Following the Right ShepherdZechariah 10:1–11:17
Main Idea: Where God’s people wind up depends on whom we follow.
- The Work of the Faithful Shepherd (10:1-12)
- The Wailing of the Fallen Shepherds (11:1-3)
- The Wisdom of the Forsaken Shepherd (11:4-14)
- The Worthlessness of the False Shepherd (11:15-17)
I was in a high school classroom in Costa Rica on a mission trip a few years ago. Our group leader, Guillermo, had all the students hold hands to form a circle. In Spanish he told them, “No matter what, don’t let go of each other’s hands! Now, follow me.” Guillermo took the hands of two of the students and quickly started weaving his way through the room. He would step over or go under the joined hands of different pairs of kids, as the teenagers dutifully followed behind him and each other, struggling to keep their hands together. It took him less than a minute to get the whole group tangled into one big mess. Then Guillermo released the hands of the students on either side of him, joined their hands to each another, and said, “Now, without letting go of each other’s hands, make a circle again.” For the next four or five minutes, the students worked together, retracing their steps, shouting out, “Go under us,” or “Step over our hands here,” until they successfully made their way back to a circle.
My friend Guillermo’s purpose in the exercise had mainly been to teach the students the value of teamwork, but I walked away with a few other lessons:
- It’s a lot easier to get tangled than it is to get untangled.
- Often, the person who gets you into the tangled mess leaves you to untangle things by yourself.
- And the biggest lesson of all: Where and how you wind up depends on whom you follow.
When Scripture talks about whom we’re following, where we’re going, and how they are leading us, the Bible often uses the image of sheep and a shepherd. It’s a very common image in Scripture.
The first shepherd we meet in the Bible is also the first man who died because of his faith in God. His name was Abel, the second son born to Adam and Eve (Gen 4:4). After that, Abraham, the father of faith, was a shepherd (Gen 12:16). His grandson, Jacob, whose name later became Israel, was also a shepherd (Gen 30:31). Moses, the great lawgiver and the leader of Israel, worked for a season of his long life as a shepherd (Exod 3:1). David shepherded the sheep in the field before he became king and shepherd over Israel (1 Sam 16:18). The most beloved psalm begins with the words “the Lord is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1). It’s no surprise, then, that when Jesus described Himself, He described Himself as the good shepherd who “lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, the best-known passages of Scripture that use the image of the shepherd describe the shepherd in a positive way. But there are a number of places where the Bible talks about shepherds from a negative context, especially in the prophets. Men of God like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel railed against some of the shepherds of Israel—ungodly leaders, including wicked kings, corrupt priests, and even other prophets—because they were leading God’s people in the wrong direction.
Zechariah 10–11 warns against following the wrong kind of shepherd and calls us to follow the right kind of shepherd. Zechariah 10:3 is pivotal in these chapters:
My anger burns against the shepherds, so I will punish the leaders. For the Lord of Hosts has tended His flock, the house of Judah; He will make them like His majestic steed in battle.
Notice that the shepherds are equated with leaders. God is angry with these leaders and promises to punish them because He cares for His flock, the people of Judah.
Where God’s people wind up depends on the type of leader or shepherd they follow. Zechariah 10–11 presents four pieces of evidence to prove this central truth.
The Work of the Faithful Shepherd (Zechariah 10:1-12)
Verse 1 of this chapter is transitional, bridging from the promise of health and welfare for God’s people at the end of chapter 9. The encouragement from Zechariah to ask the Lord for rain can be seen as a rebuke to those in Judah who looked for Baal to provide favorable weather for the land. After reminding the people that it is the Lord who “makes the rain clouds” and provides “showers of rain and crops in the fields for everyone,” the prophet begins contrasting the work of the Messiah as Israel’s faithful shepherd and the misleading work of false shepherds who follow idols.
“The idols speak falsehood,” verse 2 declares. “Falsehood” is the Hebrew ?awen, which denotes vain assurances and comfort that were empty and meaningless. The idols themselves were mute and impotent. Jeremiah had written, “Like scarecrows in a cucumber patch, their idols cannot speak. They must be carried because they cannot walk” (Jer 10:5). However, the “diviners,” soothsayers who served the idols by seeking omens and signs, spoke lies on their behalf. These diviners were deceiving Israel, the very people they were entrusted to care for and guide. Instead of speaking truth from God, they were relating “empty dreams” that led to “empty comfort.” As a result the people were led astray, left to “wander like sheep” and to “suffer affliction,” experiencing catastrophe after catastrophe because there was no faithful shepherd for them to follow.
