Zechariah 11:4-17 is one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament. What makes this text difficult is its allegorical genre, its exact historical correspondence, and how it is used in the New Testament. For example, is Zechariah speaking of himself shepherding God’s people or is he representing God as his shepherd? Is Zechariah reciting the long and disobedient history of Israel with this allegory or is he speaking of the inhabitants in the land who had already fell into disobedience? Finally, how does this passage exactly speak to Christ when we read that Judas is the person who takes the thirty pieces of silver and casts them back into the house of the Lord?
The Israelites had returned to the land under the leadership of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel. Just as quickly as the people proved eager to rebuild the temple and city, so they proved that their hearts remained unchanged. The people began to sin against God and take advantage of each other. Would God remain faithful to his covenant with them? Zechariah’s name means “the Lord remembers” and that is the message of the book, namely that God remembers his covenant promise to restore his people. God reminds the people not to follow the sinful pattern of their fathers (Zech 1:2, 4-5). To insure that those who returned from exile would not commit the sins of their fathers God reveals his protection over them through a series of visions (Zech 1:7-6:10). These visions show that God will protect the people from their enemies, but will also provide an inward cleansing that their forefathers never experienced. Although the people were already disobeying God, he promised a day of salvation and restoration. This promised day is tied to a future priestly-king who will shepherd God’s people and bring deliverance from their enemies (Zech 3:1-10; 6:9-15; 9:1-14:21).
In the midst of describing God’s future salvation Zechariah is told to take on the role of shepherd as a symbol of God’s care for his people (Zech 11:4). There is considerable debate as to whether the shepherd role centers around God’s care for Israel during its life from the Exodus to exile or whether the allegory focuses on God’s present care of the Israelites living in the land after returning from exile. Whatever position one takes, Israel’s history was full of wicked shepherds. God was the only faithful shepherd to this evil and adulterous people and only God could give them the proper cleansing so that they might recognize him as their good shepherd.
Through Zechariah the Lord speaks of the corruption found in Israel. Israel’s shepherds exploit the people for riches, which is clearly demonstrated from their response of “I have become rich” (Zech 11:5). The exploitation comes not just from the kings and leaders of Israel, but from their own neighbors (“fall each into another’s power”), which clearly demonstrates that the corruption is both horizontal (neighbors) and vertical (kings; Zech 11:6).
The Lord pastures his people with favor and union (Zech 11:7). The staffs of favor and union represent God’s person, his beauty and majesty; a God who is wise and faithful (cf., Psa 27:4; 90:17; Prov 3:17). The blessedness and protection found in the true shepherd is demonstrated in verse eight. God eliminated three shepherds in one month (Zech 11:8). If one takes this verse to represent Israel’s history then the three shepherds might be the successive removal of the final three wicked kings of Judah with one month representing their short reigns (2 Kings 23:34-24:20). However, the symbolic nature of the verse may simply represent God’s great power (removal of three shepherds) and swift action (one month) on behalf of his people. Despite God’s graciousness, the people are unthankful, so God gives them over to their idolatry and immorality as described by their impending death and annihilation (Zech 11:9; cf., Ezek 5:10; Lam 2:20). God breaks the staffs of favor and union, which represent his covenant. The staff of favor is broken with all the peoples (Zech 11:10-11). It is debated whether “all the peoples” refers to Israelites scattered throughout the earth or whether it refers to the nations. Based on the future blessing of the nations coming to serve Israel found in Zechariah chapters twelve through fourteen it would seem plausible that “all the peoples” are the nations. While God did not make a formal covenant with the nations, God did use the nations to express his covenant love to his people. Through numerous victories and the expansion of the kingdom many nations paid homage to Israel. However, God’s favor displayed toward his people by the nations is now broken. Israel’s history was checkered with painful attacks at the hands of foreign invaders, but God promises that one day the nations will pay homage to Israel and bring their wealth to her (Zech 14:16-19). Before looking at Zechariah 11:12-13 we find that God breaks his second staff, union with his people (Zech 11:14). The breaking of the second staff represents the broken union between Judah and Israel, which would lend support that this allegory is about Israel prior to Babylonian exile. However, the point should not be missed that despite God’s protection as their great shepherd, Israel has rejected him.
Israel’s rejection of the good shepherd is spoken about in Zechariah 11:12-13. The prophet vividly describes the rejection of the good shepherd by the people. For his efforts the shepherd asks the people for his wages. The people give him thirty pieces of silver (Zech 11:12). The ungrateful attitude of the people is demonstrated in that while they give him something for his work (contrast “never mind”) the amount is insulting (30 pieces of silver). The response by the good shepherd demonstrates how the payment of thirty pieces of silver is an insult.
1.) The shepherd sarcastically calls the amount magnificent (handsome or lordly). The amount is hardly magnificent. While thirty pieces of silver was the value of a slave gored by an ox under the Mosaic Law (cf., Exo 21:32), the good shepherd deserves much more for his goodness and protection. Moreover, the people are equating the lovingkindness of God with the value of a slave, which is hardly a fair comparison.
2.) The shepherd takes the thirty pieces of silver and throws it to the potter in the house of the Lord (Zech 11:13). Potters were essential to the temple services since they made jars for ceremonial worship (Lev 6:28; cf., Jer 18:6; 19:1). However, by throwing the thirty pieces of silver to the potter rather than into temple treasury (Josh 6:24; Ezra 2:69; Neh 7:70), which would support the priests; the shepherd demonstrates the demeaning value of the payment. To put the money into the treasury would support the corrupt shepherds of Israel and to throw it at the potter shows how pitiful the payment was, since it seems to be equated with the work of a potter. In other words, to make clay vessels in no way compares with shepherding God’s people; thus, throw the money to the potter because the people have truly demonstrated their lack of thankfulness.
