Zechariah is one of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. His book is located between the books of Haggai and Malachi. Zechariah is thought to have preached from about 520-518 B.C. The book of Zechariah deals with the restoration of Jerusalem, the Temple, and God‘s people.
Chapter 11 verses 4-17, which is a story of two shepherds, is one of the most difficult passages in the Old Testament to understand. From the New Living Translation, the passage reads as follows:
4 This is what the LORD my God says: “Go and care for a flock that is intended for slaughter. 5 The buyers will slaughter their sheep without remorse. The sellers will say, ‘Praise the LORD, I am now rich!’ Even the shepherds have no compassion for them. 6 And likewise, I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of the land,” says the LORD. “I will let them fall into each other’s clutches, as well as into the clutches of their king. They will turn the land into a wilderness, and I will not protect them.” 7 So I cared for the flock intended for slaughter – the flock that was oppressed. Then I took two shepherd’s staffs and named one Favor and the other Union. 8 I got rid of their three evil shepherds in a single month. But I became impatient with these sheep – this nation – and they hated me, too. 9 So I told them, “I won’t be your shepherd any longer. If you die, you die. If you are killed, you are killed. And those who remain will devour each other!” 10 Then I took my staff called Favor and snapped it in two, showing that I had revoked the covenant I had made with all the nations. 11 That was the end of my covenant with them. Those who bought and sold sheep were watching me, and they knew that the LORD was speaking to them through my actions. 12 And I said to them, “If you like, give me my wages, whatever I am worth; but only if you want to.” So they counted out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. 13 And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potters” – this magnificent sum at which they valued me! So I took the thirty coins and threw them to the potters in the Temple of the LORD. 14 Then I broke my other staff, Union, to show that the bond of unity between Judah and Israel was broken.
15 Then the LORD said to me, “Go again and play the part of a worthless shepherd. 16 This will illustrate how I will give this nation a shepherd who will not care for the sheep that are threatened by death, nor look after the young, nor heal the injured, nor feed the healthy. Instead, this shepherd will eat the meat of the fattest sheep and tear off their hooves. 17 Doom is certain for this worthless shepherd who abandons the flock! The sword will cut his arm and pierce his right eye! His arm will become useless, and his right eye completely blind!”
The commentary Obadiah through Malachi begins by commenting on the ambiguous nature of the passage. This vague language makes it very difficult to interpret; thus the details remain elusive. The author feels that this passage goes in accordance with the earlier situation described in Zechariah 10:3. In both passages it is made clear that the leaders (shepherds) of Israel have made the Lord angry. Zechariah is describing the social disorder and the peoples’ dishonesty toward each other that has overwhelmed the community before it will be restored by God.
This commentary is certain that the doomed flock is in fact Israel, but is unsure whom the sheep merchants represent. Their guess is that they may be the workers in the temple who have hired Zechariah. The shepherd is understood as symbolizing a ruling, most likely a prophetic one. Zechariah is telling his audience that Israel is in total disarray and the leaders aren’t doing anything to help, in fact some are making the situation worse. God is permitting the corruption by sitting on His hands. While doing so, he stresses the need for repentance so the corrupt community may be restored. The prophet becomes a leader to try and help Israel, but ends his leadership in disgust. Zechariah decides he will let what is to happen to the people happen to them, because they would not listen when he tried to help. He has given up because he feels the community has become so corrupt that nothing can help the people now.
He asks for his pay and is given the price awarded to slave owners when their slave had been killed. He throws it into the treasury as God has instructed him to do so. The author feels that this symbolizes that corruption has even spread into the temple, the center of religious life in Israel. This act also shows Zechariah’s audience how easily and to what extent leaders, even religious ones, become corrupt. The prophet then breaks the two staves symbolizing the annulment of God’s covenant with Israel and any unity that may have taken place between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. The breaking of the staves also lets the people know that they cannot just sit there and wait for God to make things right. They must repent before restoration can take place.
Next God has Zechariah play the role of a shepherd that neglects his flock. Instead of helping the flock like the first shepherd, he is destroying it. This commentary refers to him as an “anti-shepherd” (p.175). The passage ends by describing that the fate of the “anti-shepherd” will be vicious. He will get what he deserves in that he will be treated worse than he treated his flock.
Interpreting the Minor Prophets agrees with the latter commentary by linking this passage with Zechariah’s 10:2-3, which deals with Israel’s useless and corrupt leaders. When Zechariah takes up the task of the good shepherd, the tone of the passage is ironic and mysterious. He is commissioned to care for sheep that are already being sold by other shepherds and slaughtered by merchants. This suggests that Israelite rulers, “of the postexilic period,” were selling God’s people to foreign leaders (266).
