Please be seated. Would you take your copies of the Holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to the prophecy of Zechariah chapter eleven. Page 798 in the church Bibles. Before we read God’s Word would you bow your heads with me as we pray?
Oh Lord, how we are in need of a fresh word from your mouth. How prone we are to being misled by the siren song of a world of rebellion against your rule. And, as we bow before you acknowledging our sin and weakness and our temptation to listen to other voices directing us than the voice of the Son of Man speaking in Holy Scripture, we now cry out to you for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to take this portion of your own Word and with power apply it to the changing of our lives and the praise of the name of Jesus. Rivet our attention on Christ and give us ears to hear what your Spirit says to the church. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Zechariah chapter 11, reading from verse 1:
Open your doors, O Lebanon,
that the fire may devour your cedars!
Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen,
for the glorious trees are ruined!
Wail, oaks of Bashan,
for the thick forest has been felled!
The sound of the wail of the shepherds,
for their glory is ruined!
The sound of the roar of the lions,
for the thicket of the Jordan is ruined!
Thus said the Lord my God: “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. Those 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. 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.”
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. In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. So 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.” And I took my staff Favor, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples. So it was annulled on that day, and the sheep traders, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the Lord. 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. Then 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. Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
Then the Lord said to me, “Take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd. For 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.
“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!”
Amen and we praise God that he has spoken to us in his holy and inerrant Word. May he write its truth on all our hearts.
The Word of the Lord in a Three-Act Drama
Zechariah 11 is one of those passages that make me glad that New Testament preachers are not the same as Old Testament prophets. Like Ezekiel and Jeremiah before him, in our passage, Zechariah is called upon to preach and to accompany his preaching with drama. It’s the sort of the thing that gives me nightmares: drama, the idea of performing a skit. But, drama like this was part of the prophetic repertoire. And on this occasion, the Word of the Lord came to the people of God accompanied by symbolic, dramatic action. Zechariah enacts a little play with three scenes, each of them actually quite sobering as he once again confronts the false shepherds of God’s people with their sin. They who ought to have pastored the flock abused them instead. And, so, the prophet steps in with dramatic words and dramatic actions that leave us in no doubt about the righteous judgment of God. Let’s look at the passage together.
I. Act One: A Funeral Dirge of Coming Judgment
Act One sees Zechariah singing. Like many a good play, Zechariah’s drama opens with a chorus. Verses 1-3 contain a dirge, a wailing song, a lament used at funerals and mourning ceremonies. He is to lift up his voice in a wailing song. And, now, you’re glad too that New Testament preachers are not Old Testament prophets, right? There’ll be no wailing songs from this preaching for which you should be very grateful. But, as Zechariah sings his lament he is calling the false shepherds of Judah to join him. They are to begin singing, notice, their own funeral dirge, ahead of time as it were. Because their destruction is sure and swift approaching. In verses 1 and 2, notice, he calls them to wail as he depicts a terrible forest fire raging through the trees and forests of Lebanon. The cypress and the cedars and the oaks are blackened and charred and fall to the ground. This, the prophet is saying, is how God’s wrath will fall on those who have not cared for the flock but have instead only cared for themselves. They have preyed upon the flock for their own benefit and good. Verse 3, the wailing that he has in mind is really the sound of the wailing on the shepherds for their glory is ruined. God is going to judge them. It is a terrible thing to be entrusted with the care of the people of God as these men were—they were their shepherds—and instead of protecting and guiding them, they neglected and abused them for their own gain. It is a terrible thing.
An Exhortation to Shepherd and Care Well
As a church we are in a season of officer training with men who are being examined as to their character and calling and gifting as potential elders and deacons. And, to all the men in that process and to all the officers, our elders and deacons and pastors who are currently serving in the ministry of shepherds, we ought to be sure not to miss this sober warning in this passage. To be called to the office and ministry of shepherd and yet to treat the flock of God with indifference or to use them as a means of personal gain is to expose oneself to the forest fire of divine condemnation. As James chapter 3 in verse 1 reminds us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” There’s a warning for shepherds here, a sober warning. That’s Act One.
