like that of a lion feeding on its prey. This foolish shepherd is not a caretaker; he is a predator (cf. Jer 50:17; Amos 3:12). Now, it could be that a very specific shepherd is in view, here. But a couple of things persuade me to see in this foolish shepherd a type of false leadership—or a pattern of false leadership—that will continue in Israel until finally culminating with the arrival of the Antichrist. First of all, in Zechariah 11:3 “the shepherds”—plural this time—are parallel to “the lions,” suggesting that there won’t be just one lonely false shepherd in Israel, but a lot of them over time, and they all deserve God’s judgment. And then also, the prophet Daniel envisions this pattern of false leadership that oppresses God’s people until finally culminating in the rise of an Antichrist.
That doesn’t mean these foolish shepherds actually rule the day. We see here that their activity is under the sovereign hand of God. It also doesn’t mean that they’ll get away with their actions forever. We’ve already covered that in chapters 9-10. And verse 17 pronounces a woe on them: “Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be wholly withered, his right eye utterly blinded!” So, God will eventually hold all foolish shepherds accountable for their actions, and make it so they can’t lay a hand on his people anymore. Revelation 19:20 speaks of Christ putting an end to this Antichrist by throwing him alive into the Lake of Fire.
The Rejected but Redeeming Shepherd, Jesus Christ
So that brings us to the end of Act 2. Act 1 explains why Israel suffered as they did through the exile and into the present—namely, they rejected the Lord’s care. And then Act 2 explains the coming of more false leadership in the future, but not without God bringing it to a final end. The way this seems to function when I then read the New Testament is like this: embrace the Good Shepherd’s care for you until he crushes every false shepherd against you. We should learn from Israel’s past to welcome the care of the good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And we should embrace his care until he comes again to deal the final blow to all our enemies.
You see God did send his Shepherd-King. He sent his own Son into the world, Jesus Christ. Jesus came to the people of Israel and found them in a very similar state, as Zechariah gives us here. Matthew 9:36 says that Jesus had compassion on the people, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The old pattern had continued.
And so Jesus comes to them. He sends out his disciples to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He shows his care for them by raising the sick and healing the lame and teaching them the word of God and rebuking the false leaders. He even rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9. If anything, surely Israel would pick up on this.
But it turns out that Israel at large still wanted no part of his care. A few listen, but the rest forsake him. And eventually, the leaders of Israel have had enough and they form a plot with Judas Iscariot. Jesus is betrayed, he’s handed over to the authorities, and all for what? Thirty pieces of silver, Matthew 27 says, in fulfillment of Zechariah 11. You see, the way Zechariah 11 ends up pointing to the future is as a type. Zechariah 11 reveals a pattern of rejection by God’s people that ultimately finds its climax in the cross of Christ. The pattern of Israel rejecting God finds its ultimate fulfillment in the rejection of Jesus, because Jesus is God in the flesh.
But, this rejection isn’t by accident; it’s by God’s design. Jesus may have been rejected, but that didn’t stop him from redeeming. Against this dark backdrop of false leaders in Zechariah 11, Jesus steps in and says this according to John 10, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:11-14).
Jesus suffered rejection even to the point of death on a cross, because in doing so, he would redeem his people. In doing so, God would be offering him as a substitute for his people’s sins. In doing so, God would be paying a price to liberate us from all our hard-hearted rejection of his care. In doing so, Jesus would bring Favor to his people once again by reconciling us to God. In doing so, Jesus would bring Union to his people once again by reconciling people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one new humanity under the care of one Shepherd. Favor with God and union with each other—that’s what Jesus wins for all his people at the cross.
And so what do we do in a day full of foolish shepherds trying to lead us every which way—the way of Antichrist, as 1 John 4:3 would put it? What do we do? We embrace the care of the good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and never let go.
We listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice in the Word
We listen to his voice from the word of God. Do you want to know why we center corporate worship round the Bible, and the systematic teaching of God’s word? Do you want to know why one of the four main commitments of care group is fixing that time together on biblical truth? Do you want to know why I encourage you in reading the Bible and the DIG classes are encouraging your kids to memorize Scripture? It’s because we need to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Every week we’re ravaged by the lies of our culture; and we’re exhausted by our own sinful flesh feeding us all kinds of stupid thoughts and assumptions; and we need to hear a word from the Lord who gave his life for us. We know that if this God-man, Jesus Christ, laid down his life for us, then we can trust that everything he has to say to us is for our good and for our edification. Even when his words cut me open to the core, I know that this Jesus Christ will bind me up. Why? Because he’s the good Shepherd.
