Saturday, June 01, 2024

Mining the Minors: Zechariah (20)

In chapter 11, Zechariah is either living out an object lesson in real time or else telling a parable in which he is a character. By no means is his illustration a simple, obvious analogy, and commentators are all over the place in trying to parse out its intended meaning. The parable concerns two shepherds and a flock doomed to slaughter, and it’s chock full of symbols, familiar and unfamiliar. If we can’t unpack it to everyone’s satisfaction, at least we can make a few sensible suggestions consistent with other prophetic scriptures, and eliminate the more absurd possibilities sometimes offered.

The parable spans Israel’s history, starting in the distant past and ending in the future.

III. Two Oracles (continued)

1/ Against the Nations (continued)

Zechariah 11:4-14 – Two Shepherds

The Rejected Shepherd

“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.”

Shepherds, Flocks and Covenants

The first eleven verses concern a shepherd who is both rejecting and rejected. He became impatient with the sheep, and they detested him despite the fact that he tended them faithfully. The flock, of course, is the entire nation of Israel, Judah included. We know this because the “flock doomed to slaughter” is identified as “the inhabitants of this land”, the land where Zechariah lived. By the time we get to the thirty pieces of silver in verses 12 and 13, it becomes apparent the shepherd foreshadows Messiah, the shepherd his own would not receive.

This flock had been “doomed to slaughter” since voluntarily entering into the covenant made with “all the peoples” detailed in Deuteronomy 29-30 and referred to in verse 10. The Hebrew words translated “all the peoples” might be better translated “all the tribes” in this instance. In this context, “peoples” cannot reasonably refer to the Gentile nations, though at least one expositor hypothesizes that “the covenant” refers to a hitherto-unknown pact between God and the nations of the world to protect Israel, which he was about to abrogate.

To call this unlikely is giving the theory too much credit.

Which Covenant?

No, I believe the covenant in view was with the second-generation children of Israel centuries prior in Moab. That covenant was conditional, the prosperity of Israel in its new home depending on keeping it. Again, we know this from clues in the text. The staff of Favor, the blessings of the covenant, is broken or annulled in verse 10. That cannot be the Abrahamic covenant, which is unconditional and fulfilled in the person of Christ. (It should be obvious you can’t break an unconditional covenant no matter how badly you behave.) It also cannot be the Davidic covenant, though there are indeed conditional aspects to that one. God would discipline David’s sinful offspring when they inevitably sinned. But even though the Davidic covenant might bend, it too would never break (“My steadfast love will not depart from him”, meaning Solomon and his heirs), and must ultimately be fulfilled in the person of the Lord Jesus.

Deuteronomy describes the “slaughter” to which the covenant breakers doomed themselves, a judgment to be meted out at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, and again, after the shepherd’s rejection, by the Romans in AD70, dispersing Israel across the world. That likely makes the various nations through whom the Lord judged Israel the parable’s “sheep traders” or “possessors” (depending on your translation).

The ESV is exceptional in making the sheep traders the ones who were watching and came to know that what happened was by “the word of the Lord”. Every other translation team understands the watchers to be “the poor of the flock”. In any case, the watchers would know that in abandoning the sheep who rejected him and subjecting them to judgment, the shepherd was acting under instruction from a higher authority.

Destroying the Shepherds, and Staves

This flock was in major trouble. In addition to the sheep traders, who would buy, sell and slaughter them, their own shepherds had no pity on them (verse 5). Israel had a long history of inadequate shepherds, as detailed last week. Any significant position of responsibility and authority in Israel could be considered a shepherd role.

The statement that “in one month I destroyed the three shepherds” is a conundrum. If taken literally, it probably means Zechariah summarily dismissed them from their jobs. The issue is what that act, or the story of it, was intended to symbolize. Some suggest the three are intended to call to mind the “elders and chief priests and scribes” of Matthew 16:21, whose religious authority was nullified in the aftermath of Christ’s resurrection. Boice suggests the three shepherds refer to the prophets, priests and kings of Israel, whose offices Christ fulfils. Some have even suggested it refers to the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. Either way, it is likely that “one month” in which they were cut off simply refers to this being accomplished in a short period rather than in precisely thirty literal days.

The two staves with which the shepherd cared for the flock are called Favor (the blessings of God under the Deuteronomic covenant) and Union (the coming together of the twelve tribes as a single nation under Saul, David and Solomon). Both were destroyed in the process of breaking the covenant and rejecting the shepherd.