II. Act Two: A Dramatic Depiction of the Work of the Good Shepherd
And, then, Act Two, and by far the largest portion of our text, begins in verse 4 and runs through verse 14. Let’s look at it together. Zechariah’s funeral lament now concluded, the Lord calls upon him to play the role of a good shepherd among the sheep. The returned exiles of Judah, the flock have been doomed to slaughter, verse 4. That’s how their leaders think of them: not as a flock to be defended fiercely and cared for tenderly, but as prey, fit only for the abattoir. Their leaders depicted here as tradesmen who buy and sell them in the open market are quick—aren’t they—to use pious sounding language to be sure. “Blessed be the Lord, I have become rich,” verse 5. But, Zechariah’s point is that they are profiting from the weaknesses of the vulnerable, baptizing their greed with false piety. They have no pity on the flock. They use them for their own ends. It’s an ugly scene. But, verse 6 tells us actually the generality of the flock is itself not a whole lot better. “I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land. I will cause each of them to fall into the hands of his neighbor and each into the hands of his king and they shall crush the land and I will deliver none from their hand.” The flock and shepherds have gone badly astray. The majority of the sheep, it seems, now have the kind of shepherds that they deserve.
But as verse 7 makes clear, not everyone in the flock of Israel was like that. Would you look at verse 7 with me, closely, please. It reads in our version, “So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders.” Now, the reference there to the sheep traders in that last phrase of verse 7 is probably a mistranslation. A better one, I think, would be to hear Zechariah saying, “So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to destruction that is to the afflicted sheep.” Not the traders of the sheep but those among the flock who have been afflicted, the faithful remnant who for the sake of their faithfulness and loyalty to the Lord their God have been made the butt of the opposition and insults and predations of the shepherds and of the sheep alike. And Zechariah is here being deployed, he is being sent to stand up for them, these afflicted ones, these vulnerable among the flock, to be their champion, to be to them a true shepherd. They’ve been neglected and abused and preyed upon and Zechariah is to be a true shepherd to them instead.
Two Great Realities of Faithful Shepherding: Union and Favor
In particular, notice the symbols of his office. He’s to take up the two staffs used by the shepherds of the day. Remember Psalm 23, “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” It was normal practice for a shepherd to have two staffs. Here they are now as the great emblems of the shepherds faithfulness and attentiveness to the flock. One would’ve been used to defend them from predators. The other would have been more like a shepherd’s crook to protect them and guide them and see to their welfare. And Zechariah is to carry these two staffs as symbols of his role and his commitment to shepherd these vulnerable, afflicted members of God’s people. He names one Favor and the other Union. The staff called Favor was a reminder to the flock, the covenant people of God, to the church that they live and grow and flourish only under the favor and the grace of the Lord who shepherds them. And, Zechariah here is sent among them to be the agent and minister of that grace and that favor. The staff called Union spoke about the hope of a reunited people of God. Israel, you may remember, prior to their exile in Babylon had been a divided people. There was the Southern and the Northern Kingdom; Judah and Israel, they were named. And there had been really persistent strife between them throughout the years. But the great promise that all the people of God will one day live together in perfect unity and union is symbolized graphically here by the staff that the shepherd carries. The Lord and the Lord through his prophet Zechariah, his shepherd in their midst, will care for them and the great fruit of his care will be the union of his people. And with these two staffs in hand, verse 7 concludes, Zechariah did indeed tend the sheep. He ministered the favor of God and helped them live out and glimpse in their own experience unity among themselves. And, it’s worth saying here before we move on that the faithful ministry of a shepherd always has these two ends in view and is always characterized by these two great realities. These are the twin fruits of faithful pastoral service: the grace and favor of God upon the afflicted flock and visible, heartfelt union among them. There is no union between church members that does not arise from the favor of God upon his church. There is little of the favor of God on display in a church racked by division. A faithful shepherd’s ministry pursues these twin goals for the sake of the afflicted lambs of Christ’s flock. Elders, deacons, ministers, you are to be the agents and servants of the grace and favor of God tending for the afflicted lambs of the flock of Christ’s church and seeking to promote always their unity—first with their Savior and then among themselves.
Discipline: Hard and Necessary Ministry
In this case, Zechariah’s shepherding ministry even extended to the removal from among the flock of three false shepherds. Look at verse 8: “In one month, I destroyed the three shepherds.” We really don’t know to what incident Zechariah here is referring, but it is an example of the commitment of the prophet to the care of the afflicted people of God that he would oppose and even achieve a measure of success in removing three false shepherds. Church discipline is not a pleasant thing. Removing those who endanger the flock is hard. And in our culture where niceness and avoiding giving offense at all costs seems to dominate so many of our ordinary social interactions, we often get quite uncomfortable with the idea of discipline, don’t we? But, Zechariah, here, is reminding us that dealing with sin and with those who serve sin—in this case dealing with false shepherds—is in fact an act of love. It is an act of love for the afflicted sheep, one of the marks of the favor of God on the flock and one of the ways Zechariah protected and advanced their unity was by rooting out these false shepherds. So Zechariah was a diligent and faithful shepherd among them, but it didn’t last.