So take that home as one of the main ways we embrace the Lord’s care: we listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice in the word of God. Find ways to hear it again and again from day to day—through reading and singing and preaching to one another. And then make the most of every Sunday morning to feast on the word. Look up the next Sunday’s Bible passage and read it during the week. Pray for me to preach it well. Pray that God would grow your affection for Christ through it. If you can, come rested with good sleep, so that you can be more attentive to the Shepherd’s voice.
We submit to his caring leadership
How else do we embrace his care? Well, we submit to his caring leadership. By rehearsing Israel’s past, Zechariah is pushing us to return to the Lord’s leadership. He’s showing us, “Hey there are severe consequences when we choose not to follow the true Shepherd.” Some of those consequences we may experience in this life—as Galatians 6:7 says, “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” But the worst consequence is the total abandonment to God’s wrath in the Lake of Fire. Just as he was faithful to his word in turning Israel over to their enemies, so he will be faithful to his word in turning us over to eternal death, if we choose not to follow his lead.
The implied warning in Zechariah 11 isn’t just for Zechariah’s day, it’s for our day too. We cannot pretend to know God unless we’re willing to be ruled by him, to be led by him. Meaning, we can’t just be led by our feelings of what is right and wrong, but by what he tells us in Scripture is right and wrong. We cannot base our decisions in life merely on what I feel God is leading us to do, but on what he is leading us to do.
I once encountered a dear sister who had all kinds of good intentions of faithfully serving the Lord. But one day she shared with me that she felt like the Lord was calling her to be a pastor, and she was floored when I said, “No, he’s not. He’s certainly calling you to preach the gospel to others; he’s certainly calling you to disciple younger women and ground them in the word; but according to 1 Timothy 2:15, he’s not leading you to be a pastor. That’s not the Lord’s leadership, but your own feelings.”
Or, what about when a brother says that they really like this certain girl who doesn’t know the Lord, and he feels like the Lord is leading him to marry her. No, the Lord is not, according to 1 Corinthians 7:39. Or what about when others feel led by the Spirit to speak in tongues without any interpretation, or without any accountability to the word. The truth is that that’s not the Spirit’s leading, according to 1 Corinthians 14.
The Lord will never lead us in a way that contradicts his word. Which goes back to the first point: we must listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice, if we’re to know how to follow him. He has given us his word; he has given us prayer; and he has given us a family in the church to help us hear his voice rightly and follow him.
We care for the sheep of his flock
One tangible way that you can follow his lead is by caring for the sheep of his flock. The faithful shepherd protects while the foolish shepherd devours. The faithful shepherd unites while the foolish shepherd scatters. The faithful shepherd brings God’s favor while the foolish shepherd does not care about the flock.
Of course, the same contrast plays out in Jesus’ ministry too. Jesus said in John 10, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And how does Jesus bring them life? He lays down his life for them.
This is how he cares for his flock—through sacrificial love. And the same care should be in his people. Before he died, the Good Shepherd left us a new commandment. He said, “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Such a command is not just for leaders of God’s flock; it’s for all of us.
Leaders certainly play a big role as examples to the flock, Peter says. And Paul charges the Ephesian elders like this: “Pay careful attention…to all the flock…to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). A church should appoint and keep only those men who count the sheep worthy of Jesus’ blood and devote themselves to sacrificially caring for them, protecting them, and leading them. That’s why we have a process in place at Redeemer to prayerfully consider the men who lead you in caring for all the sheep.
But leaders aren’t the only ones to care for the flock. We’re all to have the same care for one another that Jesus himself had for us. This is what happens in a community upon whom God’s favor rests. Reconciliation with God produces reconciliation with one another. Peace with God produces peace with one another. God’s love for us produces love for one another.
It’s no wonder that the New Testament is seasoned with so many commands like bear one another’s burdens and seek to show hospitality and in humility count others more significant than yourselves—words like that exist because our care and compassion for one another ought to look like that of the Good Shepherd. Let us hear him calling us to this care in the word. Let us follow him in this care as he leads us.
We trust the Good Shepherd to bring justice
And then, let us not lose heart in this care till he comes again. With all the foolish shepherds in this world, we may grow discouraged or fretful. Can the church survive? Is it really worth all the sacrifice, if false teachers keep cropping up here and there? Can I trust that the church will be victorious? Yes, yes, and yes, but not because the church is such an amazing people, but because the church has an amazing Shepherd.
In John 10:28, Jesus says, “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Moreover, as we see in Zechariah 11, no false shepherd—not even the Antichrist—is outside of God’s sovereign control. He raises them up for his own wise and judicial purposes, he does it only for a limited time, and he will finally hold them accountable for all their mistreatment of his sheep. At the end of the day, he will stand with his gathered sheep: the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be our shepherd, and he will guide us to springs of living water (Rev 7:17).