Zechariah, Prophet of the Restoration

10. The Rejected Shepherd

Zechariah’s 11th chapter is the story of Israel’s suffering under false shepherds, and her rejection of the true shepherd who would have fed the flock but was refused. Historically it covers the time between the period of the First Advent, pictured in symbol in chapter 9, and that of the Second Advent with its related events, shown in chapters 12‑14. The background is the land of Israel as it so often appeared when suffering invasion and destruction, and the basis of the picture a pastoral one, the relation between the sheep and the shepherds, bad and good. In the end only a faithful remnant survives, but this remnant enters into the stirring events of chapters 12‑14 and emerges triumphant at the end.

The curtain rises upon a scene all too familiar and infinitely sad. Judgment upon Israel because of apostasy is being executed by the agency of foreign oppressors, invading the country and desolating the land. "Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars! Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen…! Wail, oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! Hark, the wail of the shepherds, for their glory is despoiled!" (Zech.11:1‑3 RSV). Every time the Assyrians or the Babylonians invaded the land they came down from the north, first destroying the stately cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan, cutting down the standing timber for the construction of war machines or carrying it away for building purposes in their own land. Then as they swept southward the pastoral country was despoiled, the people’s flocks and herds pillaged and their villages burnt. Finally came the turn of the valley of Jordan and the highlands of Judea. All this happened in consequence of Israel’s apostasy from God, for thus were the terms of the Covenant. These three opening verses constitute the scenery, the stage upon which the drama is to be presented.

"Thus saith the LORD my God; Feed the flock of the slaughter; whose possessors slay them, and hold themselves not guilty: and they that sell them say, Blessed be the LORD; for I am rich: and their own shepherds pity them not". (vv.4‑5) This "flock of slaughter" is Israel, doomed to pillage and violence and death at the hands of alien invaders and her own rulers. This was so often the case in Israel. The people forsook the Lord and followed other gods and then found that those other gods were quite unable to protect them from their enemies. They forsook the principles of righteousness in their national life and found that oppression and injustice rebounded upon their own heads. But this time worse was to come. In the past God had always delivered after a season. "Then they cried unto the LORD in their trouble" recounted the Psalmist (107:6) and he heard, "and he delivered them out of their distresses". But now, says God, "I will no more pity the inhabitants of the land,… but... I will deliver the men every one (every man) into his neighbour’s hand, and into the hand of his king: and they shall smite the land, and out of their hand I will not deliver them" (v.6). This verse fixes the period to which the chapter applies; it is that following the Babylonian captivity. Up to the restoration from that captivity in Zechariah’s own day God had always delivered. Sooner or later the circumstances which gave rise to the chastisement changed, and God intervened, and the people were restored to their own land, and freed, if only temporarily until the next apostasy, from their oppressors. But not anymore. The next apostasy, with its penalty of calamity, was one that was to endure until the end, until the very time of the Kingdom and the final repentance and regathering. That apostasy had not begun at the time Zechariah received this message; the enthusiasm of the Temple rebuilding was still upon the nation and the fervency of Messianic hopes following its recent deliverance from Babylon, but it began very shortly thereafter and has continued without intermission to this day. The fulfilment of chapter 11 therefore must be held to begin not very long after the death of Zechariah and continue to the present.

From verse 7 onward the speaker is the Shepherd of Israel, the One appointed by God to lead Israel into their appointed destiny, if they would be so led. In the Old Testament He is the Divine word, the Logos, the Son. In the New Testament He is the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. This chapter presents him in both aspects, for although as the Divine Word He ministered to Israel in pre‑Christian centuries it was as Jesus the Christ that He manifested himself to them at his First Advent and was rejected. That is what this chapter is all about.

"So I fed the flock of slaughter, verily (therefore also) the poor (godly) of the flock. And I took unto me two staves; the one I called Beauty, and the other I called Bands; and I fed the flock" (v.7 RV). Here is action; the Divine Shepherd enters upon a pastoral mission which for all we know might have been God’s final effort to bring Israel to a position of readiness for the opportunity which was to open before them when their Messiah came to them. The three centuries prior to the First Advent was a period of intense nationalism on the one part and fervent expectation of Messiah on the other; Judah became an independent political State for a short time and the Pharisees and Zadokites and other zealous religious sects had their rise. It was a golden age for the God‑fearing element in the nation, expecting daily the fulfilment of all that God had promised, but it was also a time which gave increasing scope for the development of a rigid, bigoted view of the Divine purposes and a narrow, arrogant attitude of superiority over other nations and peoples which ultimately overcame the better things and created the Israel which condemned and slew Jesus Christ. For three centuries the Shepherd fed the flock, a flock that was doomed to slaughter, and a few, the godly of the flock, profited, but the majority turned away. At the end of those centuries a small minority were ready to receive and accept Jesus in the way He came, and the rest, even although "all men were in expectation", were found wanting. They knew not the time of their visitation.

