Bible Commentary: Zechariah 11

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Zechariah 11

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Two Staffs, Worthless Shepherds and 30 Pieces of Silver

The wonderful high point for the Israelites at the end of chapter 10 is followed by a description of the lowest point of all. Whereas chapters 9-10 concerned the awesome deliverance and restoration to the Promised Land that the Messiah would bring, chapter 11 speaks of the nation rejecting that Messiah and the resultant dire consequences.

The first three verses of chapter 11 tell of destruction to befall Lebanon, Bashan and the Jordan Valley--that is, most of the Promised Land. Commentator Charles Feinberg notes: "The context of the rest of the chapter is determining and it points unmistakably to the judgment which resulted from the rejection of the Shepherd of Israel, that destruction which overtook the land and people [at the hands of the Romans] in AD 70" (The Minor Prophets, p. 325). Yet this is likely also to be understood as a forerunner of end-time destruction, as we will see.

"In the Talmud the Jewish rabbis identified Lebanon here [in verse 1] with the second temple, 'which was built with cedars from Lebanon, towering aloft upon a strong summit-the spiritual glory and eminence of Jerusalem, as the Lebanon was of the whole country'" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 1-3). The mighty trees of the land, besides being literal, could also symbolize the principal men of the nation (the "shepherds" of verse 3). The roaring lions of verse 3 would seem to represent the ravaging conquerors.

The reason for this terrible situation then follows. "In Hebrew style an effect is often stated first, then the cause is presented afterward. So it is here. The cause of the judgment, the rejection of the Messiah by Israel, is now elaborated upon. The charge is to the prophet [Zechariah] who performed in vision what was commanded. He acted representatively for the Messiah in whose personal history these transactions took place" (Feinberg, p. 325).

Actually, it is not entirely clear who is speaking in verse 4, saying, "Thus says the LORD my God..." As we saw in Zechariah 10:12, the preincarnate Jesus Christ was speaking of the Father. It appears that Christ is still speaking in verse 4 of chapter 11--as what follows describes, in figurative language, His experience when He came to earth as a human being. Yet, as the commentator above and others contend, it may well be that Zechariah was to literally take shepherd implements and act out the role of the Good Shepherd. Indeed, this seems likely given the instruction to later take the implements of a foolish shepherd in verse 15-since that does not seem to be something Christ Himself did in any sense.

The Messiah was to "feed the flock [headed] for slaughter" (verse 4). In verse 5 we see the abuse and oppression of the people under foreign overlords, to whom their own leaders had essentially sold them out for the sake of their own position and comfort. In verse 6, God says that he will give every one into his neighbor's hand (indicating an internally divided, faction-ridden nation, which Judah was in Christ's day). God also says that He will give the people over to their king. In John 19:15, the crowd that cried out to have Christ crucified said, "We have no king but Caesar!" Thus it would be into the Roman emperor's hand that they would be given.

Verse 7 describes the Messiah feeding the flock--that is, giving the nation spiritual nourishment through His teachings. It is particularly the "poor" of the flock who are fed-those of lesser means and those who are lowly and humble of spirit. The NIV has "oppressed." Jesus quoted Isaiah in describing the commission God the Father gave Him: "He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18).

The two staffs may have been literal implements taken up by Zechariah with symbolic meaning--or the reference could be altogether figurative. "Two staves are taken because the shepherd in the East carried a staff to protect against wild beasts [i.e., a club], another to help the sheep in difficult and dangerous places [i.e., a crook]" (Feinberg, p. 327). One staff, probably that of protection, is named "Favor" or "Grace" ("Beauty" is apparently an imprecise translation here). The other, probably the one used to keep the flock together, is named "Unity" or "Union" (as "Bonds" here, according to verse 14, connotes bonds of brotherhood). Christ's shepherding work was to care for and protect His people and to keep them together.

Verse 8 says, "I dismissed [KJV has 'cut off'] the three shepherds in one month. My soul loathed them, and their soul also abhorred me." Many explanations have been offered here, and there is no way to be certain which is correct. "'In one month' has been taken to refer to (1) a literal month, (2) a short period of time, and (3) a longer period of indefinite duration" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 7-8). The presence of the definite article "the" (Hebrew ha) with "three shepherds" would seem to indicate that that these shepherds have been referred to already. If so, they would be synonymous with the shepherds of verse 5-that is, the nation's leaders in general. This would seem to support the contention of many that the terminology here specifies not three particular individuals (though that is of course possible), but three classes of leaders among the people. Most suggest civil magistrates, priests and prophets. "Others understand it of the three sects among the Jews, of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, all whom Christ silenced in dispute (Mt. 22) and soon after cut off, all in a little time" (Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, note on verses 4-14). Still others, seeing the reference as denoting individuals, suggest Eleazar, John and Simon, the three Jewish faction leaders during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Again, there is no way to be sure.

"In v. 9 the Good Shepherd terminates his providential care of the sheep, so that they even 'eat one another's flesh.' According to Josephus, this actually happened during the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Romans.... [One commentator] remarks: 'By withholding his leadership the shepherd abandoned the people to the consequences of their rejection of him: death, and mutual destruction. He simply let things take their course'" (Expositor's, note on verses 8b-9). In verse 10, He takes the staff representing divine favor on is people-the one with which He fended off the nation's enemies--and breaks it. This signals "the revocation of his covenant of security and restraint, by which he had been apparently holding back the nations from his people" (note on verses 10-11).