In verse 3, following His declaration of anger at the false shepherds—also identified as “leaders,” literally “he-goats,” a derogatory term (Hebrew ?attud)—the Lord expresses His commitment to tend His flock and to make them like His majestic horse in battle. Though the shift from sheep imagery to horse imagery may seem inconsistent, the constant factor here is the Lord’s care. A shepherd watches over His sheep, as a warrior gives attention to his horse, as the Lord gives attention and care to the house of Judah. In the subsequent verses the Lord promises to provide personal care and leadership for His people through the Messiah.
In verses 4 and 5 God uses three images to describe the work of the Messiah: “cornerstone,” “tent peg,” and “battle bow.” A cornerstone was a block placed in the intersection of two walls to establish the proper location and correct orientation of the whole building. As the cornerstone, the Messiah is faithful and reliable. Psalm 118:22 famously uses the same image to describe Christ’s rejection by men but validation by God: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The “tent peg” can be seen as a double image, referring both to a peg in a wall that could support frequently used items in the house (as in Isa 22:23-24), or pegs in the ground that secure a tent and support it so that it can accommodate a large family (as in Isa 54:2). In either case a tent peg created stability for a home (Stuhlmueller, Rebuilding, 130). The image of the “battle bow” depicts the Lord’s fearlessness and conquering power. As a result of the Messiah’s strength and stability, verse 5 promises that He will cause His people to fight “like warriors in battle.” Because the Messiah will be present to empower them, God’s people “will put horsemen to shame” and triumph over their enemies.
Zechariah 10:6-12 enumerates what God will do in Israel under the faithful leadership of the Messiah. There are 21 predictive statements in these verses, a number of which focus on the Lord’s personal actions on behalf of His people. For example, the declaration, “I will strengthen the house of Judah and deliver the house of Joseph” not only assures God’s power to His people, but also reemphasizes God’s intention to unite the southern kingdom of Judah with the northern kingdom, represented by “the house of Joseph.” The phrase “I will restore them because I have compassion on them” emphasizes God’s care and provision for His flock. “I will answer them” signifies His nearness to His people and responsiveness to their needs, resulting in their strength in battle and renewed joy (v. 7).
There is prominent shepherd imagery in the promise “I will whistle and gather them because I have redeemed them.” The whistle was a sharp, clear signal shepherds would use in calling sheep. Even though God’s people were scattered in distant places, they would return as He called (v. 9). “I will bring them back from the land of Egypt and gather them from Assyria” uses language that may have been taken from Hosea 8:13 and 11:5, where exile to Syria was spoken of metaphorically as a return to bondage in Egypt. God’s promises not only mention the places from which the Lord would deliver His people, but also the places to which He would bring them: “I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon.” Even in the promised land, the people would be so numerous that there would not be enough room for them (v. 10). After judging and disarming the powers that had captured His people, and after overcoming any obstacle that would have hindered them from returning (v. 11), the Lord promised, “I will strengthen them in Yahweh,” empowering them to “march in His name.”
Zechariah 10 underscores the truth that the work of the Messiah, God’s faithful shepherd, is to deliver, strengthen, save, and care for God’s people. His faithfulness was demonstrated in bringing back Judah from the exile. However, it is significant that this passage, written after the exile, is clearly oriented to the future. James Montgomery Boice notes,
This passage refers to a future regathering—not the regathering of the people from Babylon following the exile. That was already history at the time of the writing of this chapter. The prophecy must concern a yet future day. The regathering may have begun with the reestablishing of the modern state of Israel. This will be a great regathering in which the scattered flock of the Messiah is returned to its own land and to great material and spiritual blessing. (Minor Prophets, 546)
The Wailing of Fallen Shepherds (Zechariah 11:1-3)
Zechariah 11:1-3 describes what happens as the city of Jerusalem is utterly destroyed. These verses are predictive prophecy, foretelling the results of the people of Israel rejecting the Messiah. There is strong reason to think that this is prophecy of what happened in AD 70, as the Roman army, under the leadership of General Titus, came into Jerusalem and completely leveled that city. Titus’s armies even tore down the temple, until one stone was not left standing on top of the other.
Verses 1 and 2 talk about three different types of trees: the cedar, the cypress, and the oak. In the Old Testament, trees were often used to stand for leaders, such as kings and others among God’s people. Zechariah laments, “The glorious trees are destroyed.” This means that Israel’s leaders are falling. The leaders are being taken down, and they are crying out before God because of their destruction.
