Israel’s Rejected Shepherd

Zechariah 11:1–17

In Zechariah 9 and 10, the Messiah is revealed as a compassionate Shepherd who will someday reunite and restore Israel. The revelation greatly encouraged Israel, but the good news was quickly dispelled in chapter 11.

The prophecies of chapter 11 cover three themes: the destruction of Israel, along with its national shepherds; Israel’s rejection of its Messiah, the true Shepherd, at His First Advent; and Israel’s acceptance of the worthless shepherd during the Great Tribulation. Two prophecies were fulfilled in the centuries after Zechariah’s prediction; one is yet to be fulfilled before Israel experiences the millennial blessings promised in the earlier chapters.

The Wailing Shepherds
In poetic language, Zechariah called on Lebanon to open its doors to a devastating “fire” (symbol of an invading army) that will sweep down from the north and destroy the majestic cedars of Lebanon (v. 1). The army will also devour the strong oaks and rich pasture lands of Bashan northeast of Lebanon and the “thick forest” lining the Jordan River in the south (vv. 2–3). The trees are metaphors for the area’s proud kings, on whom the judgment will fall. This event, the fire of God’s judgment, will not only destroy the land, but also the ungodly kings and their kingdoms from Lebanon in the north to Israel in the south.

The call goes out for the cypresses and oaks to lament the tragic destruction of the cedars because they will be destroyed as well. The lowly shepherds are to lament the loss of their lush, green pastures; and lions will roar at the destruction of their lairs and food supply (vv. 2–3).

Commentators disagree on the reason for and time of God’s devastating judgment, but both are made clear in the verses that follow. The reason is Israel’s rejection of the true Shepherd, Jesus the Messiah. After Israel’s leadership rejected Him, Jesus said, “See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Mt. 23:38). The time of this destruction was A.D. 70, 38 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. In A.D. 70, Titus the Roman invaded Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple. Thousands of Jewish people perished. Jerusalem became subservient to Rome, and the survivors were enslaved. In time, their descendants were dispersed worldwide and have suffered unbelievable persecution wherever they have traveled for the past 2,000 years.

The Worthy Shepherd
The Lord commissioned Zechariah to play the role of a worthy shepherd to illustrate the nature of the true Shepherd, Jesus the Messiah. The prophet was told, “Feed the flock for slaughter,” or fatten Israel, which was destined to be butchered by its wicked leaders and the Roman Empire:

Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ my God, “Feed the flock for slaughter, whose owners slaughter them and feel no guilt; those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the Lᴏʀᴅ, for I am rich’; and their shepherds do not pity them” (vv. 4–5).

Israel’s wicked shepherds had no compassion on the people and simply used them for financial gain. These leaders functioned like merchants who raised sheep to be sold and butchered for their fleeces and meat. They dealt ruthlessly with the flock of Israel, showing no pity or compassion, and felt no guilt for their actions. In fact, they even believed their subsequent financial gain was a blessing from the Lord.

One author put it well when he stated, “Herod, king of Judea, was utterly callous and brutal and entirely subservient to Rome. The high-priestly family later exploited and enriched themselves at the expense of the people and were hated by them for their rapacity and violence.”1 And then they had the audacity to believe their enrichment was a blessing from the Lord.

Israel’s greatest tragedy was to experience the withdrawal of God’s pity:

“For I will no longer pity the inhabitants of the land,” says the Lᴏʀᴅ. “But indeed I will give everyone into his neighbor’s hand and into the hand of his king. They shall attack the land, and I will not deliver them from their hand” (v. 6).

Thus Rome laid siege to Jerusalem, and Israel became the possession of Caesar.

Continuing in his role as a shepherd, Zechariah said, “So I fed the flock for slaughter, in particular the poor of the flock” (v. 7). He fed the nation by giving it the Word of God as presented in this book—a symbolic act of what the Messiah would do at His First Advent. It was the “poor” who responded to the gospel message of the Messiah, not Israel’s king, priests, or prophets (Mt. 11:5; 1 Cor. 1:26–29).

A shepherd carried two staffs: a club to ward off wild animals and a crook to retrieve sheep from difficult or dangerous places. So Zechariah took two staffs: “The one I called Beauty [grace], and the other I called Bonds [union]; and I fed the flock” (v. 7). The words grace and union describe Zechariah’s objective as a shepherd and aptly symbolize the Messiah’s ministry at His First Advent. As Israel’s true Shepherd, the Messiah manifested God’s love and grace to the nation in hopes that it would repent of its sin and be restored and unified under God.

