God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to preach to his people who had returned to Jerusalem from exile. And though the people had returned to the Promised Land, they were despondent, because they were still living under the authority of a foreign king; and the work to rebuild the temple was difficult and slow; and they knew the new temple would never match the glory of the old temple which had been destroyed whenever the Babylonians invaded the land 70 or so years before. So, they were despondent. They were discouraged. But the Lord sent Haggai and Zechariah to preach to them and to encourage them with messages about better days to come. Whatever obstacles were standing in their way will be removed and the temple will surely be rebuilt. The city of Jerusalem will also be rebuilt. And Jerusalem will become an ever-expanding city because of all the people from the nations who will go there to worship the Lord. And the nations around them will be judged and punished and the Lord will give his people a new king who will also be a priest who will cleanse the land of all its sin in a single day. And in chapters 9 and 10, the Lord spoke about a great final battle which will take place one day when the Lord will come like a mighty storm, with lightning and thunder and strong winds, to enable his people to destroy their enemies. And afterwards all of his people will sparkle in God’s land like jewels in a crown.
So, the Lord spoke to his despondent people about better days to come in order to encourage them and to strengthen them so that they would not give up, but would continue to trust in the Lord and to serve him in their day. And what the Lord promised was partially fulfilled in their own day, because the temple was rebuilt and the city was repopulated and God blessed them in various ways. But the Lord’s message was fulfilled in a greater way with the coming of Christ who is our great King and Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to cleanse his people from the guilt of their sins for ever and who rules over us and protects us from his throne in heaven. And God is now building a new temple on the earth, which is the church of Jesus Christ. And people from every nation are now coming to God to worship him. And we know that one day the Lord Jesus will return in glory and with power to fight one last final battle against the Devil and with all who have sided with the Devil. And the Devil will be defeated and Christ and his people will live in the new and better Jerusalem to come where God will dwell among his people for ever.
What we’ve read so far was good news for the people in Zechariah’s day and it’s good news for God’s people in every generation, because Zechariah was speaking about Jesus Christ our Saviour and about the church of Jesus Christ, which he is building on the earth and about its members who will live with the Lord for ever.
Today we come to verses 4 to 17 of chapter 11 and these verses are the final part of the oracle which began at the beginning of chapter 9. Today’s verses are puzzling. Lots of what we’ve read in Zechariah has been puzzling, but today’s passage is especially puzzling. It comprises what the scholars call two sign actions. That is, Zechariah is told to perform certain actions which are signs which mean something. The first sign action is in verses 4 to 14 where Zechariah is told to behave like a good shepherd. The second sign action is in verses 15 to 17 where Zechariah is told to dress like a bad shepherd. That’s clear enough. However, what’s not so clear is how to interpret these sign actions. If they are signs which mean something, what do they mean?
Since Zechariah’s previous messages have been about the future, then many commentators assume that these sign actions must also be about the future. So, Zechariah is commanded to behave like a good shepherd to a flock ‘marked for slaughter’. He’s referring to the people of Israel. And as part of the sign, Zechariah took two staffs: one called Favour and one called Union. And he broke both staffs in order to signify that God was no longer going to look with favour on the Israelites and the union between Israel in the north and Judah in the south will be broken. So, is that what God was planning for his people?
Some commentators say it is and they say the words of this prophecy were fulfilled in AD70 when the Romans ransacked and destroyed Jerusalem. Because the people of Jerusalem had rejected the Lord Jesus, God sent the Romans to punish and destroy them. However, the problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really match what we’ve read in the rest of Zechariah and especially what we read in chapters 9 and 10 where God promised to save his people from the nations and where he promised to re-unite Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
It seems that today’s passage can’t be about the future. And so, some commentators suggest that today’s passage is about the past. The Lord commanded Zechariah to perform these two sign actions in order to explain to his people what had happened to them in the past. So, in the first sign action — when Zechariah behaves like a good shepherd — he’s depicting the Lord who was a good shepherd to the people of Israel. He was a good shepherd to Israel, because he led them through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land, that spacious land where they had everything they needed. The Lord was their good shepherd so that they did not want for anything. However, they rejected him. They rejected him, because they did not listen to his word or do his will. When he sent them prophets to call them to repent, they refused to listen. And because they rejected him, the Lord rejected them and sent them away into exile so that they were ruled over by other shepherds, wicked shepherds who did not care for them.