Destruction: God’s Judgment on the Sinful Flock
Eventually the sin of the flock as a whole got the better of him. Verse 8: “I became impatient with them and they also detested me.” The sheep turned on the shepherd. In Zechariah, the shepherd representing, remember, the Great Shepherd, the role of Almighty God himself among his people responds by washing his hands of them. Verse 9: “So 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.’” It’s a chilling statement. If the flock rejects the shepherds, the shepherds give them over the life they choose. They called, remember, the nuclear standoff between the United States and Soviet Russia during the Cold War “M.A.D: mutually assured destruction.” That’s what happens when the people of God reject the Lord their shepherd: “mutually assured destruction.” The flock devours itself. They get the shepherds they deserve. The false shepherds turn on the sheep. Of course, the terrible picture of life in the flock without the care of the good shepherd here became graphically and literally true in the centuries that would follow. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus during the Roman siege of the city of Jerusalem under the emperor Titus in AD 70, the starving and desperate populous did, in fact, turn to cannibalism. Those who were left, as Zechariah put it, “devoured the flesh of one another” having rejected the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus himself.
And so to symbolize the judgment of God, Zechariah now breaks the two staffs, Favor and Union. The breaking of the first, verse 10, signals the end of the protection of the land from the assaults of the nations around Judah. He speaks there of a covenant with the nations. God had bounded the nations and protected his people. And now Zechariah says that’s over. Now, the people will be exposed to fresh waves of invasion and oppression. And the breaking of the second staff in verse 14 signals renewed division within the covenant community. Now there’s no longer the safety of shepherds who care for the flock, but now there is a life exposed to the opposition and expression of enemies. Now there is no longer growing unity among the flock under the favor of God. Now there is renewed division and intermeshing strife and hostility between brothers and sisters. And between these two great symbolic actions—the breaking of these two staffs in verse 10 and verse 14—is an enigmatic, but profoundly important few verses dealing with the price Zechariah is paid for his work as a shepherd. Verses 12 and 13, they weigh out, notice, thirty pieces of silver for him. He mockingly calls it a lordly price. This is all he’s worth to them. This is all the shepherding care of the Lord, their covenant God, is worth to them. And so the Lord tells Zechariah, “Throw it to the potter;” which Zechariah does in verse 13, throwing them to the potter who for reasons that are not at all clear is in the house of the Lord, the temple.
Pointing to a Greater, True, and Coming Shepherd: The Lord Jesus Christ
Now we read those words and hope already that there are bells ringing. Suddenly now the whole drama that Zechariah is enacting is lifted to a new level. Now we see him not simply as a model shepherd, a pastor of the afflicted flock, instructing us on the challenges and calling of a faithful elder and minster; now we see him enacting a passion play, don’t we? He dramatizes the coming and life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. He, too, told us that there are thieves and robbers who seek to despoil his flock, John 10 and verse 8. They come only to steal and kill and destroy, John 10:10. Like Zechariah, our Savior told us there will be hired hands that don’t really care for the sheep. They’re only interested in personal gain. And when the wolves come they will desert the flock to its danger, John 10:12-13. Just as there were for Zechariah false teachers, especially the Pharisees in Jesus day, were a real problem then and false shepherds are still a real problem today. But, Jesus, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He knows his own and his own know him. He lays down his life for the sheep, John 10 and verse 15. He will purchase the favor of God for the afflicted ones of his fold. He will obtain the unity that Zechariah’s staff symbolized. 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 and one shepherd, John 10 and verse 16.
