Open Your Bible
Zechariah 11:1-17, John 10:25-30, Acts 1:15-20
BY Guest Writer
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.