The shepherd’s staff named "Beauty" (properly "Favour") is explained in verse 10 as picturing the Mosaic Covenant, obligatory upon Israel but so often in their history repudiated and violated. The other staff, named "Bands" (properly "Binders") is referred in v.10 to the organic union of the peoples in the land. Both of these staves had their place in the Shepherd’s ministry during those three centuries. The Covenant was reaffirmed and the sect of the Pharisees represented the national adherence to the letter of that Covenant. The pre‑Babylonian division into two nations, the two tribes and the ten tribes, was ended at the return from Babylon and now the nation was one; tribal divisions were practically eliminated and the entire nation was known as Judah, the people as Jews. Never in all history had Israel enjoyed so favourable a position and opportunity to go forward in faith and expectation to meet and receive their coming Messiah and with him fulfil their age‑old commission to be a light to the nations and declare God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.

At this auspicious point the Shepherd moves to action, and describes that action. "Three shepherds also I cut off in one month; and my soul lothed (loathed) them, and their soul also abhorred me" (v.8). In the sequence of events pictured in this chapter this cutting off of the three shepherds, whatever it may mean, is prior to the rejection of the good Shepherd by the flock and their payment of thirty pieces of silver for his services (v.12) so that it must have its application during those three centuries before the First Advent. Who or what, then, are the three shepherds thus cut off and what is the significance of the "one month"?

It is only to be expected that so obscure a phrase should be difficult of interpretation. It is said that among all the commentators and scholars involved with the Book of Zechariah there are extant some forty interpretations of the "three shepherds". Almost all confess themselves baffled by the "one month". There are not many expositors who have realised that this chapter constitutes a link in what might be termed a prophetic history of the period between the Restoration and the First Advent occupying chapters 9 to 11 and merging then into the events of the end of this Age in chapters 12 to 14. Once this fact is appreciated a pointer to the meaning of the three shepherds is provided. The A.V. has it "Three shepherds…" but the Hebrew text has the definite article. "The three shepherds..." Three specific unworthy shepherds are indicated and they are all cut off together "in one month". This is before the First Advent. v.15 speaks of a fourth unworthy shepherd who afflicts the flock after the Divine Shepherd has been rejected and therefore after the First Advent.

The term "shepherd" is used either for native rulers or guides, as in Jer.2:8; 17:16; 23:1‑4 and Ezek.34:2 or for foreign rulers and oppressors, as in Jer.6:3; 25:34‑38 and 49:19. Whatever man or power ruled the people was a "shepherd". It is interesting in this connection to note that in primitive Semitic languages the same word did duty for "king", the ruler of the people, and "shepherd", the keeper of sheep. Since the background of this chapter is the foreign domination of Israel, and an integral part of the action is God’s declaration (v.6) that He will deliver them into "his neighbour’s hand, and into the hand of his king: and they shall smite the land, and out of their hand I will not deliver them" it seems reasonable to conclude that the three shepherds picture foreign ruling powers whose dominion over Israel, permitted by God for a season, is cut off by the Divine Shepherd preparatory to his offering his own self as king.

In such case it is easy to see in the three shepherds the three Gentile powers which by Divine permission, and within the framework of the period known as the "Times of the Gentiles", exercised control over Israel. Babylon, Persia, Greece; these are the three shepherds whose influence hung heavily over Israel until well within the period covered by this 11th chapter, and then, more or less abruptly, disappeared from the scene.