Notice the words of verse 3. The word wail denotes a distress signal. It’s a howl. It’s a guttural sound of deep mourning because of despair. A wail was not a sound that was made voluntarily. Instead, it was an involuntary response to some great loss or terror. The shepherds are wailing because their glory has been ruined.
That word glory in verse 3 is a Hebrew word that literally means “cloak” or “coat” or “garment.” It was used in Jonah 3:6 to describe the regal raiment of a king, symbolizing his dignity and power. These shepherds—human leaders who had depended on their own strength, their own wisdom, their own resources, their own cleverness, and their own ingenuity, at the expense of humbly following the leadership of the Lord, the true Shepherd of Israel—found their glory and their dignity ruined by defeat and destruction.
As we think about the wailing of these fallen shepherds at the destruction of Jerusalem, we see this: human leaders always fall short. Human leaders always—not sometimes, but always—fall short! That is true for political leaders, spiritual leaders, family leaders, academic leaders, business leaders—whatever category of leader you want to name. Human leaders will always fall short.
If we place faith and trust totally in a person, if we look to a person and say, “I’m placing my hopes and my dreams in you,” we will be disappointed. Even at their very best, human shepherds fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
Human shepherds always fall short. And that’s why they are wailing in this passage: because their glory has been ruined. The first three verses of this chapter point to our need for a greater shepherd, a shepherd not tainted with sin and selfishness, a shepherd who far surpasses the shortcomings of human shepherds, a shepherd like our Lord Jesus.
The Wisdom of the Forsaken Shepherd (Zechariah 11:4-14)
Beginning in verse 4 of the text, God calls the prophet Zechariah to be “shepherd of the flock intended for slaughter.” In essence, God is commanding Zechariah to become a living picture of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Apart from the life of the Lord Jesus, it is nearly impossible to interpret Zechariah 11:4-14. If we do not understand that this passage is pointing to Jesus, it makes no sense at all. But in light of Jesus, God’s wise but forsaken Shepherd, we can understand this passage.
Notice in verse 7 how Zechariah began to shepherd this flock. He says that he “took two staffs.” The shepherd’s staff was used to guide the sheep, sometimes to correct the sheep, sometimes to rescue the sheep. Zechariah had two staffs. One staff he called “Favor.” That means God’s blessing, joy, and promise to His people. The other staff he called “Union.” That speaks, first of all, of the union between God and His people, but also of the union of God’s people together, bringing Israel and Judah together under one shepherd.
Zechariah says that he led God’s people in such a way that he supplanted and replaced all of their other shepherds very quickly (v. 8). This phrase is very hard to interpret and to identify. Who are these “three shepherds”? Historically, more than 40 different interpretations have been offered, but the one of the oldest interpretations seems to be best: These three shepherds are the three classes of leader that God gave to Israel (Mitchell, Haggai and Zechariah, 306–7). He gave them kings, He gave them priests, and He gave them prophets. In every regard, the kings and the priests and the prophets of Israel failed. The kings of Israel turned away from the living God and started following after idols. The priests of Israel stopped being holy men of God and started abusing the people. The prophets of Israel stopped being God’s spokesmen and started saying things just to please the people and the kings.
As a result, in a very short time the Messiah destroyed and replaced all of those inadequate shepherds. He came and ruled over God’s people with favor and with union. He replaced all of the inadequate shepherds that had come before Him because He is the only wise and true shepherd, God’s Messiah. As we continue in verse 8, we can see how God’s people responded to this wise shepherd. Largely, the flock rejected Him: “I became impatient with them, and they also detested me.” Jesus came to rule over God’s people with wisdom, but they rejected the Messiah as their Shepherd.
As we think about Israel’s rejection of Christ, it brings to mind the question, Why do people reject Jesus? Some people reject Jesus because they don’t want to admit that He is God. Some refuse to give up control of their lives to Him. Others reject Him because they think they’ve heard everything about Him and they find Him to be outdated and outmoded. They want someone or something they feel is more sophisticated and intellectually challenging. Some reject Jesus because they’re embarrassed to follow Him in a culture that increasingly mocks and ridicules His name. Still others don’t want to follow Jesus as their Shepherd because it would mess up their religion and the pride they have in it. When Jesus walked on this earth, the people of Israel used all of those reasons to reject Him.
What did the Shepherd do when His sheep rejected Him? The wise Shepherd, though rejected and forsaken, is no pushover. When His people rejected Him and detested Him, He said He would not be their shepherd. He took the staff called “Favor” and broke it, and later did the same thing with the staff called “Union.” He left them without a good and wise shepherd.