So, the sign actions are not about the future; they’re about the past. God sent Zechariah to perform these two signs actions to explain to the people why they suffered as they did in the past. And given their rebellion in the past, God’s promises of a better future for them appear all the more wonderful, because it’s clear that they do not deserve any of the good things God has planned for them. They deserve to be abandoned for ever. But instead of abandoning them, God has good things in store for them and for all his people.
Having said that by way of introduction, let’s now study these two sign actions.
First Sign Action
In verse 4 the Lord commanded Zechariah to pasture the flock ‘marked for slaughter’. In this sign action, this little drama, he’s to play the part of the Lord, who was a good shepherd to his people. The Lord led them through the wilderness, feeding and watering them and protecting them from danger. He brought them into the Promised Land, a spacious land, where they had everything he needed. He continued to provide for them and to protect them from danger, because he was with them. With his rod he beat away their enemies and with his staff he lifted them away from danger. He was their good shepherd.
But they were a people ‘marked for slaughter’. In those days, some of the sheep in a flock was kept alive and used for breeding; and the remainder were marked for slaughter. But in Zechariah’s drama, the whole flock was marked for slaughter. Since the flock in this drama represents the people of Israel in the past, the Lord is referring to what had happened to them at the time of the exile. For many generations, the Lord had been their good shepherd and he loved and cared for them. And he would have continued to love and care for them if they remained faithful to him. However, because of their persistent rebellion over many years, he sent them away into exile.
In verse 5 the Lord refers to two groups. The first group are their buyers who slaughter them and go unpunished. The second group are those who sell them and say, ‘Praise the Lord!’ The identity of these two groups is not entirely clear, but it’s possible that the first group are the nations like Assyria and Babylon who took the people of Israel away into exile and who, for the time being at least, have not yet been punished for their wickedness to Israel. The second group — those who sold them and said, ‘Praise the Lord!’ might refer to the rulers in Israel, who pretended to praise the Lord, but really they were self-seeking and selfish and they did as they pleased. And because of their failure to lead the people in the right way, the people were sent away into exile, sold to foreign nations. Both groups of leaders — the foreign ones and the Israelite ones — did not spare the flock. Instead of caring for the people, protecting them and providing for them, they mistreated them.
And in verse 6 the Lord explained that this happened to them because he had decided not to have pity on them any longer. For many generations, he had shown them mercy and compassion and he was patient with them and did not send his curses upon them. He was patient with them, waiting for them to return to him and to walk in his ways again. But they would not repent. And so, eventually, he decided not to have pity on them any longer and he handed them over to their neighbour and his king. That is, he handed them over to a neighbouring nation, which oppressed the land. The Hebrew word translated ‘oppress’ can also be translated crush or hammer or ground down. And so, it speaks of how the land and the people in it were utterly devastated. So, though the Lord had been their good shepherd in the past, this time he would not rescue them.
As I’ve said, this sign action refers to the past. And so, the Lord is reminding his people of what happened in the past, when first the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and then the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. And the Lord’s people were taken away into exile. The Lord used these foreign nations to punish his wayward people.
In verse 4 the Lord commanded Zechariah to pasture the flock and in verse 7 we read that he did so. While we don’t know exactly what he did, he presumably enacted some kind of drama before the people. And as part of the drama, he took these two shepherd staffs and named one Favour and the other Union. The significance of the staffs will become apparent later. For now, we’re told that he got rid of three shepherds in one month. We need to remember, of course, that he’s performing a kind of drama. So, he didn’t really get rid of three shepherds, but he acted out how the Lord got rid of three shepherds. Some of the commentators think he’s referring to the last three kings of Judah before the exile. Another suggests he’s referring to the month when King Nebuchadnezzar’s army took over Jerusalem and King Zedekiah was captured and his two sons were killed. There are other suggestions as well, but we can’t say for sure who or what Zechariah is referring to when he refers to these three shepherds who were removed.
But look at the second part of verse 8, where it says, ‘the flock detested me’ and ‘I grew weary of them’. Zechariah is playing the part of the Lord and so he’s telling us how the people in the past, at the time of the exile, detested the Lord. Even though he was their good shepherd, they despised him and they did not want him to rule over them. And that’s clear from their actions in the past, because they refused to listen to his word or to obey his laws. They had his commands, which he had given them for their good, but they did not do them. They despised the Lord.
