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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Zechariah 11

Verse 3

The Future of God’s Flock (10:3-11:3)

The reference to the lack of a shepherd leads to a denunciation against "the shepherds" of God’s flock and then to a comforting declaration regarding the future of the two divisions of the Hebrew people.

The shepherds of verse 3 are evidently the leaders of the nations that have oppressed the Jews, probably the Ptolemaic successors of Alexander the Great, in view of the connection with other apparent references to this period. God expresses his concern for his people as opposed to the leaders, who may be presumed, therefore, to represent foreigners. These leaders will feel the fierce anger of the Lord, while he will enable his own people to "confound the riders on horses." The weapons with which God’s people will defend themselves are the weapons of unequipped civilians: the cornerstone pulled from the wall in the emergency of battle and hurled upon the head of a luckless attacker, the tent peg (as used by Jael in Judges 5:26), and the trampling feet of a street mob.

Both houses of the Chosen People, the exiles of the Northern and the Southern Kingdoms (here described as "the house of Joseph" and "the house of Judah" respectively), will be brought back in triumph from the nations to which they have been scattered (Egypt and Assyria are specifically mentioned but not Babylon). They will be gathered to the rich lands of Gilead and Lebanon as well as to the central highlands of Judah and the hills of Samaria. There will not be room for them in the whole of the Promised Land. A new crossing of the sea or of the Nile will take place, and the people will be strong in the Lord. It is not specifically said that the two kingdoms will be reunited under one ruler, but only that the people will be many and that Ephraim "shall become like a mighty warrior."

The closing verses of the poetic oracle (Zechariah 11:1-3) turn in figurative language to the neighboring areas of Lebanon and Bashan, just mentioned as the principal areas to be populated by returning Israelites, and include a reference to the heavily wooded area surrounding the Jordan. But the emphasis in this section is not on the inhabiting of these areas; instead it is on the trees of each area that will be destroyed. The opposition to God’s flock — designated here as the forests of Bashan and Lebanon and of the Jordan Valley, which were dangerous to flocks because of wild animals within them — will be destroyed in the areas which will be settled by the returning exiles. Unfriendly shepherds, lurking in these forests to prey on the flock of God, will wail because their refuge is destroyed. Thus in highly figurative language the poet-prophet offers a basis for hope to the scattered Jews of the postexilic dispersion, as he sketches a land secure from the violence and greed of robbers, whether these are robber nations or bands of outlaws lurking in the forests. The goal of such security for the whole world continues to be the hope of men nourished in the tradition of human government under a righteous God.

Verses 4-17

The Shepherd of the Doomed Flock (11:4-17)

Following the references in the poetic oracle to hostile shepherds (Zechariah 10:3; Zechariah 11:3) and to the lack of a human shepherd for God’s flock comes a prose allegory in which a word of the Lord directs an unnamed and undesignated person to "become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter." To this is attached a single verse of poetry (Zechariah 11:17) on the same theme. Probably Zechariah 13:7-9 should be considered as a displaced fragment of the same poem.

In the allegory the shepherd tells how he was directed to assume his duties in the face of conditions adverse to the welfare of the flock: buyers of the sheep slaughter them and go unpunished; previous owners rejoice in the profit of their sales; and the other shepherds have no pity on the sheep. Verse 6 interpolates a brief explanation of the terminology used: the sheep are the inhabitants of the land; the shepherds are kings; the buyers and sellers are not identified. From the analogy of other dramatically communicated prophetic oracles (as, for example, in Jeremiah 35 and Ezekiel 4, 5) it would seem that the prophet himself was directed to play the shepherd, to act in symbolic sympathy with and anticipation of the divinely directed course of events. Here the prophet plays the prince, governor, or king immediately over Jerusalem. The time of the action cannot be identified.

Assuming his duties, the shepherd took two staffs, named "Grace," or "Pleasantness" (the same word expresses "the goodness of the Lord" which the author of Psalms 27 sought), and "Union," or "Binders" (suggesting the ties of confederacy or of internal political organization). After declaring, "In one month I destroyed the three shepherds" (who cannot be identified), the shepherd explains how he became impatient with the sheep and resigned from his charge, leaving the doomed flock to its destruction. As symbol of this action he broke the staff called Grace. Then, after asking for and receiving his wages he cast the money into "the treasury" (as corrected in the Revised Standard Version, see margin) at the word of the Lord, and proceeded to break the staff called Union. Then he was directed to assume the role and implements of "a worthless shepherd," that is, to be worse than his predecessors in the leadership of Jerusalem. The final poetic word of woe is directed to this worthless shepherd.

In the cryptic explanation of the allegory the shepherd’s function was the breaking of the covenant of peace with surrounding nations (such as that mentioned in Zechariah 9:10) and the breaking of internal cohesion among the remnant of the Israelites. Whether the expression "Judah and Israel" is to be thought of as the united Jewish community in the postexilic period or as symbolizing Jerusalem and Samaria at the moment of final break between the two religious communities is a matter of debate.

The thirty pieces of silver in the allegory are clearly the worth put upon the work of the shepherd by his employers, who incidentally have observed his actions and recognized that the word of God was being communicated through them. He is paid the price of a Hebrew slave (Exodus 21:32), apparently all his employers thought his services were worth. The casting of the money into the treasury may represent a deposit for safekeeping rather than a gift to the priests, but its meaning is enigmatic.

In the allegory the shepherd’s hesitation in asking for his wages indicates that even he was doubtful of the value of his work. In the divine economy he has had an opportunity to be a good shepherd — to replace bad government with good. Even in the face of almost certain destruction (the flock is scheduled for slaughter), neither leader nor people could overcome human weakness and tendency to evil, and both internal and external political disintegration are the result. God therefore gives over the flock to the worthless shepherd, against whom he pronounces the final word of woe.

The parallels with events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus can be seen; they consist of the thirty pieces of silver, the casting of these into the treasury, and/or the use of these for the purchase of the field of the potter. In the allegory these are incidental details. The shepherd of the allegory is not good (witness his impatience with the sheep), but he serves under a divine calling to be a good shepherd. This calling Jesus fulfilled.

The contemporary interpretation of the allegory must center on the calling to be good shepherds which comes to all officers of government. For officers of modern government, from the humblest local post to the most powerful world figures, it is not enough to affirm that Jesus was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. Each person who assumes the responsibility for a part of the flock must resist the temptation to the corruption of his power and thus provide a basis for the continued welfare and security of mankind.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Zechariah 11". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/zechariah-11.html.