The "poor of the flock" (verse 11) or "afflicted of the flock" (NIV) who watch, or look to, the Messiah denote "'the faithful few who recognize the word of the Lord, who know true authority [in the pronouncement of national punishment] when they see it in action'.... At least part of the fulfillment of these verses is to be found in Matthew 23 (note particularly vv. 13,23-24,33-39 [when Jesus excoriated the nation's religious leaders and declared His work among the people over because of their unwillingness to accept Him, saying, 'See! Your house is left to you desolate' and telling them that they would see Him no more until they at last recognize Him at His glorious return.]). Faithful believers discern that what happens (e.g., the judgment on Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70) is a fulfillment of God's prophetic word-a result of such actions as those denounced in Matthew 23, which led to the rejection of the Good Shepherd" (same note).

In Zechariah 11:12, the Messiah declares His job as the nation's shepherd officially at an end, saying in effect, "Okay, I'm done here so it's time to pay Me what you owe Me for My work-or just forget it." The appropriate wage, Feinberg comments, would have been "their love, their obedience, and their devotion to God and His Shepherd. But it was not to be a matter of compulsion; if they were so minded, they could refrain from any manifestation of their evaluation of His ministry. They were prepared, however, to indicate their estimate of Messiah and His work. They gave Him thirty pieces of silver (money) for His wage. According to Exodus 21:32 this was the price of a gored slave. A freeman was considered twice that amount. Think of the insult of it!" (p. 328). God's designation of the sum in verse 13 as a "princely price" was evidently given in sarcasm (see Expositor's, note on verses 12-13). "The price was so disgraceful that it was to be cast to the potter who busied himself with things of little value. Casting a thing to the potter may have been proverbial for throwing away what was worthless" (Feinberg, p. 328).

Casting the money into the temple for the potter seems odd on the face of it. Why would money be cast into the temple if it were to be for the potter? Remarkably, the specifics of this prophecy were fulfilled in detail. The nation's leaders weighed out 30 pieces of silver to Judas, Jesus' moneykeeper, to have Jesus turned over to them (Matthew 26:14-16). Later remorseful, Judas flung the money into the temple--but the chief priests, not willing to put "blood money" into the temple treasury, gave it to a potter to purchase his field (27:3-10). Matthew cites Jeremiah rather than Zechariah in relating the prophetic significance of these events, though no such reference occurs in the book of Jeremiah. It is likely that Jeremiah had earlier spoken a similar prophecy. (This is touched on in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Matthew 27.)

In Zechariah 11:14, the second staff, representing the unity of God's people, is broke--and is interpreted as breaking the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. While this might seem strange since these two were already divided and remained so in Christ's day (and in fact remain so today), we should understand it in the context of the prophecy of Israel and Judah's national restoration in the previous two chapters of Zechariah. "The rejection of the messianic shepherd...meant that the [prophesied] national unity the Israelites hoped for would not be achieved at this time. But one day the two nations Judah and Israel will be united (Ezekiel 37:16-28)" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Zechariah 11:14).

With the rejection of the Messiah, the nation would be given over to foolish, worthless shepherds (verses 15-17). In verse 15, the implements of a foolish shepherd, as distinguished from a good shepherd, would seem to refer to personal attributes as expressed through behavior and the quality of food (spiritual nourishment) provided. In verse 16, a look at what the worthless shepherds will fail to do tells us exactly what proper spiritual leaders ought to do: 1) care for the lost or those who are in the process of being destroyed; 2) care for the young and inexperienced or, as the word here may alternatively be understood, the scattered; 3) heal those who are hurt; and 4) feed the healthy who, though they stand, need regular spiritual nourishment to keep them from falling. The bad shepherd will do none of these things. Instead of feeding the sheep, the end of verse 16 says he will feed on them. And when times get tough, he will abandon the flock (verse 17). As Jesus explained in John 10:11-12, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep." God ends Zechariah 11 with a special warning directed against such worthless shepherds. They will not escape the consequences of their failure to properly shepherd God's people.

There are a number of similarities in Zechariah 11 to earlier prophecies in Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34. It would be worthwhile to review those passages and the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on them in light of the present reading.

Finally, in the Zechariah 11 prophecy of the rejection of the Good Shepherd and the calamitous results we should recognize a parallel between events of Jesus' day and those of the end time. The Jewish nation did not accept Jesus when He came. On the other hand, the modern nations of Israel today, led by the United States and Britain (see our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy), profess to be Christian. Yet these nations are awash in growing anti-God sentiment and godless legislation. Moreover, while many among them accept Jesus in name, they have not really accepted the true Jesus--that is, all that He taught and stood for. Their civil and religious leaders oppose Jesus' message, as the religious leaders of His own day did--and the people follow suit. So they remain under the "care" of worthless shepherds. Moreover, the continued rejection of the Good Shepherd by the nations of Israel and Judah will result in the greatest time of calamity ever--of which the events of A.D. 70 were only a forerunner.

Sadly, Jesus even spoke of servants given charge of His spiritual household, the Church, in the last days who would abuse their fellow servants--and warned that they will pay the price for their callous misdeeds (see Matthew 24:45-51).