My title this morning is simply 'Ruin'. So that's encouraging for a summer Sunday morning! We've come to chapter 11 of the prophecy of Zechariah. And it is a tough chapter, but let me say right up front that it also points us to the hope that we have in Christ. Please have that open in front of you – it starts there on p798. And also take a look at my outline on the back of the service sheet.
Zechariah is a prophecy for our times - massively relevant to the church in the West and not least to us. Zechariah is speaking at a time when God's people are at a low ebb – devastated by decline, harassed by opponents without, undermined by compromise and corruption within. At the same time they have a great and daunting calling to rebuild all that has been lost, starting from scratch. So we need to pay close attention to God's voice through Zechariah.
We don't have time for too much detail, so we need to keep our eyes on the big picture here – look at the wood rather than the trees. This chapter is all about shepherds and sheep. And this chapter is also all about ruin and judgement. The shepherds are the leaders of God's people. And the sheep are God's people. And here, both shepherds and sheep are under judgement.
Judgement, of course, is an uncomfortable topic. But it's one we have to face up to, because unless we do, we can't see the full wonder of the forgiveness and freedom from judgement that Jesus gives us through his death and resurrection. If you never knew that you needed rescuing, then you're not going to be thankful and joyful when you are rescued. There is a key verse in Paul's Letter to the Romans that sums up the gospel. It is 6.23, and Paul says:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you're going to rejoice in the free gift, you have to understand first that the wages of sin is death. That's what Zechariah 11 helps us to do. Using the image of shepherds and sheep, this is a graphic prophetic picture of the judgement we deserve. It's really developing a theme that was summed up in the previous chapter. Just turn back a page and take a look at 10.2-3:
Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are
afflicted for lack of a shepherd.
"My anger is hot against the shepherds,
and I will punish the leaders;
for the LORD of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah,
and will make them like his majestic steed in battle."
Chapter 11 drives home that message of God's wrath. But there is hope, and this chapter has a structure that prophetically points beyond judgement to the gospel, like an arrow pointing us to Jesus. I've set it out on the outline. You can take that away and look more closely at that if it interests you. At the heart of the chapter is the mysterious reference to the payment of thirty pieces of silver that the shepherd is paid. The beginning and end speak of judgement on the shepherds. Then there are two sections describing the destruction of the flock, and two references to the shepherd's staffs or crooks being broken. So as you can see on the outline I have four headings that relate in turn to the shepherds, the flock, the shepherd's staffs, and the shepherd's wages. So:
First, The Shepherds are Struck Down:
The Leaders of the People of God are Ruined
Take a look at verses 1-3:
Open your doors, O Lebanon,
that the fire may devour your cedars!
Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen,
for the glorious trees are ruined!
Wail, oaks of Bashan,
for the thick forest has been felled!
The sound of the wail of the shepherds,
for their glory is ruined!
The sound of the roar of the lions,
for the thicket of the Jordan is ruined!
And then at verse 17 which picks up the theme again:
"Woe to my worthless shepherd,
who deserts the flock!
May the sword strike his arm
and his right eye!
Let his arm be wholly withered,
his right eye utterly blinded!"
Now I want to illustrate these points with reference to a brilliant book I read recently. It's by a man called James Rebanks, who farms in the Lake District, and it's called 'The Shepherd's Life', which is exactly what the book is about. I was reading it as I was preparing this, and I was struck by the parallels, and I thought I would share them with you. What a worthless, bad shepherd is like is brought into sharp focus when you see a good shepherd. In the course of his book, James Rebanks paints a picture of good shepherding. Let me quote him:
"Improving a flock of sheep is, in theory, simple. You need to buy a tup that brings better genes to your flock: choose him well and he makes your sheep better quality, more beautiful and, ultimately, worth more. The flock of ewes is your core asset, it rolls ever onwards, fixed to your farm ... So good shepherds are obsessed every year with identifying the tup, or tups, that will have an improving effect on their flocks … It matters deeply … I find the depth of commitment and thought in this whole endeavour breathtaking.
