Is God a good Shepherd if we have bad shepherds? (Zechariah 11)

Why are we living under leaders who fight each other (wars) and crush their people (injustice) if God is on the throne?

Open Zechariah 11.

The Lord will be king over the whole earth (Zechariah 14:9). That’s the theme of Zechariah 10–14, and what an astounding promise! This is the gospel Jesus proclaimed, the good news we believe.

But some find it hard to believe there’s a God taking care of us when there is so much injustice, so much evil in the world. Zechariah 11 faces that issue. God asks the prophet to role-play what our human shepherds do: acting out of self-interest rather for the justice of the eternal Shepherd.

We explained how the shepherd metaphor was used for gods and kings in the Ancient Near East. That makes it the perfect term for addressing the inconsistency between what the Shepherd wants versus what the shepherds are doing. All the wars of history — including the suffering of God’s people at the hands of the nations — it all arises from the disconnect between the Shepherd and the shepherds.

In this chapter, the Shepherd has two staffs he uses to care for his flock. One is named Favour — the generous benevolence of a good sovereign’s providence for his people. The other is Union — the wise leadership that resolves injustice with mercy, holding the kingdom together. In particular, the Shepherd uses these skills for the benefit of those who are likely to be trodden down because they don’t have the power or capacity to take care of themselves, the oppressed of the flock (11:7).

But these staffs are not functioning as the Shepherd intends. Favour has not kept people under his care, and Union has not kept people together. The prophet enacts how the Shepherd’s staffs are broken:

  • Breaking Favour symbolizes breaking the covenant I had made with the nations (11:10).
  • Breaking Union symbolizes breaking the family bond between Judah and Israel (11:14).

The same problem exists in the wider world (the nations) as in God’s nation (Judah/Israel). The prophet sees that these two problems are intertwined. Israel’s disintegration is connected with the nations not following the true Shepherd:

  • The nations are not living under God’s leadership (his Favour).
  • Jacob’s tribes have also broken apart instead of living as a nation under God’s leadership (his Union).

These two broken relationships are the disconnect between Shepherd and shepherds.

The problem of the nations

Zechariah has already addressed the issue of the nations: the problem of their disobedience (1:15, 21; 2:8), and the hope of their ultimate inclusion under God’s reign (2:11; 8:20-23; 9:10). The Old Testament doesn’t begin with the patriarchs, as if God was the ruler of Jacob’s clan; it begins with the astounding claim that the whole earth belongs to YHWH, that he is sovereign over all people (Genesis 1–11 podcast).

Long before God made covenants with Israel or Abraham, he made a covenant with all humanity, with all the creatures of the earth, with the earth itself (Genesis 9:8-17). In the flow of the Genesis story, it was only when God authorized human authority that nations could develop with leaders of their own. When God authorized the community to take the life of a murderer (Genesis 9:6), warriors realized they could use that power to build their kingdoms, and that was the origin of Israel’s archenemies (Genesis 10:8-12).

That’s why it seemed like God had withdrawn his Favour from the rest of humanity, breaking the covenant I made with the nations (Zechariah 11:10) by making the descendants of Jacob his favoured people. We know this was just a stepping-stone in God’s longer-term project to bring all nations back under his reign through the good shepherd he appointed for us, his Anointed (e.g. Matthew 28:19; Romans 1:5; 16:26; Ephesians 2:22; 3:1-14; 4:1-6).

But the shocking truth is that human shepherds only keep flocks for their own benefit, to milk, fleece, and eat them. So, when God stepped back, refusing to force his leadership on the nations who went their own way and appointed their own leaders, God left the flock vulnerable to leaders who want power to benefit themselves — the flock marked for slaughter (11:7).

Early Genesis does describe God as the sovereign addressing the crimes of his people: in the garden (Genesis 3:8-19), when Cain killed Abel (4:6-16), and when the whole earth was corrupted (6:5-22). Even after launching the Abraham project, God still intervened at Sodom (18:17–19:29), and with Pharaoh (Exodus 7–14). But how much divine intervention would it take for him to resolve the abuse of authority that characterizes human leadership? How often should God sack the leaders of the nations who fail to care for the vulnerable people? Leaders are quickly corrupted by power, so in some cases God would be firing leaders almost every week, like In one month I got rid of three shepherds (11:8).

God doesn’t do this because he isn’t the kind of leader who forces himself on people. He was working on a longer-term solution that didn’t involve rejecting his people but being rejected and crucified to save his people. But people in pain don’t understand a God who doesn’t resolve things in their lifetime: the flock detested me (11:8).

That’s our problem. We don’t seem to have a Shepherd who protects us from evil and ensures we get justice. Job’s dilemma was not just the injustice of what happens, but the inability to place our case before the heavenly court to get things sorted out. To suffering people, it feels like God has grown weary of us and said, I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh (11:9).