After learning about the exploitations of the flock, one would most likely expect a message of salvation to follow. However the Lord says instead of rescuing them, He will allow the foreigner leaders to have the sheep, because they are subject to a period of suffering before deliverance will occur due to their rejection of the good shepherd. To expand on this conclusion, the commentary discusses the two staves and the reaction of the people to the good shepherd. The two staffs were called Union and Favor. Union symbolized the uniting of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Favor referred to God’s favor to the Israelites that they would be at peace with foreign nations. In addition to taking up the two staves, he also removed three of the negligent shepherds whose identities remain unknown. Despite these great attempts to protect the sheep, the people still rejected him, thus leading him to relinquish his leadership. Their rejection of the good shepherd is the reason God allows them to suffer for a short time. To officially end his leadership, he breaks the two staves. This symbolizes the postponement of the reuniting of the kingdoms and also that God will allow the people to suffer under the leadership of oppressive rulers for a short period of time. The people pay him for his services by awarding him thirty silver pieces, the price of a slave. After sarcastically commenting on the “large” amount of money they gave him for his services, he gives the money to the potter in the temple as God instructed him to do so. This commentary does not even attempt to guess at the reason for this action. The author briskly passes it over by saying, “ The significance of this action is uncertain” (p. 267).
Next, God has Zechariah play the part of a foolish shepherd. This commentary believes that because the people rejected the good shepherd, they will be punished with a bad one. This shepherd has no intention of caring for the sheep. Instead, he severely mistreats them and shows them no mercy. He is slated to receive a terrible fate as punishment for the careless and cruel way he treated his flock.
The author then identifies the good shepherd as being either, “God’s leadership as King of his people, an ideal messianic ruler, or eventually as Jesus Christ” (p.267). The foolish shepherd discussed in this passage may be, “the high priest Alcimus, Herod the Great, Simon bar-Kochba, and the Antichrist, among others” (p.267).
The third commentary, Zechariah 9-14, began with the translation the authors used, followed by their notes about it, and ending with their comments. This commentary disagreed with the others in that it found the passage “simple and straightforward” (p.293). The authors feel that verses 1-3 and verse 17 frame verses 4-16. These poetic oracles precede and follow the prose verses of the chapter. Their unique approach to understanding this chapter has helped clear up some of the questions that have stumped previous translators.
The authors found it unusual that Zechariah would start this section with the phrase “Thus spoke Yahweh my God,” because Yahweh and God are seldom found together when introducing prophetical statements (249). The authors believe that he may have done it for one of three reasons. He could be trying to distinguish Yahweh from other gods, heightening his own authority, or claiming that his relationship with God is as strong and intimate as the relationship Moses had with God. Meyers and Meyers seem to feel that Zechariah was having trouble proving to others, and possibly himself, that he was in fact a true prophet, and therefore he is trying to heighten his authority.
Next the term shepherd is thought to symbolize both political leaders and prophetic leaders. The only other prophet who was given the role of shepherd is Moses. Everywhere else in the Old Testament, shepherd refers to political leaders. Next the term shepherd is thought to symbolize both political leaders and prophetic leaders. The only other prophet who was given the role of shepherd is Moses. Everywhere else in the Old Testament, shepherd refers to political leaders.
Next a new translation for “slaughter” is discussed. Meyers and Meyers believe that this passage suggest that the whole flock will be ruined but not necessarily destroyed. The rest of the passage suggests that some of the flock will survive. Some of the sheep are killed others are taken advantage of in other ways. This commentary feels that the “buyers” and “sellers” represent leaders in Israel whom have violated the covenant because of their unacceptable behavior.
In this passage everything that usually symbolizes good now are signs that bad things will happen. For example, the two staffs represent the protection of God against foreign enemies, and also the uniting of the northern and southern kingdoms. Zechariah breaks the staffs and therefore abolishes what they stand for- peace and reuniting. Now God will leave the people in the hands of one another. They will all be removed from the land by either death or relocation as a result of their sins. The corruption is so wide spread that everyone will suffer the consequences.
After the breaking the staffs the merchants realize that he truly is a prophet, but still do not like what he has to say. They show this by paying him only the price of a slave gored by oxen. He then casts the money into the treasury. Instead of taking this gesture in a negative way as the other commentaries do, the authors of this commentary feel that in doing this the prophet is making a contribution to the Temple.
When he takes up the role of the foolish shepherd, his actions are reflecting what a leader should not be like. This shepherd acts in contrast to how he is supposed to act. By using the word “fool” Zechariah was implying that this shepherd did not believe in God and therefore did not act in accordance with the covenant. Meyer and Meyer feel that, up to this point, Zechariah is describing the tense feelings between true and false prophets. The false prophets are depicted as worthless shepherds, because they do not tend to the people’s needs. By removing his arm and his eye, this worthless shepherd will become powerless. Therefore, the people will no longer listen to the words of the false prophets.
