So far - so good! Zechariah has been clear and understandable. His has been an encouraging and uplifting message to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. He challenged spiritual laziness and indolence and reassured the people that God was with them.
Now - however - we reach a more difficult passage - chapter 11 is complicated and its meaning is not so clear at all. It seems to be taking a longer term view and it is negative in character. The initial optimisms and encouragements are giving way to realpolitik and a pessimistic assessment of the Jewish people’s longer term future. As with all the prophets God is not blamed for this future state of affairs. It is because collectively and nationally, the people have not kept their side of the bargain - the Covenant, that they have lost God’s favour with inevitable political consequences of defeat in years to come.
Verses 1 - 3 reflect a picture of destruction, of burning fields and trees and buildings - depriving lions of their habitat. Thereafter, the theme is of shepherds and sheep, false shepherds and sheep harmed, neglected and damaged. There is an obvious connection between all of this and the text of the Gospel of John, chapter 10 in which Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep in distinction from others whose motivation is self-interest and wealth-gathering.
Verses 4 - 6 The picture here is very critical. He, the prophet, is the spiritual leader of a doomed flock of sheep. The political leadership betrays the people it is supposed to serve. Their conduct and bad decision-making render the people vulnerable to destruction. The leaders suffer no challenge or accountability.
Verses 7 - 11 In those days prophets often enacted out things as well as speaking. They would go down to the market places or the temple and perform little one person plays symbolising their message. The acted out their prophecies. In the Book of Acts, chapter 11, a Christian prophet did this for Paul. Agabus bound himself with belts to show that Paul would be arrested and become a prisoner which happened.
So Zechariah takes two staffs - remember Psalm 23 - thy rod and staff me comfort still? He gives them names, Favour and Union. Favour is the Covenant made by God to and with the Jewish people. But it seems that the people had turned against the prophet Zechariah. He says the people hated him. His response was to say that he would no longer struggle to help and save them by prophesying the living Word of God to them. He was giving them to whatever fate was to be theirs. Zechariah breaks the staff in two as a symbol of the breaking of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people. This was a terrible sign - a very distressing piece of dramatic art. It was a complete break-down of relationship. We assume that these events took place some time after the brighter days which chapters 1 - 10 describe. Most Old Testament prophets as you know suffered rejection and some were murdered. Jesus reminded his contemporaries that Jewish history was littered with the corpses of God’s servants, the prophets and he, Jesus suffered likewise and more. Zechariah notes that some people did recognise the significance of what he had just done.
There is a fascinating altercation that takes place. It is hard to understand. It seems that they have been withholding Zechariah’s living allowance. He was entitled to be paid from the Temple income. He asks for some money and they throw 30 pieces of silver at him. This was the price of a slave at the time. It was a serious insult and God told Zechariah not to accept it but to throw it away in the direction of a potter who worked in the Temple. This foretells Judas Iscariot.
Zechariah then broke the staff which symbolised the union of Judah and Israel. Judah was to the south and Israel to the north. From King Solomon’s time the areas denoting the names of the 12 tribes of Israel eventually reduced to only the two remaining. Judah had Jerusalem and Israel had Galilee from where Jesus embarked on his ministry. Zechariah was making the point that they no longer represented a coherent political unit.
Zechariah then prophesies really bad political leadership for the Jewish people in times to come. No messiah. No good strategist. No good soldier general. Certainly no prophets and no spiritual leadership of note either. These were all indications of future decline. The signs of false leadership, says Zechariah would be a lack of pastoral concern and care for the lost, lack of example and education for the young, absence of spiritual and physical healing and sufficient food provision for everyone. However, the political leadership will live well and dine famously on the very best of everything. Zechariah condemns this and those who do it.
What do we make of all this? Can we salvage anything out of it? Some scholars read all of this as a direct prophecy of Jesus Himself and of Judaism’s rejection of Him and their perennial fate on earth as a people thereafter. Did Zechariah see it so clearly? I don’t think so. But he was right about what happened to the People of God over the next centuries because they were never at peace and they did not prosper. Repeated invasions until annihilation by the Romans was their fate. To this day they are still under threat of their very lives and Islam is dedicated to their obliteration.
