“The Lord is my Shepherd,” said King David. “I am the good shepherd,” said Jesus. Are there bad shepherds? What’s this shepherd imagery about?
Shepherd is a keyword in Zechariah 10–14, a passage Jesus and the Gospel writers kept alluding to. What was Zechariah saying about the shepherd? How does this help us understand Jesus?
The shepherd metaphor
In the Ancient Near East, shepherds took care of sheep and goats, providing food and protection. This became an obvious image for how gods and kings took care of their people. Even before the Hebrews were a nation, we find this metaphor in Akkadian and Egyptian. The kings and Pharaohs claimed to be appointed by the gods for the task of shepherding their flock, ensuring their provision and safety.
In court style, “shepherd” thus becomes the distinctive title of the king, who, appointed to this office, feels called to reign over the land, its towns, and its people, and faithfully to fulfill this office. Finally, even the gods are described as perceiving this as their role: they are shepherds of the whole earth, the universe, the heavens, all nations.
— Gerhard Wallis, “rā·ʿāh” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 13:548.
The shepherd metaphor in Scripture has the same two referents:
- God is the Shepherd of his people. Israel (Jacob) described God like this from the beginning: He has been my shepherd all my life (Genesis 48:15). The Mighty One of Jacob is the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (49:24).
- Leaders are appointed by God to shepherd his people. Israel recognized David as the shepherd God chose for them: The Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler’ (2 Samuel 5:2, compare 7:7; 24:17).
The difference between good and bad shepherds is how they use the power God has given them:
- A good shepherd uses their power to care for the flock: David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them (Psalm 78:72).
- A bad shepherd uses their power to benefit themselves: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? (Ezekiel 34:2)
This is why God would say, My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders (Zechariah 10:3). Since God is the ultimate Shepherd, the under-shepherds answer to him (1 Peter 5:2-4).
These twin themes — ultimate Shepherd and under-shepherds — are deeply intertwined with each other, and with the well-being of the flock. The flock ends up in trouble if either side of the relationship isn’t working, if:
- the shepherd misleads them or misuses them, or
- the flock doesn’t follow the shepherd, or follows other shepherds.
Both these issues led to the downfall of Israel as a kingdom. God terminated the kingship because the shepherds were misrepresenting him. God’s flock was scattered because they were seeking other shepherds (other gods, and alliance with the rulers “appointed” by those gods).
The Shepherd’s promise
It was tempting when their neighbours told you their gods made them prosperous. The Canaanites worshipped Baal (the storm god) in order to help him fight off Mot (the death/drought god). Zechariah insists that fake gods give no prosperity; they leave you wandering aimlessly:
Zechariah 10 1 Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime; it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms. He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone.
2 The idols speak deceitfully, diviners see visions that lie; they tell dreams that are false, they give comfort in vain. Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd. (NIV)
Idols (v.2) is an unusual word: terā·p̄îm. It refers to household gods like the ones Rachel tried to smuggle into the Promised Land (Genesis 31:19, 34-35). Jacob insisted foreign gods do not belong (35:2-3). Rachel’s reliance on the terā·p̄îm contrasts with Jacob’s reliance on the Shepherd, … who helps you … who blesses you with the blessings of the skies above (Genesis 49:24-25).
Lack of a shepherd can also refer to not having the human leader God appointed for them. At the end of his life, Moses asked God to appoint someone over this community … so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:15).
Without a shepherd to follow, the sheep scatter (wander) and may end up under the wrong shepherds (oppressed). This requires an intervention from the true Shepherd, like God telling Pharaoh, Let my people go. Zechariah has already promised that God would call his people back from exile and give them a God-sent leader (Zechariah 2:6-9).
Now God promises to save his wandering, oppressed flock. This rescue has two sides: a) saving them from the bad shepherds who falsely claimed them as their flock, and b) restoring the Davidic dynasty (from Judah) to lead his flock:
Zechariah 10 3 My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the Lord Almighty will care for his flock, the people of Judah, and make them like a proud horse in battle.
4 From Judah will come the cornerstone, from him the tent peg, from him the battle bow, from him every ruler.
Remember the earlier promise of the Davidic king riding into the capital as the humble and victorious leader proclaiming peace to the nations, removing the chariots and warhorses from Jerusalem and Ephraim (Zechariah 9:9-10)? Deutero-Zechariah now unfolds that promise. This king is the cornerstone of God’s global restoration project, the peg that raises the whole tent, the bow that delivers peace, the Christ who is the source of all kingdom authority.
The recollected flock
The extent of his leadership is staggering! Through him, God provides strong leadership for Judah, the kingdom that fell to Babylon. But it’s not only for Judah. God is also regathering the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel that had previously fallen to Assyria. These tribes had not been under Davidic leadership since Solomon’s time. They had their own kings in Samaria, a town in Ephraim (one of Joseph’s tribes). God promises not only to rescue Judah, but the northern tribes of the divided kingdom as well:
Zechariah 10 6 I will strengthen Judah and save the tribes of Joseph. I will restore them because I have compassion on them. They will be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them.
7 The Ephraimites will become like warriors, and their hearts will be glad as with wine. Their children will see it and be joyful; their hearts will rejoice in the Lord.
Such good news! All Jacob’s tribes are to be restored to their Shepherd through his anointed:
- This was Ezekiel’s hope: My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd (Ezekiel 37:24).
- This was Jesus’ hope, that under his kingship the twelve he appointed would sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28).
- This was the hope Paul declared to King Agrippa: This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night (Acts 26:7).
The Lord was their true Shepherd. The problem was not enemies that were too strong, but that he had scattered them into exile because they weren’t following him. Now they need to follow their Shepherd as he calls them to return:
Zechariah 10 9 Though I scatter them among the peoples, yet in distant lands they will remember me. They and their children will survive, and they will return.
10 I will bring them back from Egypt and gather them from Assyria. I will bring them to Gilead and Lebanon, and there will not be room enough for them.
This is the biggest rescue and regathering mission they’d ever seen. It included those exiled to Babylon, the northern tribes exiled to Assyria, and those scattered to the east (Gilead) and north (Lebanon). The kingdoms of this world have no power to hold them, just as Pharaoh’s army could not block them at the Red Sea:
Zechariah 10 11 “They will pass through the sea of trouble; the surging sea will be subdued and all the depths of the Nile will dry up. Assyria’s pride will be brought down and Egypt’s scepter will pass away.
12 I will strengthen them in the Lord and in his name they will live securely,” declares the Lord.
God’s flock wandered away and became oppressed when they went after other shepherds. Their true Shepherd never gave up on them. He was calling them home.
He promised to save them, to rescue them from the fake shepherds, to restore them in the care of his appointed leader (the Christ). This is what Jesus called the good news of the kingdom.
It all comes down to who reigns. This is the essential background to understand what follows in Zechariah, including what we would not expect — the shepherd being struck.