And the Lord, for his part, grew weary of them. For generations he had been patient with them, but now he was weary of them and he was about to send them into exile. And so, he resigned as their shepherd. He said: ‘I will not be your shepherd.’ In the past, he had cared for those who were dying or perishing, but no longer. Now he would let the dying die and he would let the perishing perish. And he would let those who are left eat one another’s flesh. When the Babylonians invaded the land, they laid siege to Jerusalem and we know that some of the people inside the city became so hungry that they began to eat the flesh of their dead.
And in verse 10 he refers to the first of the two staffs, the one called Favour. And as part of the little drama which he performed before the people, Zechariah took the staff and broke it. And he did this to signify how God was prepared to break the covenant which he had made with the nations. That is, the covenant he made with Israel and Judah in the days of Moses when he promised to be their God and to treat them as his treasured possession. But now, because of their rebellion, he was now prepared to give them up.
And in the next part of the drama, Zechariah — playing the part of the Lord — asked the people to give him his pay. That is, since they clearly despised him, they could give him his pay and let him leave. If you don’t want me to be your shepherd, pay what you owe me and I’ll go and leave you alone. Again, Zechariah is playing the part of the Lord and he’s referring to the past. So, in the past, the people did not want the Lord to be their shepherd or king. They did not want him to rule over them and they did not want to obey him. So, he was prepared to leave them alone and go on his way. And in the drama, the people handed over his pay: 30 pieces of silver. And as part of the drama, the Lord told Zechariah not to keep the money, but to throw the 30 pieces of silver to the potter. He refers to the silver as ‘a handsome price’, but he’s probably being sarcastic, because handing over the money means that they don’t want him to their king. They have rejected him even though he was always good to them. And we read how Zechariah took the money and threw it into the house of the Lord to the potter. Some of the commentators think that potters worked in the temple. We’ll come back to this at the end.
For now, we’ll continue with the drama. Zechariah takes the second staff called Union and he broke it to signify something else that happened in the past. In the past, long before the exile, the one kingdom of Israel was divided into two so that there was the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. From that time on, God’s people were divided.
And so, the first sign action comes to an end. Zechariah’s little drama before the people reminded them of the time when the one kingdom was divided and both kingdoms were sent away into exile, because the people had rejected God as their shepherd. They did not want God to rule over them. They did not want to yield to him. They would not listen to his word or obey his laws. And so, because of their rebellion, God sent their enemies against them and he sent them into exile and foreign nations ruled over them.
Second Sign Action
In the first sign action, Zechariah played the part of the Lord, who had been a good shepherd to the people. In the second sign action, he played the part of a bad shepherd. The Lord commanded him in verse 15 to take the equipment of a foolish shepherd. So, he was to dress up as a bad shepherd. And the reason for dressing this way was to signify that the Lord was going to raise up a shepherd over the land who will not care for the lost or seek the young or heal the injured or feed the healthy. Instead, he will eat the meat of the choice sheep. That is, instead of caring for the sheep, he will slaughter the sheep for himself. The Lord is probably referring the foreign kings who ruled over them when they were in exile and who were still ruling over them even though the people had returned from exile. So, because they had rejected the Lord as their shepherd, he would let these wicked and foolish shepherds rule over them in his place. However, the Lord also pronounced a woe upon these wicked shepherds in verse 17. You see, he would not give his people up for ever. And as we’ve seen in previous chapters of Zechariah, the Lord would once again give his people a new shepherd to look after them, a new king to rule over them.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to go into a jewellery shop. So, I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to place their diamond rings on a dark cushion, because the dark background and the bright lights above would make the diamonds sparkle all the more brightly. And what we have in today’s chapter is a dark background to display the glory of God’s promises to his people. So, in the previous chapters, God promised his people better things to come. And his promises have been wonderful. But they appear even more wonderful when we remember the dark background of Israel’s history. God had always been their good shepherd. He chose them and he led them and cared for them and he protected them and provided for them. He was their good shepherd, their faithful king. But, in the past, they did not want to yield their lives to him and they did not want him to rule over them. They did not want him to be their shepherd. And because they despised and rejected him, he sent them off into exile. And in Zechariah’s letter drama, God reminded them of these things.