We are not sentimental people, but we share our lives with these sheep. We care about them.
We know these ewes as individuals, their breeding and life stories, what their lambs were like this year and possibly last …
My job is simple: get around the fields and feed and shepherd the different flocks of ewes – dealing with any issues that arise. First rule of shepherding: it's not about you, it's about the sheep and the land. Second rule: sometimes you can't win. Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.
My children have long figured out what makes me tick. When my elder daughter was four years old, she looked at me sternly across the kitchen table and said, with a wisdom beyond her years, 'The trouble with you, Dad, is that it is all about the sheep.'
This is my life. I want no other."
The leaders of God's people should care for them and serve them like good shepherds. But they haven't. They have been the opposite of good shepherds. They have been worthless, says God through Zechariah. And the wages of sin is death. The shepherds are struck down. The leaders of God's people are ruined. But it's not just the leaders who are under judgement. It's the people too. So:
Secondly, The Flock is Slaughtered:
The People of God are Destroyed
Twice the prophet is called on to play the part, as it were, of the shepherd in this prophetic drama of judgement. So look at verses 4-6:
Thus said the LORD my God: "Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. Those who buy them slaughter them and go unpunished, and those who sell them say, 'Blessed be the LORD, I have become rich', and their own shepherds have no pity on them. For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares the LORD. Behold, I will cause each of them to fall into the hand of his neighbour, and each into the hand of his king, and they shall crush the land, and I will deliver none from their hand."
And then again similarly in verses 15 and 16:
Then the LORD said to me, "Take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd. For behold, I am raising up in the land a shepherd who 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 hoofs."
James Rebanks graphically describes the destruction of sheep and flocks by disease, by destocking, and by devastating epidemic. First, disease:
"A handful of ewes each summer have fly 'strike', infestations of maggots. Creeping, hungry vicious little [things], they take hold in a patch of wool, then in the flesh, or in a foot… A 'struck' foot is sometimes a mass of wriggling maggots… Left untreated, they can kill and clean a sheep to the bones in a month.
I … wondered if anyone really cared about what we did … Each autumn, more of the great flocks would be sold or reduced ... They call it 'destocking' … it was felt as a grave insult to many folk who work this landscape because the loss of one flock, or its reduction, weakens the whole fell-farming system, making what we do more fragile."
Then devastating epidemic:
"… in 2001 the Foot and Mouth epidemic broke out. From the high ground where we feed our ewes and lambs, for as far as I could see, there were towers of smoke rising from pyres of burning sheep, cattle and pigs. The land was shrouded in a grey haze. The wind carried the sickly smell of burnt flesh and chemical smell of the fires… They came to collect our sheep at lambing time. We loaded pregnant ewes into the wagons. The few lambs that had been born were loaded as well. I have never done anything that felt so wrong, so against everything I was ever taught to do … When the last wagon had gone, I went into the barn, away from everyone, sat down in the shadows, held my head in my hands and sobbed. Then the farms were empty … Our sheep and cattle were dead."
In Zechariah's God-given warning of judgement to come, not only are the shepherds struck down – the leaders of God's people ruined; but also the flock is slaughtered – the people of God are destroyed. The wages of sin is death. Then to hammer this home even further Zechariah uses another visual aid using shepherd's staffs or crooks. So:
Thirdly, The Shepherds' Staffs are Broken:
The Blessings of God are Lost
This is in verses 7-11. Here they are:
So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slaughtered by the sheep traders. And I took two staffs, one I named Favour, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep. In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. So I said, "I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. What is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed. And let those who are left devour the flesh of one another." And I took my staff Favour, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples. So it was annulled on that day, and the sheep traders, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the LORD.
Let me just give an example of how we mustn't lose sight of the wood for the trees. Take the start of verse 8: "In one month I destroyed the three shepherds." That's puzzling. What does that refer to? One commentator has said:
"These words are probably the most enigmatic in the whole Old Testament. The shepherds have been identified in at least forty different ways..."