Silver and the Potter

How Judas ended up betraying the Lord Jesus for exactly thirty pieces of silver is no mystery. He went to the chief priests to negotiate a deal, and thirty pieces of silver was the “lordly price” at which they priced their Shepherd, the price required under the law to compensate the owner of a slave gored by an ox. Was the insult intentional? Probably.

If we compare the shepherd in Zechariah’s parable to the actual events described in the gospels, we see that Zechariah really foreshadows Matthew 26-27 rather than Judas “fulfilling” a prophecy in any strictly literal sense. There are differences between parable and fulfillment sufficient enough to make Matthew’s definition of “fulfilled” a little broader than a Western mindset might expect in interpreting an oracle, as discussed in detail here. The shepherd throws the coins in Zechariah, not the betrayer, and Matthew has no actual potter in the temple. All the same, there is way too much equivalence to be mere coincidence: the exact price, the reference to the potter (Judas was buried in a potter’s field purchased by the chief priests with his blood money), and the fact that Judas even threw the money into the temple precisely as Zechariah describes having done himself.

The question arises whether any of the participants in the Lord’s betrayal were conscious of the association between their actions and the words of Zechariah. It seems unlikely. Had the connections to OT prophecy been too obvious to the participants, they “would not have crucified the Lord of glory”.

The Lord told Zechariah to throw the silver “to the potter”. He responds by throwing the silver into the house of the Lord, where the potter apparently resides. Why would there be a potter in the temple? All the temple vessels were made of gold, and had been returned to Jerusalem by the Persians. Over a century earlier, Jeremiah wrote about the same subject, the judgment of the kingdom, under the metaphor of a potter (God) and clay (Israel). The potter reworks the clay spoiled in his hand into another vessel as the Lord sees fit. So was there a literal potter in the temple, or was Zechariah simply riffing on Jeremiah? If God is the potter, where else would he be found but in his temple?


It should be evident the parable is not linear. It takes in a number of relevant events in Israel’s history, but not necessarily in the order they actually occurred.

This is easy to see when we try to set the events of the parable alongside those to which they appear to point. Historically, the sheep rejected the shepherd before the shepherd grew impatient. The parable simply mentions that both occurred without jumping through dramatic hoops in an effort to illustrate the the causal relationship. Historically, the annulment of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel occurred long prior to the final rejection of the shepherd, as the result of an earlier rejection, when Solomon chose to worship the gods of his foreign wives over the living God who had appeared to him twice. Writing over a century earlier, Ezekiel used similar stick imagery to describe the healing of the breach between Judah and Ephraim that presumes it was already a fait accompli, one that would not be rectified until the time of the end. Again, historically, the “king” referred to in verse 6 did not exist in the time of Zechariah. Judah had governors, not kings.

So then, the prophecy is clearly looking backward to some aspects of the judgment of the sheep, not forward. All the necessary elements of the story are in the parable, but they are not viewed in cause and effect relationships.

In order to attempt to keep the events of the parable in historical order, some commentators prefer to assign the annulment of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel to AD70, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal of Israel had any particular effect on the relationship between Judah and Ephraim, which the parable very specifically spells out. Alternatively, some expositors want to place the breaking of Union around 325 BC, when the Jews and Samaritans parted ways for good. This is doubly useless, in that scripture never identifies the Samaritans with Israel, the Samaritans being a watered down remnant rather than restored Ephraim, which all the prophets say must come home from abroad in the last days. Furthermore, it still gives us the events out of order.

It makes more sense to simply accept that the parable is not intended as a strict retelling of history in linear fashion. The rejection of Messiah in the first century was only the final blow in a long series of rejections of God’s rule over Israel. The sheep detested the shepherd long before the shepherd became impatient with the sheep.

Zechariah 11:14-17

The Foolish/Worthless Shepherd

“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!’ ”

In the Gospel of John, the Lord Jesus speaks of this worthless shepherd. He says, “I have come in my Father's name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.” Many worthless shepherds have come in Christ’s name since, but this one is unique in that he will come in his own name with the desire to consume the flock rather than care for them. He will enter into a relationship with Israel, pretending to nurture and protect them, even making a covenant with them before defiling their temple and declaring himself God. This worthless shepherd will also be remarkable for a serious injury. Revelation 3 speaks of a future authority figure with what appears to be a mortal head wound that has healed and holds himself out as an object of worship.

The rejected shepherd is infinitely preferable to this character. Zechariah does not tell us the end of the story until chapter 14, but Israel will come to realize its error in time. That is the purpose of the exercise.

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