Abruptly, Zechariah announced that he “dismissed the three shepherds in one month” and declared, “My soul loathed them, and their soul also abhorred me” (v. 8). Although the three shepherds are not identified, most conservative commentators see them as the kings, priests, and false prophets of Israel. These leaders not only rejected Zechariah’s ministry, but also their Messiah at His First Coming. Zechariah’s soul was impatient with, or “loathed,” these evil leaders as much as they loathed him—a picture of God’s impatience with these unrepentant shepherds who mistreated all the prophets who brought them the truth of God’s Word.

Continuing in his role as a shepherd, Zechariah abandoned his sheep, something totally out of character for a shepherd. The prophet said, “‘I will not feed you. Let what is dying die….Let those that are left eat each other’s flesh’” (v. 9). In other words, God turned Israel over to the judgment predicted for it. This prophecy came true literally when Jewish people actually devoured one another during the Roman siege in A.D. 70 (cf. Dt. 28:54–57). At this point the words of the Messiah ring in our ears:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,…How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate (Mt. 23:37–38).

The prophet then took the staff called Beauty “and cut it in two,” symbolizing God “break[ing] the covenant which [He] had made with all the peoples” (v. 10). What covenant is this? It is not the unconditional covenants made with Abraham and David, but the Mosaic Covenant that God conditionally made with Israel. Israel had already broken this covenant; thus God broke the staff of Beauty, that is, removed His protective grace from the nation, opening the way to destruction by its enemies. Watching Zechariah break his staff, “the poor of the flock” realized this act “was the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ” (v. 11).

Zechariah concluded his role as shepherd by asking Israel to put a price on his service: “If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain” (v. 12). The Israelites saw little value in Zechariah’s shepherding, so “they weighed out” for his wages “thirty pieces of silver” (v. 12). This was a great insult to the prophet, as 30 pieces of silver was the amount paid for a slave who had been gored by an ox (Ex. 21:32). The Lord calls the sum a “princely price”—a sarcastic statement, concerning the low value placed on the prophet’s service.

The Lord instructed Zechariah, “Throw it to the potter,” whereupon the prophet “took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lᴏʀᴅ for the potter” (v. 13). Throwing the money to a potter (one of the lowest classes of workers) in the Temple was the same as saying, “Throw the worthless wage away.”

The fulfillment of this prophecy is recorded in the New Testament when Judas Iscariot, guilty of rejecting and betraying Jesus the Messiah for 30 pieces of silver, cast down the blood money in the Temple. The chief priests could not accept blood money for Temple use, but took the silver and purchased a potter’s field outside Jerusalem in which to bury strangers (Mt. 26:14–16; 27:3–10).

Earlier, Zechariah broke his staff called Beauty, symbolizing God breaking His covenant with Israel. Now Zechariah said, “I cut in two my other staff, Bonds, that I might break the brotherhood between Judah and Israel” (v. 14). This staff symbolized the religious, civil, and social union between Judah and Israel. Cutting the staff into pieces symbolized Israel’s destruction in two ways. First, in the siege of Jerusalem, internal division and fighting broke out among the Jewish people and their leaders, threatening their survival from within. Second, this internal strife made it much easier for the Roman 10th Legion to breach the city’s walls and destroy both it and its people.

The Wicked Shepherd
The scene abruptly switches from Israel’s destruction to the day when Israel will make a covenant with the Antichrist and eventually become enslaved as his flock during the Great Tribulation (cf. Dan. 9:27; Jn. 5:43). Since Israel rejected God’s chosen Shepherd, He will now place a worthless shepherd (the Antichrist) over them.

The Lord commanded Zechariah, “Take for yourself the implements of a foolish shepherd” (v. 15). The word foolish speaks of a person who is morally perverse and, in this context, has no concern for the Jewish people who are “cut off.” No concern indeed! “He will eat…[their] flesh…and tear their hooves in pieces” (v. 16). True to God’s prophetic Word, the foolish shepherd will be the very opposite of the true Shepherd; he will viciously and greedily destroy every part of Israel as one would devour a lamb—even its hooves.

The doom of this wicked shepherd is sealed and will come quickly. “A sword shall be against his arm and against his right eye; his arm shall completely wither, and his right eye shall be totally blind-ed” (v. 17). That is, his arm, which should be used to defend the sheep, and his right eye, which should watch over the flock to keep it from danger, will be destroyed by the sword. The Antichrist’s destruction will come by the hand of the Messiah (the true Shepherd) at His Second Coming (2 Th. 2:8; Rev. 19:19–20).

For the past 2,000 years Jewish people have suffered because of the nation’s alienation from the Messiah and belligerent, satanically inspired Gentile persecution. Knowing what awaits the nation in the future, Israel needs our support; love; and, above all, our prayers as never before.

  1. Nathan J. Stone, Jehovah Remembers: Studies in Zechariah, Part 2 (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1966), 15.

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