And so, as part of his drama, he broke the staff called Favour to signify that, in the past, God had broken his covenant with them. And no one would blame him for doing so, because they had despised and rejected him and they had on many occasions broken the covenant by their disobedience. That’s the dark background, but we know from the things God has said previously in the book of Zechariah that he had no intention of giving up his people and he was still committed to them and he would continue to look upon them with his favour. And, of course, we know from elsewhere in the Bible that instead of breaking the covenant with them, he was prepared to make a new and better covenant with them. And as part of that new and better covenant, he promised to remember their sins no more. So, though they had sinned against him, he promised that he would not treat them as their sins deserve or repay them according to their iniquity and he would not count their sins against them, but he would forgive them completely. And that new and better covenant was put into effect by the death of Christ our Saviour, because he gave up his life to pay for our sins in full so that God does not count them against us, but he promises to forget them.
And in Zechariah’s little drama, he broke the staff called Union to signify how in the past the one kingdom of Israel was divided into two. And no one would blame the Lord for leaving them like that, because the people in the north and the people in the south had despised and rejected him. And so, that’s the dark background, but we know from the things God has said previously in the book of Zechariah that he intended to bring back his people who had been scattered among many nations and he would once again re-unite his people. And he has done that by his Son, because through faith in Christ, we are united together under Christ to form one people of God, one church, with one Lord. Through the preaching of the gospel, people from different nations have been brought together under Christ. And God has promised that his church in glory will be made up of a great multitude of people, which cannot be counted, from every nation and tribe and people and language. And we will unite our voices together to praise the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb of God who have united us together for ever.
And in Zechariah’s little drama, he revealed that God had given his people up to wicked and foolish shepherds. He gave them up because of their past sins. And no one would blame him for doing so, because they had despised and rejected him. And so, that’s the dark background, but we know — don’t we? — that God did not intend to give his people up for ever, because he promised to send them a new and righteous king to be their shepherd. And when the time was right, God sent his Son to be their Good Shepherd and their King. And as our Good Shepherd, he laid down his life for his sheep. Whereas wicked and foolish shepherds will abuse the sheep, Christ the Good Shepherd gave up his life for his sheep to give us eternal life.
And do you remember the night when Christ was arrested? Do you remember how Judas Iscariot agreed to betray him for 30 pieces of silver? And afterwards, Judas threw the 30 pieces of silver into the temple. And the chief priests and elders took the 30 pieces of silver and they bought the potter’s field with it. Did you ever wonder why that little story about Judas and the 30 pieces of silver was included in the gospels? It’s to make us think back to Zechariah and to the time when the people despised the Lord God Almighty and rejected him as their shepherd. And the very same thing happened when the Lord came in the person of his Son, because once again the people despised him and rejected him as their shepherd.
Zechariah’s little drama reminded the people of the dark background of their history and of how they had rejected the Lord their God. And there’s a dark background to all of our lives, isn’t there? Throughout our life, God has been good to us, because he’s given us our life and breath and everything else. Every good thing we enjoy has come to us from him. He’s been a good shepherd to us. But throughout our life, we have disobeyed the Lord and we’ve often refused to yield to him. Far too often we have said ‘no’ to him and instead of walking in his ways, we have gone our own way. And, of course, we haven’t loved him as we should with all of our heart. And we’ve so often doubted his goodness and mercy, instead of trusting him on all occasions. Though he is our Good Shepherd, we have not listened to his voice when he calls us through the reading and preaching of his word. We all like sheep have gone astray and each one of us has turned to our own way. That’s true of all of us, even those of us who have been believers all our lives, because all our lives we have been disobedient and sinful and we have fallen short of doing his will.
And yet the dark background in our lives only highlights the glory and the grace and the goodness of the Lord our God, who sent his only Begotten Son to be our Good Shepherd and King and to give up his life to pay for our sins and to shed his blood to cleanse us of our guilt. And because he gave up his life for sinners, God promises to remember your sins no more. Despite all your sins and shortcomings, he still looks with you with his favour and grace and he promises never ever to hold your sins against you.
And though we deserve to be sent away from the presence of God, because of a lifetime of disobedience, he has graciously added us to his church and he has made us members of his people so that we’re able to join together week by week to praise him with one heart and mind and voice. And we can look forward to joining with believers from every nation around the world when we enter his presence in the life to come. And there we will be united together as one kingdom to worship the Lord forever and forever for his favour to us in Christ Jesus and for uniting us together under him.