My understanding of the passage agrees with certain fragments of each commentary. Zechariah is instructed by God to provide for a flock of sheep that is intended to be slaughtered. A prophet’s job is to provide people with “predictions”, not to be confused with crystal ball predictions, of what will come of them if they don’t repent and likewise if they do repent. The flock of sheep represents humans. Humans are sinners and therefore will destroy themselves unless they realize their wrongdoings and repent. When God instructed him to care for this flock of sheep that is marked for slaughter, He is basically calling Zechariah to be a prophet. God tells Zechariah that the corruption is very widespread and known among the people. Their leaders do not care and are also steeped in wrongdoing. In addition, false prophets are providing the Israelites with wrong information. Foreign kings are ravishing the land and the leaders of Israel let them, because they are becoming rich in the process. They feel that because they are gaining money, God is on their side- false prophets do not make an effort to tell them differently. God tells Zechariah that he will no longer try to help the people, because they are not making any effort to change their ill ways even though he has made many efforts to help them. God will sit on his hands and let what is to happen to them happen. Their widespread corruption will cause military defeats and they will be driven from their land. They will realize the result of their sins. So Zechariah obeys God and cares for the oppressed flock. In the process, he takes two staffs and names them, “one Favor and the other Unity“ (New Translation). I feel that Zechariah may have actually have literally been holding two staffs or sticks while he told this “story” to his audience. In other words, he used them as a visual aide to get his point across. While he is in charge of the flock, he “gets rid of three evil shepherds” (New Translation). These three shepherds probably represented the three main false prophets in the land that were causing the people to keep on sinning instead of repenting. In the passage he stresses that he did this in one month, which probably means that it was done right away or within a very short time frame. After some time of being this shepherd, Zechariah becomes frustrated with the people. Although he is trying to help them out of their awful situation, they hate him. So he tells them that he won’t help them anymore and now they will definitely be destroyed. Next he breaks the two staffs to announce that he has terminated his “shepherd” position. I feel that again he used this as a visual aide when telling this “story“, and he really did break the sticks or staffs that he was holding. I also think that this part of the passage is telling Zechariah’s audience that God is trying to help them, but has become frustrated that they are not acknowledging Him and therefore, he will sit back and let their sins cause their demise. The two kingdoms will no longer unite, and he will not do them any more favors. This is a warning to the people, if they don’t repent these awful things will happen. However, all prophetic teachings were only warnings, meaning that if they do repent those things won’t happen. I think this passage is saying that God and his prophets are frustrated that people won’t listen to these warnings.
The passage goes on to say that when he broke staffs, the “buyers and sellers” of the flock knew that he was a true prophet. I think in this case the “buyers and sellers” represent false prophets who knew they were involved in wrongdoing. These false prophets were in it for the money and would base their prophecies on the amount of money they received; if someone gave them a lot of money, they received a good prophecy. So Zechariah asks to be paid for his services. In doing this he was trying to see if anyone acknowledged the fact that he was trying to help them. They paid him an insulting amount, which verified that his prophecies were not appreciated or accepted. The people simply did not want to hear that God was upset with their corrupt ways. He throws this money into the Temple. I think this might be showing that even if he was paid for his services, his prophecies would not change because he is a true prophet.
So God instructs Zechariah to be a worthless shepherd, because God said he would raise one up in their land. This shepherd won’t tend to the sheep that are to die, he won’t look after the children, and he won’t help the sick, or provide food for the healthy. I think this is illustrating the people are being socially unjust to each other during the time in which Zechariah is preaching. It is warning the people that if they don’t start listening to the true prophets, he will leave them to be destroyed in the hands of the false prophets and corrupt leaders of the land. God tells them that he really does not want it to come to this, because the passage ends with a prophecy about what will become of the worthless shepherd. I think this is a message to false prophets that eventually no one will believe them, and also to the leaders or kings that they will lose all of their power and military strength. God reminds them that he really is helping protect them from the full effect of their sins even if they don’t realize it. In other words, things could be a lot worse, but God loves humans so much that he won’t let it get worse. The general message is for the people to clean up their act and repent so these bad things won’t happen.
Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. Interpreting The Minor Prophets. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.
Brown, William P. Westminster Bible Companion: Obadiah Through Malachi. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Holy Bible New Living Translation. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1996.
Meyers, Carol L., and Eric M. Meyers. The Anchor Bible: Zechariah 9-14.New York: Doubleday. 1993.