After resigning as a shepherd over his flock, Zechariah asked for his wages, which leads to one of the most striking messianic prophecies in Scripture. Zechariah11:12 was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, but prophesies exactly how He would be rejected, in great detail: “Then I said to them, ‘If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ So they weighed my wages, 30 pieces of silver.” In Exodus 21:32 the same amount of silver was what someone paid for a slave who had been injured to the point that he was no longer able to work. An able-bodied slave would receive twice that amount of money. So basically, the people said to their shepherd, who had ruled over them and guided them with such wisdom and love, “You are worthless to us. We will only pay as much as we would pay an injured slave.” In the life of our Lord Jesus this prophecy was fulfilled when Judas Iscariot betrayed his Lord and Master for the same amount: 30 pieces of silver.
Christ came as God’s great, wise shepherd, and yet, Jesus was forsaken (John 1:11). Here’s the truth we see illustrated in these verses: We must not reject Jesus, because He’s the Shepherd we need the most. If we reject Jesus, He will ultimately reject us (Matt 23:37-38). Rejecting Jesus leaves us with the only alternative: following shepherds who will hurt us. When we refuse to follow the Lord as our Shepherd, we will inevitably follow someone or something that will lead us to destruction.
The Worthlessness of the False Shepherd (Zechariah 11:15-17)
In the final portion of this chapter God calls Zechariah to do something very unusual. Earlier he had portrayed a good shepherd, but now he is asked to portray a foolish, evil, and worthless shepherd. The word foolish in verse 15 indicates someone who is morally deficient and corrupt. Verse 16 shows that this kind of shepherd will not care for the sheep, will not seek them when they wander away or heal them when they are hurt. Instead, his only purpose will be to devour and destroy them totally, even to the point of tearing off their hooves.
The prophet’s actions are designed to show that, despite having God’s Messiah, Israel will turn to false shepherds. Jesus spoke of this when He said, “I have come in My Father’s name, yet you don’t accept Me. If someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him” (John 5:43). These false shepherds would come to abuse the people of Israel. They would take advantage of them and harm them mercilessly. Many conservative interpreters (e.g., Boice, Minor Prophets, 542; Wiersbe, Be Heroic, 141) say that the ultimate expression of the foolish shepherd is the Antichrist of the end times, who will deceive and abuse not only Israel but the entire world (Rev 13:7). Verse 17 ends with a word of condemnation for this false shepherd. He would be struck in his arm, representing his strength, and his eye, representing his intelligence. Ultimately, the true Shepherd will triumph over the false (Rev 19:19-20).
A group of tourists was visiting Israel. They were on their bus, and their tour guide had his microphone in hand, describing sight after sight. As they were coming out of the city of Jerusalem, going into the Judean hills, he said, “When we get into these hillsides, you’ll see Bedouin shepherds. They tend to their sheep in much the same way that shepherds did during the time of Jesus. They still wear the same type of clothing, and still do the same type of things that the shepherds did hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
The tour guide continued, “You’ll notice that the Bedouin shepherds always lead their sheep. They stand out in front and call them, or they lead them with their rod and staff.” Then he said, “But the shepherds will never get behind the sheep and drive them.”
When the bus reached the hill country, the tourists saw a flock of sheep. They saw a man, dressed in Bedouin clothing, with the sheep. He had a whip in one hand and a stick in the other. He was beating those sheep and driving them.
One of the guys in the back of the bus asked the question that everybody on the bus was thinking: “We thought you said that the shepherd always led his sheep. Why is that shepherd driving the sheep?”
The guide said, “Ah, my friend, that is not the shepherd; that is the butcher!”
Where and how you wind up depend on whom you follow. False shepherds always wind up being butchers. They always drive God’s people to destruction. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us to life.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why do you believe God often chooses to use shepherd imagery to describe Himself and His leaders?
- Where are other places in Scripture that employ similar shepherd imagery? How would you construct a summary from Scripture of the spiritual shepherd’s role and importance?
- How has the Lord proven to be a faithful shepherd to Israel in its history? How does God promise to lead and provide faithfully for Israel in the future?
- What implications does God’s provision for Israel have for believers in the church today?
- What dangers do human leaders face when we begin depending on our own wisdom or resources rather than God’s?
- Where do you believe you are most vulnerable as a leader?
- How can a leader ensure that he or she is following the leadership of the true Shepherd?
- What factors cause people to reject Jesus as their shepherd and leader?
- How does this rejection of Christ express itself in the unsaved world? How can rejection of His leadership express itself in the church?
- While the ultimate “false shepherd” is the coming Antichrist, there are also false leaders and false systems that people follow today. What is the appeal of these false shepherds? How can we warn people who are led by false shepherds?