It is customary to think of each of these powers as ruling Israel in turn and giving place at the end of its term to its successor. Politically this is so. Persia overthrew the Babylonian empire in 538 B.C. when Cyrus captured Babylon, and Greece overthrew Persia in 331 B.C. when Alexander in his turn captured Babylon. But in practice, each nation continued and various rebellions and other military adventures make it difficult to say with precision just when each one was truly superseded by the next. In point of fact all three existed in the days of Zechariah and all three exerted various degrees of influence over Judah. This is where the allusion to the three shepherds being cut off "in one month" might have its place. Daniel, in his vision of the four world‑empires, says (Dan.7:12) "As concerning the rest of the (wild) beasts, (i.e. the three representing Babylon, Persia and Greece) they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time". True to this, Babylon, both city and nation, continued after its capture by Cyrus in 538 B.C., until the building of Seleucia on the Tigris by the successor of Alexander about 281 B.C. attracted commerce from the city. Antiochus, the next Greek ruler, rebuilt the old temple in Babylon but the city was doomed and it vanished between 250 and 200 B.C. and this marked the full end of the old Babylonian people and power. The last Seleucid king of the second empire, Persia, was defeated in 236 B.C. by Arsaces I, founder of the Parthian empire and this marked the end of ancient Persia (the modern State and nation of that name developed long afterwards, in the early centuries of the Christian era). Greece, the last of the three powers, was increasingly harassed by the rising power of Rome and lost its independence about 228 to 208 B.C. Thus in a practical sense all three world powers, Babylon, Persia and Greece, came to an end, were "cut off", as Zechariah has it, during the third B.C. century. This century can therefore quite reasonably be spoken of as the "one month" of judgment on these powers. A similar usage is met with in Hos.5:6‑7 where the unfaithful of Israel "go with their flocks and their herds to seek the LORD; but they shall not find him; he hath withdrawn himself from them. They have dealt treacherously against the LORD…now shall a month devour them with their portions". The RSV renders that final expression "Now the new moon shall devour them with their fields" and the meaning seems to be that the dawn of a new month ushers in a period of judgment and destruction on those who have incurred the Divine displeasure in past time. The month as a short time period compared with the year as a normal time measurement is reminiscent of our Lord’s words "Except those days should be shortened (cut short), there should no flesh be saved". (Matt.24:22) Judgment, swift, sure and final, is pictured as taking place within the confines of one month. And in thus cutting off the three oppressive shepherds the Shepherd of Israel expresses his loathing for them, and they for him, as in verse 8.

So the Shepherd turns to his flock, the flock that is still rebellious and is in consequence doomed to destruction. Perhaps it is at this point we should begin to see the events of the First Advent taking shape. The history of the period immediately before the Advent shows that the nation as a whole was in no condition to meet or to accept its Lord. The work of the Shepherd for three hundred years, since the golden days of the Restoration, of Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah, had produced a faithful "remnant" who were ready for him, but the rest were unworthy and fit only for rejection. So we have verse 9 "Then said I, I will not feed you: that that dieth, let it die; and that that is to be cut off, let it be cut off; and let the rest eat every one the flesh of another". That prophecy had its fulfilment in real history when Jesus pronounced over Jerusalem its doom "How often would I have gathered thy children (you)... as a hen gathereth her chickens...and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate". (Matt.23:37‑38). And at the same time came the reality of verse 10 and 11 "I took my staff, even Beauty, and cut it assunder, that I might break my covenant which I had made with all the people. And it was broken in that day: and so the poor (godly) of the flock that waited upon me knew that it was the word of the LORD". Jesus cut that staff asunder and abrogated (cancelled) the covenant when he declared to the Scribes and Pharisees "The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matt.21:43).

Almost immediately the challenge came to Israel of the First Advent formally and finally to accept or to reject the Shepherd. "If ye think good, give me my price" (v.12). For three and a half years He had moved amongst them, doing good and offering them the Kingdom of God. Perhaps the point at which this invitation applies is at the end of Jesus’ ministry when He presented himself in formal fashion as Israel’s king, riding into Jerusalem "upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zech.9:9) and despite the immediate cries of joy and enthusiasm was within a few days rejected with the cry "not this man, but Barabbas". (John 18:40) The token of that rejection was thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas by the priests for his share in the betrayal.