Zechariah’s drama points us ultimately to Jesus who, as the Shorter Catechism teaches us, subdues us to himself, rules and defends us, restrains and conquers all his and our enemies. He is the True and Perfect Shepherd. That’s never more clear than in these two verses, in verses 12 and 13 of Zechariah 11. “The people set Zechariah’s worth as a shepherd at thirty pieces of silver. It was an insult because the shepherding ministry was a symbol—wasn’t it?—of the infinitely valuable Shepherd care of Almighty God. Who can put a price on that? When Jesus the Good Shepherd came, that’s exactly what the false shepherds of his day did for him, wasn’t it? They set his value at thirty pieces of silver, paid them to Judas for his betrayal and when they were thrown back into the temple the priests paid them to the potter to buy his field as a burial ground. Matthew 27, 9 and 10 quotes Jeremiah and this passage from Zechariah as being directly fulfilled in those moments. The fact that this difficult chapter describing what must have been an extraordinarily difficult season in Zechariah’s ministry, the fact that this chapter points us to Jesus as it describes these trials for Zechariah should remind us, I hope, of a vital truth. The talk of judgment here with which chapter 11 is littered need not fall on us. The wrath depicted in verses 1 to 3 and again in verses 9 to 14 is as real now as it was then but in the context of the work of the Good Shepherd to whom Zechariah ultimately points us, we need to remember that wrath fell on Jesus that it might not fall on us. In the middle of the darkness of threat and judgment is a bright, clear ray of gospel light offered to us all holding out to you hope and pardon and forgiveness. The ultimate irony of Zechariah 11 is that the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, was devoured and destroyed by the flock he came to same. And because he was, sinners don’t die when Jesus takes their place. Wrath is diverted from you to him. The Shepherd becomes the Lamb who was slain that the sheep of his flock and the people of his pasture might live.
Act One is a funeral dirge singing of coming judgment. Act Two is a dramatic depiction of the work of the Good Shepherd. It is a passion play reminding us to look past Zechariah to the one who came to seek and save lost sheep and to bring them home.
III. Act Three: A Dramatic Depiction of the Work of the Foolish Shepherd
And then finally look at verses 15 to 17. Here’s Act Three. Now Zechariah is to play a very different character. Now, he is to play the part of a bad shepherd, a foolish shepherd. Verse 15, take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd. God is going to hand over, we learn, his rebellious people to a shepherd who will not care for the flock. And verse 17 ends the whole play in a way similarly to the manner in which it began with another song. This time it is an imprecation, a song of judgment pronouncing wrath and condemnation on the false shepherd that would come and afflict God’s people. Some commentators suggest the particular shepherd in mind is Antiochus Epiphanes from the intertestamental period, the reign of the Seleucids who laid siege to Jerusalem and imposed Hellenistic religion on the people. Others suggest Herod Agrippa from the time of Christ. Others the Roman emperor Titus who destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 as the individual Zechariah is speaking of here. But, the truth is that again and again when people don’t take the only shepherd who can save them and care for them, the one who administers the favor of God and gives us unity among ourselves, when we don’t want him, we get the shepherd we deserve instead. Throughout history, over and over again, when people have run from the Lord and run from the Lord Jesus as our true Prophet, Priest and King, our Good Shepherd, we tend to turn instead to false teachers and to evil rulers, to tyrants and deceivers both in the church and in society.
A Call to Choose between Two Shepherds
History is littered with instances of precisely what I’m describing. Both great and small, local and global, we don’t have to list them. Name after name immediately come to mind. When we don’t want the rule and care of the Good Shepherd, we run to liars and cheats who deceive us and enslave us. One day, the Scriptures tell us, that long line of foolish shepherds, false shepherds will find ultimate embodiment in one the Scriptures describes as the lawless one, the antichrist who is yet to come. But, Zechariah’s point, I think, is clear. It is simply that there are two kings. There is the rule of king Jesus and the rule of the world, the flesh and the devil. There are two shepherds: the Good Shepherd who takes the place of the lambs of his flock and lays his life down for his sheep, and there are false shepherds of our own choosing who always desert the flock and prey upon their weaknesses. Which will you choose? Which will you have to rule over you? Who will care for you? Will you choose the Good Shepherd who gives himself for you? Or will you run to liars and thieves and robbers and hirelings who will desert you to the wolves, to false prophets and foolish shepherds who will use you and abuse you?
That’s Zechariah’s message; that’s the question with which we’re confronted here. Under whose watch-care will you live? What kind of shepherd do you want? God will give you the shepherd you choose. Some of you may well be wandering, lost sheep. The Good Shepherd is seeking you; he’s calling you; he wants to bring you into his fold. Why choose the predations of counterfeit shepherds when the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep longs to rescue you and make you his? Will you pray with me?
Our Father, we are so grateful to you that we have a Shepherd in Jesus who does not desert the flock but who dies for the afflicted lambs of his flock, who lays his life down for us. Help us to hear his voice and to follow him. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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