Zechariah 11 begins with unusual pessimism. In the eschaton, everything is supposed to change, but in this chapter, the Lord immediately related how he would destroy everything: the tall, proud trees and the verdant pastures (11:1-3). The powerful and prosperous would suffer.
This opening sounds like a return to the harsh language of Micah 1:2-4, where the Lord melted the mountains, or Nahum 1:4, where he dried up the waters and destroyed the forests. Zechariah doesn’t sound like anything changed, even though up to this point the prophet was speaking about the bright future of the eschaton. The people’s actions in response to victory after the siege of Jerusalem, however, showed how everything has changed in the most important way: in the heart of the people.
The sheep owners reject the good shepherd: Zechariah 11
Terrible shepherds took over the flock (11:4-6). The owners speculated and enriched themselves by buying and selling the sheep entrusted to them by the Lord. The buyers ate them; the sellers thanked the Lord for the “blessing” of making money off of the sheep. The Lord decided to turn away, to punish them by letting them deal with each other.
The prophet began to shepherd the sheep destined to be eaten (11:7). Zechariah tried to tend the sheep with his staffs, “beauty” and “unity.” These names represent the means by which the Lord had tried to take care of the people. He offered a covenant to the people, which gave them the beauty of the Torah and unity with each other. These would guide them and keep them safe.
But the shepherds left (11:8). Zechariah left the sheep to themselves, and they devoured one another (11:9).
The prophet destroyed his staff, “Beauty,” and so annulled the covenant. The beauty of the Torah in their midst was gone (11:10). At that point the owners saw the end of the covenant, symbolically acted out by the prophet. As the shepherd, he was owed wages, so they paid him 30 shekels of silver (11:11-12). He took the payment and put it in the temple. Then he destroyed the other part of the covenant that guided and safeguarded the people: he broke the staff of “Unity” between Judah and Israel (11:13-14).
The Lord doomed the flock to a lousy shepherd who wouldn’t take care of the sheep. Once the flock was lost and devoured, the shepherd would himself be judged. The leaders and people would all end, decimated and scattered (11:15-17).
The flock lacked a shepherd. The Lord tried the covenant to guide them, but they had no interest. Rather than take care of the poor and enjoy the results, the rulers got ahead any way they good and buttressed it against any outside attack. When the prophet tried to guide them through the word of the Torah, they bought him off, and the prophet rejected any profit he may have gained. Unfortunately, the people were in the same position they always found themselves in. How is this any different? What evidence is there of the eschaton?
Side note: The payment to Zechariah is drawn upon in Mathew 26:15, when the chief priests offer this price if Judas brings Jesus to them. The analogy establishes the chief priests in Matthew as the owners of the sheep in Zechariah, and the price to get the shepherd they don’t like, Jesus, out of the way. The covenant of beauty and unity between Judah and Israel is ended, so Judas (=Judah), perished at his own hand.
Unexpected reaction: Zechariah 12
An attack on Jerusalem was coming (12:2). This is surprising, since it looked like this would no longer happen. Previously, it looked like the appeal of a city following Torah would prevent any attack (a Torah-based insurance policy). Perhaps by means of this unanticipated siege the city would receive its due for rejecting Torah and not taking care of the weak.
The attack came, but Jerusalem unexpectedly defeated all her enemies unequivocally. The Lord described Jerusalem as a rock that everyone hurts themselves on when they try to move it (12:3), and as a brazier of fire or a torch among dry vegetation (12:6). Even the weak in Jerusalem would be like David’s house, and David’s house like gods (12:8).
Already we see a new order. The people were wicked as before, but instead of bringing in the Gentiles to teach the people a lesson, the Lord grants them glorious, undeserved defeat.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem responded in a new way: they lamented their enemies’ death. The Lord was the actor: he poured out a spirit of pity and compassion on every Jerusalemite, so that they mourned their enemies’ deaths like the loss of their own son (12:10). Every individual, every family, every social class would weep alone (12:12-14). Ironically, a new unity formed; after unity broke with the covenant, lamentation reunited them.
The Lord allows a new way
The shepherds of Jerusalem acted evilly, though they should have changed their ways. The Lord brought a besieging army, but granted Jerusalem decisive victory. In victory the people did not become self-righteous because the Lord granted them defeat. They lamented and mourned for the death of their enemies. They displayed the practice of the Torah in their city, as they viewed the unity of all humanity under the Lord and the value of every life to the Lord. More important than military victory, the Lord granted victory over the human desire to glory in supremacy. He gave them a broken heart so they could continue to follow the Torah.
The eschaton now looks like it would not be free of war or of pain. Thanks to Torah, it could be free of callousness towards the weak or of indifference towards foreigners–even hostile ones.