Now here comes an intriguing coincidence of thought. Following the Shepherd’s request for his wages, he goes on to say "So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said unto me, Cast it unto the potter—this magnificent price at which I was assessed by them". The latter phrase is the literal Hebrew and is suggestive of the Lord speaking ironically of the amount which in ancient times was the price given for a slave or compensation due for the death of a slave. That was all that Israel would offer in return for the pastoral care of the Shepherd. "And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD" (vv.12‑13). There has been a lot of discussion and speculation as to the meaning of this expression. It is not easily apparent why the money should be paid to a potter or why there should be a potter in the Temple anyway. Some have suggested that the word rendered "potter" is a colloquial word for treasury or treasurer and that the Shepherd thus paid the money into the Temple funds but there is no real foundation for this. The most reasonable explanation, bearing in mind the scornful rejection of this "magnificent price", is that the expression "cast it to the potter" was a saying expressing contemptuous rejection of a worthless thing. We have a somewhat similar phrase today when we speak of a man as having "gone to the dogs". So the picture afforded us is one in which the Shepherd, insulted by the paltry sum of money given him as wages when he might reasonably have expected respect, esteem, gratitude and love in return for his ministrations, goes into the Temple courts and contemptuously throws the money on the floor of the Sanctuary.

Matthew’s gospel draws attention to this passage when he recounts the story of Judas and the betrayal of Jesus (Matt.27). The correspondence is not exact. The Shepherd receives the money as wages; Judas received his as the price of betrayal. The priests used the money after Judas threw it on the Temple floor to buy the "potter’s field" to bury strangers in; this is not the same thing as casting the money "to the potter" on the floor of the Temple. Matthew suggests a fulfilment of prophecy but there are numerous instances in Matthew’s Gospel where he is quite clearly quoting an Old Testament passage as illustrative of, or analogous to, the incident he narrates without really claiming that the one is a prediction of the other. It is not so much in the details of Zechariah’s vision on the one hand, and of Judas’ betrayal on the other, that the prophecy resides, but in the central principle. In both cases the Shepherd of Israel is rejected by those to whom he had ministered and the symbol of that rejection was a monetary one, thirty pieces of silver, thrown back upon the floor of the Temple in the sight of the ecclesiastical rulers who were primarily responsible for the rejection. Matthew, in the A.V. of Matt.27:9 credits the prophecy to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah but it is generally agreed that this is probably a mistake of an early copyist; Matthew does not always mention the prophet’s name in his allusions and probably he did not do so in this instance, and a later transcriber, taking it upon himself to add the name, added the wrong one. This supposition is confirmed by the fact that Sinai Palimpsest, a 4th century copy of a 2nd century Syriac translation, thought to be the oldest translation of the Gospels into any language, does not include the reference to "Jeremiah the Prophet" in this verse, and neither do the Peshitta and the Diatessaron (two 2nd century Syriac versions) or the 2nd century Old Latin versions.

"Then I cut asunder mine other staff, even Bands, that I might break the brotherhood between" (prop. "among") "Judah and Israel" (v.14). The preposition can mean equally "between" and "among". At the time of the First Advent there was no distinction between the ten tribe and the two tribe nations and no brotherhood which could be broken. There was a very real sense in which the entire nation, Judah and Israel, viewed as an entity, was disrupted and the brotherhood between its individual members destroyed. The brotherhood existing among the citizens of the nation was completely and finally broken when, in A.D.70, Titus quelled the Jewish rebellion against Rome, destroyed Jerusalem, and exiled the entire people, scattering them into all parts of the Roman empire. Even today Israel has not recovered from that Dispersion. This symbolic action of the prophet indicated the fact that following the rejection of Christ the nation was doomed to the breaking of family ties and national bonds, to separation and scattering all over the earth. Judah and Israel, after fifteen hundred years of national existence in the Land of Promise, would be a nation no longer.

Verses 15 to 17 describe the agency by which that scattering was to be accomplished. Three evil shepherds in verse 8, Babylon, Persia and Greece, had already been cut off. The true Shepherd had been rejected. "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15) cried the mob at the time of that rejection. Now they should have Caesar. The "worthless" (not "foolish" as A.V.) shepherd of verse 15 is the fourth of the shepherds which afflicted the flock and well pictures Rome, the fourth oppressor of Israel. This is one who, according to the RSV, "does not care for the perishing, or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the sound, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hoofs" (v.16). That is a very eloquent description of the Gentile power that has ridden roughshod over Israel throughout the long centuries of this Christian era. But retribution comes. Israel brought this suffering upon herself but that does not excuse the perpetrator. "Woe to the idol shepherd" (v.17) says God. Judgment shall come upon his right arm and his right eye. His power and his perception will be alike destroyed, and in the troubles that are upon the nations in our own day we see the fulfilment of that prediction.

(To be continued)