But Jesus must have taken Zechariah’s picture portrait of the bad shepherd as a comparison with Himself - the Good Shepherd as seen in John chapter 10. We are not just talking about sheep here. This is about human character and life as well as positions of spiritual and political public responsibility among the people of God. Take Colonel Gaddafi as an example. He’s just celebrated the 40 years of his revolution. But his is a dictatorship and a police state. Dissent is not tolerated and people disappear. There is torture and death in the jails of Libya. He was an exporter of terrorism for decades. But he portrays himself as a good person who has saved his people. Saddam Hussein was the same. The communist revolutionaries very quickly used terror to intimidate opposition and suppress the people. At the anti-Christian French Revolution the same things had happened. You could be guillotined for not being verbally supportive enough of the political leadership. Some of you will remember seeing Russian Communist gatherings on TV with Kruschev and Anropov and Brezhnev being applauded for half an hour. Everyone was frightened to be the first person to stop clapping in case it was seen as disloyalty.
Compare and contrast these examples with that of the great Christian humanitarians of recent centuries. William Wilberforce who campaigned successfully for an end to slavery, David Livingstone the explorer, Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross in 186,. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, Rev Chad Varah Anglican clergyman and founder of the Samaritans in London in 1953, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II and Desmond Tutu. These are examples of good shepherds who made a lasting contribution to the betterment of the human condition and of the welfare of humanity in the name of Jesus Christ.
Spiritually speaking, of course, Jesus was the great Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep - for the flock of humanity - for us all - every one. That is a fact of history. His resurrection is a fact of spiritual history, of spiritual apprehension and of spiritual intelligence. But just try to gauge the effect and impact of Jesus’ life. No-one can. It is enormous and everlasting. It relies not on force of arms or political power. Indeed, it has suffered more from these over the years. It is all pervasive and no atheistic propaganda will wear it out. It is eternal in motivation and direction giving hope and meaning to all our sensitivities as human beings.
For Zechariah, there were no such blessings. The returned exiles were intent on re-establishing their farms and businesses. They had little sense of larger spiritual vocation. They had lost touch with God. Astonishingly, in the twentieth century and in the lifetime of some here, the Jews suffered as much and more, catastrophically in fact. As the Second World War began 70 years ago this week, Jews were being exterminated in Germany on an industrial scale to the extent of over 6,000,000 souls by the end of the War. The desolation envisaged by Zechariah did in fact happen and The Holocaust repeated to a larger degree the same misery. Why? Some Jews have always asked ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?” Many gave up faith. Others, who survived, however, became more and more devout believing that it was their special identity which brought persecution. Heroically, these people gave witness to the highest aspiration of the Old Testament. The Chief Rabbis of Britain are men of great moral stature to this day.
Where does that leave us as we look across the spiritual wasteland of Scotland. In the Omni Car Park in Edinburgh recently a teen-age girl was stripped and tortured for 45 minutes by two other girls while a boy filmed the proceedings on his mobile phone. The attackers, aged 13 and 14 repeatedly kicked the victim’s head like a football and beat her about the skull with stiletto heels, which she was forced to lick clean of her blood. The boy, 13, kept egging on his friends and called to them to put her to sleep. The girl’s ordeal ended when the gang heard someone approaching and fled. , Naked, bloodied and battered, she managed to get to the main level and told a security guard “I need help”. ..The victim spent 6 days in hospital recovering form her multiple injuries.
What will happen to these young criminals? Much? And where does this all come from? From bestial human nature in a society with no values and no restraints. In which Christianity has been sidelined and diminished. In which schools do not teach and inspire living Christianity as the basis for understanding life and promoting good conduct. Let us rejoice in the knowledge of the love of God. Let us stand with the many throughout the world who are pleased to serve and honour Jesus Christ. Let us be the faithful remnant. The story will go on long after us. And our life and witness is not in vain.