Israel’s Shepherds

Open Your Bible

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. B. Mitchell says:

    I just noticed the scripture says in John 10:3 “…and he calls his own sheep by NAME and leads them out.” This reminds me when Jesus called Lazarus by NAME and Lazarus came out of the grave.
    This scripture also reminds me of the Rapture when Jesus will call all who are his sheep out of the graves and those who remain to be caught up together to meet him in the air. In Revelation 4:1 John saw a door standing open in heaven and he heard a voice speaking to him like a TRUMPET saying, “Come up here…” Is the TRUMPET Jesus’ voice in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and Revelation 1:10 AND 4:1?

  2. Lynn Schroeder says:

    Important and insightful teaching about these verses is available here:

  3. Mari V says:

    I cried out to the Lord and He heard my voice. I was not snatched! I was rescued by My GOOD Shepherd! Praising God this morning for all that HE has done and all that He’s yet to do!

  4. Allison Sherwood says:

    I was so glad the written portion described the power shepherds held in the Old Testament verses the New, I would have still believed that they were lowly like those in Jesus’ story!

  5. NanaK says:

    I used to have a flock of about 100 sheep, thus, I was a shepherd. They knew my voice and that I was there to feed and care for them; HOWEVER, although they were fearful of strangers in their pasture, they would “warm up” to others who fed them. They weren’t always aware of the dangers that could be around them and that often times caused them harm.
    I love that GOD uses sheep to describe us (followers). We know HIS voice and we know HE is our Good Shepherd, yet often times, we allow things of this world to lead us astray–into danger. We don’t always take the precautions that we know we should and too often we take the easy “food” offered to us by the world, like each time we watch something on TV or a movie we truly know is not in our best interest, yet entertains us at the moment.
    This may be a tough message, yet it is so very clear–we know our Shepherd’s voice and we must listen and obey HIS callings for our lives for HE longs to keep us safe from the things of this world that will cause us harm.
    Thank you Lord Jesus, for being my Shepherd and my Savior.

    1. Shala Shroyer says:


    2. Cayley Causey says:

      Thank you for sharing Nana, this was encouraging to me today.

    3. Michelle Debrunner says:

      What a great image! Thanks for the insight about us possibly being seduced by anyone feeding us!

  6. Courtney says:

    AMEN, Churchmouse! And, again, I say “AMEN”!