It feels as if we are no longer living under divine favour (11:10).

The problem of God’s nation

God’s answer to the nations who refused his leadership was to create a nation that would live under his Favour. In this way, the nations would desire what they were missing and return to their Shepherd: I will bless you … and you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

But the nation called to be God’s prototype kingdom disintegrated. The shepherds God appointed were corrupted by power and used the flock for their own benefit. The taxing demands Solomon placed on Israel didn’t end after 7 years when the temple was complete: he kept it up for another 13 years to build a palace for himself. “Ease the burden! Lighten the yoke!” Israel demanded of his son. Rehoboam refused. It split the kingdom. The northern tribes formed a separate nation with their own king in Samaria. Only Judah retained David’s descendants as their king in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12).

The prophet’s symbol for this breakdown is the breaking of the staff called Union, breaking the family bond between Judah and Israel (11:14).

This was the beginning of the end. Once the Union failed, the two halves were less able to deal with their enemies. Sometimes they fought each other. Assyria swallowed Israel. Judah fell to Babylon. There was no longer any nation to represent God’s reign to the world.

As the centuries progress, they remained captive to whatever power ruled the region. It was as if God had given them over to foolish shepherds who had no idea of what the Shepherd intended.

So that’s what God asked the prophet to enact: foolish shepherds like Nebuchadnezzar and subsequent rulers who had no genuine interest in their wellbeing:
Take again the equipment of a foolish shepherd. For I am going to raise up a shepherd over the land who will not care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy, but will eat the meat of the choice sheep, tearing off their hooves (11:15-16).

But the story doesn’t end with God’s world divided and dominated by worthless shepherds. The chapter concludes with the prophetic proclamation of the demise of the worthless shepherd, with a prayer for God to limit the power of his arm and the extent of his gaze (11:17). Earth will be restored to the worthy Shepherd, for YHWH will be king over the whole earth (14:9).

Conclusion

Zechariah 11 is a powerful theodicy: a prophetic depiction of how we can say that God is the reigning Shepherd caring for the world when we experience the agony of rulers who care nothing for the flock, worthless shepherds who care only about their own power.

The prophet recognized that this was not only the suffering of his own people (Judah), but also the suffering of the northern kingdom (Israel), and the suffering of the nations as well. What astounding insight into the salvation story, the rescue of the entire planet back from its present sufferings to the care of its true Shepherd!

Romans 1–3 follows a similar trajectory. Paul traces the rebellion of the nations against their true sovereign, followed by Israel’s disobedience and failure, concluding that the whole world is held accountable to God. In the face of this disaster he declares the good news: the righteousness of God has now been made known in his Anointed ruler (Romans 3:19, 21).

Now we’ve established this wider view of God’s kingship over the disintegrated nation of Israel/Judah and over the nations who don’t recognize him at all, we’re ready to zoom in the most exciting part of the chapter, the bit most quoted in the New Testament. It’s something about God’s kingship being valued at 30 pieces of silver (11:12-13). That’s out next post.

What others are saying

Barry Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, BST (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 147, 153-154:

But there is a deeper question lurking in the background. Why do bad shepherds exist at all, and why has suffering at the hands of such leaders been so much a part of Israel’s experience? Surely it is not what one would expect for people whom God has rescued from slavery and with whom he has made a covenant? In order to deal with this deeper issue, Zechariah is commanded to deliver a lesson from history in the form of an enacted parable. …

At the most general level the theme of these three chapters, as of the whole book, is the kingdom (rule) of God, from his triumphant progress to Jerusalem in 9:1–13, to the review of his dealings with Israel as their true shepherd (i.e. king) in 11:4–17. But within this framework there has been an extensive exploration of the role of human leaders, especially in God’s administration of his covenant relationship with Israel. This theme is introduced with the appearance of the king riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in 9:9. As we saw when we looked at that passage, he is a human figure — God’s perfect representative, the ideal leader of his people. The subsequent reference to the people of God as his ‘flock’ in 9:16 provides the link to the contrasting treatment of bad leadership in 10:1–11:3. The rapacious shepherds of this passage, who oppress and destroy the flock, are the complete antithesis of the ideal king, ‘gentle’, ‘righteous’ and ‘having salvation’, of chapter 9. The two sign-acts, which come at the end of the whole section, set all this once more in the context of the rule of God, the divine Shepherd, who brings down and raises up human leaders. So the ‘oracle’ of chapters 9–11, although complex, is not a disjointed jumble. It is held together by the consistent focus on the issue of leadership, which it explores from different, complementary angles. …

Detesting the good shepherd led not just to the breaking of the brotherhood between Judah and Israel (the fracturing of the covenant community, 11:14); it led to a complete breakdown in the covenant relationship with God himself (11:10–11). In other words, it is impossible to be in relationship with God unless we are prepared to be ruled by him.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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