Israel’s Shepherds

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Zechariah 11:1-17, John 10:25-30, Acts 1:15-20

We have a tough lesson coming up, no matter how we try to soften the blow. When leaders neglect their responsibilities, the consequences are grave—for everyone, in every time and every place. The opening imagery of this chapter sweeps through mighty cedars, majestic cypresses, sturdy oaks of Bashan, and the thickets of the Jordan. All have come crashing to ruin, and how great is their fall!

Against that devastating backdrop, the images shift to shepherds, a common figure for leaders in the Old Testament. It is important to make that connection because our “church-shaped” lens has relegated shepherds to the margins of society, which is where they had landed by the time of Jesus. Centuries before, however, shepherds in the ancient Near East had significant power and status because they controlled extensive sources of income: their flocks.

Zechariah’s bad shepherds—there were more than one—were missing some critical character traits. Good shepherds invested days and months of arduous labor as they migrated great lengths with their flocks to find food and water. In order to protect their sheep from threats of all kinds, they watched over them for long stretches of hours at a time. They cared for those that were diseased, and knew each sheep by name and touch. The shepherd’s staff was a symbol of care, giving assistance and direction, and of leadership and rescue. As Timothy Laniak states in his book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, good shepherds were skilled and trustworthy, “willing to take responsibility for the work,” whatever it may entail.

This description is a stark contrast to Zechariah’s harsh indictment of the shepherd God would appoint to bring judgment on the wayward people. He “does not care for those being destroyed, or seek the young or heal the maimed or nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the fat ones, tearing off even their hooves” (Zechariah 11:16, ESV). No wonder the chapter ends with a pronouncement of woe over that shepherd who deserted the flock and gave up on them, in essence, saying, “let them all die or destroy each other” (v.9, my paraphrase). He broke his staff called Favor (symbolizing the end of covenant compassion and rescue), and then demanded his payment: thirty pieces of silver. Judas betrayed the ultimate Good Shepherd for the same price (Matthew 26:14–15; 27:3–10).

This is heart-wrenching for what it says about the human condition behind the imagery. Those who bought and sold were only concerned with the profit. It’s hard not to think of the modern-day scourge of global human trafficking. Which begs the question: How can thoughtful and compassionate leaders intervene to stop the utter dissolution of social structures originally designed for our protection?

While this is a gloomy picture, to be sure, it would be incomplete without returning to the words of the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Jesus assures that no one is able to snatch those sheep out of the Father’s hand (vv.28–30).

Elaine A. Phillips received a BA in social psychology from Cornell University, an MDiv from Biblical Theological Seminary, and an MA in Hebrew from the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, where she and her husband, Perry, studied and taught from 1976–79. She holds a PhD in rabbinic literature, and teaches Biblical Studies at Gordon College. She also serves as a historical geography field instructor for Jerusalem University College. She has published a commentary on Esther in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; a devotional book, With God, Nothing Is Impossible; and, most recently, An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts.

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21 thoughts on "Israel’s Shepherds"

  1. Ava says:

    Very tough reading, but absolutely a good reminder of how to lead and who to follow.

  2. Churchmouse says:

    How foolish we are if we follow earthly shepherds rather than the Good Shepherd! Earthly leaders will fail us. Let us pray for them. Let us keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd. Let us pray for ourselves to be faithful to His Word. Let us hold up the words of men against the standard of the Word of God. Let us be as the Bereans who studied and compared teachings to the Truth they knew. How will we spot a counterfeit in the pulpit (or elsewhere) if we don’t know the Truth for ourselves? Open the Bible. Meditate on it. Study it. It’s the only book God wrote. He would be pleased if we would read it.

    1. GramsieSue . says:

      Love this. If only everyone in this country, in this world, would spend time reading His Word. Seeking Him. And living for Him. Oh what a better world it would be. ❤️

    2. Brooke Parker says:

      ❤️ YES!!! Amen absolutely right

  3. Lindsey Johnson says:

    Acts 1:15 at the end is cut off in today’s reading. There were also a couple errors in the devotional.

  4. Melissa Graves says:

    10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10,11

    Thank You, Jesus, for being the good shepherd and for your tender loving care of this fragile, needy sheep ❤️

  5. Aimee D says:

    Jesus my good Shepherd. Thank you for your goodness and mercy.

  6. Angie says:

    I was struck by the 30 pieces of silver given as a wage to Zechariah. That was the same value of a slave. That was the same value they gave Judas to betray Jesus. The LORD tells Zechariah to throw it to the potter, He seems offended by it.

    And then I thought, Father, forgive me for the times I have given you 30 pieces of silver, instead of my everything.
    All, I owe Him.
    All, He provides, freely to me, lovingly, wholly and fully.
    I am safe in Your hand, eternally.

    The big picture can seem frightening, because of the choices we (individually & as a nation) have made
    and yet, my hope is in you,
    my trust is safe, as I rest in your hand.

    1. McKinley T says:

      Wait so Zechariah was the bad Shepard or was he giving an example of what the bad Shepard was like?

  7. Shawn Parks says:

    “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish — ever! No one will snatch them out of My hand. “
    My heart is clutched fiercely in Jesus’s protective hand. No one can wrestle it away from Him. He fights for me! When He warns Satan with eyes flashing there is no room for discussion or persuasion. I belong to Him and He will never let anyone pty His fingers from the life-saving grip He has on me. I have never felt so protected, safe, or loved! What a good Shepherd! Lord, let me carry this vision in my mind and this truth in my heart as I face today! May You be glorified!

  8. Deborah Stein says:

    Just a heads up all the scripture is not listed.
    Zech. 11- 17 John 10: 25-30
    Acts 1: 15- 20