Pursue that in your own time, but for now we need to keep our eyes on the big picture. The first staff has been broken, symbolising the breaking of the covenant between God and his people. Then look down to verse 14:
Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.
The shepherd's staff is a vital tool, and deeply symbolic of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. James Rebanks again:
"A crook is as essential now on our farm as it ever was. My crook is an extension of my arm, letting me catch the sheep. Sheep are faster than a man, but will let you within a distance they feel safe at. The crook is used to take advantage of that and snag them around the neck. I use a crook almost every day in winter and dozens of times a day in the spring when we are lambing and need to catch ewes at regular intervals … My two-year-old son Isaac understands that having a stick is part of what makes you a shepherd."
Zechariah breaks the stick that symbolises the unity of God and his people. And he breaks the stick that symbolises the unity of God's people one with another. Barry Webb, is his helpful Bible Speaks Today volume on Zechariah, describes the process going on here in this way:
"What is clear is that even when Israel as a whole was spiralling down to deserved judgement God continued to extend many covenant blessings to her. The judgement he exercised was not precipitate, nor without concern for the innocent. But the gross and persistent nature of Israel's sin meant that the ultimate sanction of national collapse and dissolution could not be postponed forever."
In the end, the shepherd's staffs are broken. The blessings of God are lost. The wrath and judgement of God are real. In an individual life, as in a nation – indeed as in our nation – the ultimate sanction cannot be postponed for ever. The wages of sin is death. But thank God that is not the end of the story, or we'd all be sunk. Thank God that though the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. And it's that hope that can be found right at the heart of this otherwise grim chapter. So finally and:
Fourthly, The Shepherd's Wages are Thrown Away
The Mystery of the Gospel is Signalled
Look in the middle of the chapter at verses 12-13:
Then I said to them, "If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them." And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. Then the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter"—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter.
In the context of this prophecy, that's another puzzling passage. But from this side of the coming of Christ, and from this side of the cross and resurrection, and from the perspective of the New Testament, that reference to the payment thirty pieces of silver shouts to us of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, and the crucifixion, and the pouring out of the blood of Jesus for our sins, and forgiveness in place of condemnation, grace in place of judgement. In fact the gospel is signalled in a number of ways here in Zechariah.
The mystery of the gospel is signalled by the mysterious sovereignty of God in the face of evil and the sin of his people. So Zechariah is told (this is verse 4): "Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter"; and again in verse 15: "Take once more the equipment of a foolish shepherd". God is never the author of evil but he is always sovereign over it and works out his purposes through it. We see that above all in the greatest of all evils, the execution of his Son Jesus.
Then the mystery of the gospel is signalled by those thirty pieces of silver. And then above all the gospel is signalled by amazing prophecies of the cross of Christ that are coming up in chapters 12-13. More on that in the coming weeks. But let me just say by way of preview that in those chapters the gospel is signalled by the mysterious piercing and striking of the godly shepherd who is at God's side, in a way that opens a cleansing fountain for the forgiveness of sin. Judgement will be averted. God's people will be rescued by God from God's coming wrath.
James Rebanks describes how a good shepherd searches for lost sheep. I quote:
"A lamb has gone missing. Its mother is agitated. She runs up and down the fence. I left them, hours ago, safe and well-mothered, and now it is gone. There are no clues … I check the becks in case it has fallen in and drowned … I hate losing a healthy lamb. I check the neighbouring fields. No sign. Then I see that it has got itself stuck between the trunks of an old thorn tree, about a foot off the ground. It is fine, just squashed and tired. I lift it out and it runs off to suckle its mother. You can lose hours looking for a lamb …"
But the good shepherd searches for lost sheep until he finds them. Praise God for his amazing grace. Praise God that out of his great love for us he has sent his Son as our good shepherd to seek us out and save us. Praise God that though the wages of sin is death, the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.