In contrast to the faithful shepherd Zechariah is told to play the role of the shepherd again, but this time his role is that of the foolish shepherd (Zech 11:15). The wicked shepherd will not spare the flock, but exploit, devour, and destroy the people (Zech 11:16). Woe to this shepherd that God will raise up, for this shepherd is worthless and his demise is that his right arm will wither and his right eye will go blind (Zech 11:17). The reason for singling out the foolish shepherd’s arm and eye is because this shepherd fails to heal or sustain the sheep (with his arms) and fails to seek the scattered (with his eyes). Israel’s history is littered with foolish shepherds who devoured the flock and exposed it for selfish and wicked purposes. However, the promise of God is that a faithful shepherd, “the man who stands next to” God will be struck by the sword so that by this act God’s people will one day say “the Lord is my God” and he will say “they are my people” (Zech 13:7-9).
The shepherd motif is found throughout Scripture, especially in the prophetic literature where Israel’s wicked leaders are contrasted to God and his loving care. God promises he will raise up his shepherd David to care for his people (Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:1-31; 37:15-28; Mic 5:4-5; 7:14; cf., Jer 3:15; 23:4). We clearly see two things develop from the Old Testament regarding the idea of shepherd.
1.) God’s leaders were to be shepherds like him. They were to care for the sheep as he cared for them. Clearly, Israel’s leaders had failed at this mission and exploited God’s people for personal gain and exposed them to idolatry and immorality. Even Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon failed to completely carry out the charge of protecting and caring for God’s flock either because of their own sin or the wickedness of the people.
2.) We see the idea of shepherd closely connected to the role of king. The great king of God who will come from the loins of David and be like David (e.g., man after God’s own heart) will also be a great shepherd. In other words, despite his royal status he will do the humble task of shepherding God’s people. This future king will judge with wisdom and righteousness, and practice lovingkindness and truth.
In the New Testament we find that Jesus is portrayed as the good shepherd. Jesus not only fulfills the role of the good shepherd who cares for the sheep and protects them from the enemy (John 10:1-18), but the New Testament writers clearly demonstrate the good shepherd motif encompasses much more. Jesus is the good shepherd, but is also the shepherd-king spoken of in the Old Testament. In Matthew 2:6 (cf., Matt 22:41:46) Jesus is portrayed as the promised king who will come and shepherd God’s people (cf., Eze 34:11-31; 37:24-28, Mic 5:4-5). Matthew also identifies Jesus as the promised king, who in contrast to the proud and selfish shepherds in Israel’s history, comes in gentleness and mounted on a donkey (Matt 21:4-6). Quoting from Zechariah 13:7-9, Matthew (Matt 26:31) recognizes that Jesus is the stricken shepherd who will sacrifice himself for the flock. Jesus as the selfless and humble shepherd-king provides the necessary sacrifice so that the sheep will be protected from the wicked shepherds that seek to destroy the flock. However, it is not all the sheep that will be saved, but only a remnant (cf., Rom 9:27-29; 11:1-6). Jesus clearly fulfills the promise of a shepherd-king. Yet how does Jesus fulfill Zechariah 11:4-17 (cf., Jer 18:1-11; 19:1-13; 32:6-15)?
In Zechariah 9:9 we see the shepherd-king and in 13:7-9 we see the stricken shepherd and in between the two passages we have the rejected shepherd. The question is, will God’s people detest and reject the good shepherd or will they embrace him as their king? Just as Israel had rejected God’s love and provision all throughout its history and just as Israel had rejected God’s faithful, though frail shepherds in the past, so Israel would reject the “the man who stands next to” God. Jesus as the good shepherd is compensated for his “good” shepherding with betrayal. The value for betraying Jesus is paid with thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-16; 27:3-10; cf., Gen 37:26-28). Just as Israel had failed to recognize God as their good shepherd and compensated him with a paltry thirty pieces of silver, so the religious leaders of the day showed the same contempt as their fathers by betraying the Son of God with thirty pieces of silver (cf., Matt 23:29-33). Judas stands as the representative for all those who despise the Christ. Judas was the representative for the corrupt religious leaders who sought to have Jesus killed. Judas represented what Israel had done as a whole; they had rejected the good shepherd for thirty pieces of silver and valued their shepherd-king at the price of a slave. Israel’s rejection has opened the door for the Gentiles (Rom 11:15). By sacrificing himself, the good shepherd has saved an elect remnant of Jews and is now bringing other sheep (elect Gentiles) into his fold (John 10:16).
The good shepherd expects that his appointed shepherds care for his flock just as he has done (John 21:15-17; Act 20:28-30; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 5:1-4). He expects his shepherds to not be like the foolish ones that plagued Israel, but like the true shepherd himself, they are to serve the true Israel with humility and love. These new shepherds are to guard the flock from false shepherds that are already at work (1 Tim 4:1-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Pet 2:1-22; 1 John 4:1-6; Jude 1), which are forerunners to that final deceiver who will come to try to lead the flock astray (2 Thess 2:1-12). One day the good shepherd, the guardian of our souls will return (1 Pet 2:25) and one of two things will happen; either you will be led to streams of living water to enjoy for all of eternity (Rev 7:17) or you will behold the one is who pierced and mourn for your judgment has arrived (Zech 12:10-14; Matt 24:30; Rev 1:7).