Rev. Erik Veerman
Israel’s Shepherds part 1: Asleep at the Wheel
Thank you to David Fraser for preaching last Sunday. It was a blessing to me as I could focus on our denominational matters 2 weeks ago. And, it was a blessing to all of us. His rich and thoughtful analysis is always compelling and convicting.
Over these 5 Sundays in July, we’ll be working through Zechariah chapters 10-13. That will leave us with chapter 14 in August, which will conclude our series.
Chapter 10 this morning is connected to chapter 11. These two chapters deal with the shepherds of Israel. Their leaders – their governors, judges, kings, and priests. Quite frankly, these chapters highlight their failures as compared to the true Shepherd. We’ll cover these 2 chapters in 3 sermons - each with a different emphasis.
The timing is helpful. As you know, we are in the process of establishing elders and deacons. For elders in the church, their primary responsibility is to shepherd the flock - to care for our spiritual needs. And what we’ll learn in these 2 chapters is, first, what shepherds should NOT be doing, and, second, what shepherds are called to do and to be. So, there are some clear applications for elders. But also, we are all sheep of the good shepherd, and so there are some direct applications for us.
Let’s now focus in on Zechariah 10. Turn to page 948
Reading of Zechariah 10.
For a couple summers during my college years, I worked as a camp counsellor at a camp in northern Wisconsin. At the end of camp one summer, a couple of my friends and I wanted to travel a little bit. We had some time before the fall semester started. Niagara falls was on our list. None of us had been, so we set out.
I should say, college age guys don’t always make the best decisions. We thought we would just drive all night from northern Wisconsin, through Canada, and get to Niagara without dealing with traffic. We would just take turns driving.
Well, at around 2am in the middle of nowhere, Canada, I was asleep in the back seat. My other friend, who was not driving, was asleep in the passenger seat. And our other friend, who was supposed to be driving, fell asleep at the wheel. Our car drifted over the yellow line, into the wrong side of the road, and then over the white line. We were all jolted awake as the car skidded across the gravel and grass on the other side of the road. Thankfully, the Lord protected us. Needless to say, we were all wide awake after that and made it to our destination.
We learn here in Zechariah 10 that the shepherds of Israel had been asleep at the wheel. They were supposed to be driving the bus. They were supposed to be leading God’s people faithfully. But they failed in their responsibility by not leading at all.
I mentioned earlier that chapters 10 and 11 both focus on the failures of the shepherds. Chapter 10 highlights the passive failures of the Israel’s shepherds. Chapter 11 highlights the active failures of Israel’s shepherds… their abuse of the sheep.
If you look at the end of verse 2, it says, “the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.” But then how are we supposed to understand verse 3? The Lord said, “my anger is hot against the shepherds.” How can God be angry at shepherds who don’t exist? Do they have shepherds, or do they not have shepherd? Well, both. That’s the point. They had shepherds by title only. But they were not good shepherds, so it was like the people didn’t have shepherds at all. God was angry with them because they let the sheep wander aimlessly.
This chapter gives us quite a contrast. The first part, verses 1 through the beginning of 3, show us what happens when shepherds don’t lead. And the second part goes to the end of the chapter. It’s about the good shepherd - the Lord himself. Or, as the book of Hebrews calls him, the great Shepherd of the sheep. He’s the ultimate shepherd leader of his people.
Sheep without a Shepherd
Now, we don’t know exactly when Zechariah wrote the second half of his book, but it was sometime between 20 and 40 years after the first half of the book. That would be between 480 and 500 BC. As a reminder, many people had returned from the exile by now. However, Jerusalem’s walls were still in ruins and a foreign nation still controlled the region. So, the people were still unsettled.
On the positive side, by this time, the temple had been rebuilt. It was a shadow of its former glory, but nonetheless the sacrificial system had resumed. And also, the land, which had been barren, was now producing crops again. That was important for the people. For 70 years, God had cursed the ground as part part of his punishment for their unfaithfulness.
That helps to explain verse 1. “Ask rain from the Lord in the season of spring rain.” Rain was very important for their agrarian culture. Without the spring rains, the seeds would not germinate. The crops would not grow. The harvest was at risk. And food would be minimal. God was saying to them, pray to me, for I am the one who makes the storm clouds. I water the vegetation of the field.
But when you look at verse 2, your first reaction may be “how does this relate to the rain and the shepherds?” It says, “for the household gods utter nonsense and the diviners see lies.”
Well, here’s what was happening, the people weren’t going to God. They weren’t praying to him for rain and help. Rather they were going to false gods. They were seeking out diviners, who were nothing but frauds. The people were believing in “false dreams” and were given “empty consolations” (middle of verse 2). And the reason they were doing this is because their leaders, their so-called shepherds, were not directing them to the Lord.
Now, our culture does not rely on rain nearly as much. Today, crops can be watered from wells and lakes. But we each have similar basic needs - health, shelter, food, relationships. We each desire to have stability in these needs, now and in the future.
The most basic component of your faith in Christ is trusting in the Lord. It’s going to him. Praying to God. Seeking him and his help. It’s verse 1 – asking rain from the Lord. Looking to God for your daily needs.
We so easily look to other things – ourselves, others, stuff, homes, money. They may not be superstitious things or false gods with names, but they are similar. We put our hopes and dreams in them, but their consolations are empty – they don’t provide true comfort.
You see, the elders of Israel – of Judah, had a responsibility to lead people to God. They were supposed to be directing the people to love the Lord, to seek him, to trust him, to pray to him, and worship him. Their shepherds were supposed to be opening God’s Word to them - all these things. But their spiritual shepherds didn’t do any of that. They didn’t give any direction. They failed. Really, it’s not that they fell asleep at the wheel. They were never awake in the first place. And God was angry. These shepherds had a responsibility to lead and teach faithfully. But they weren’t leading at all. And by not leading, the people wandered away from the Lord and his truth.
I don’t know much about being a real shepherd. You know, caring for real sheep. But, I came across this article on a farming website titled “Can Sheep Live without a Shepherd?” It sounded interesting. It had nothing to do with the Bible or faith. It was just about sheep. But it was interesting because it gave some really helpful information about sheep. For example
• Sheep don’t usually walk in a straight line. They often wander aimlessly, not paying attention to their surroundings. And it’s really easy for them to fall off a ledge or cliff.
• But also, sheep like to follow each other. If one falls off a cliff, other sheep will just follow suit.
• Sheep are also easily spooked. That causes them to run off in random directions and they easily get lost. That can cause a lot of problems, especially when they lose their water source. If a mother sheep has ewes with her, she may not be able to feed them.
• Sheep are defenseless. They’re slow. They don’t have many natural defense mechanisms. They’re vulnerable to attack from predators.
• Also, without a shepherd to groom them, their wool gets overgrown. It gets heavy and dirty and full of bugs and parasites. That makes it harder for them to move and they are at greater risk to disease.
To quote from that article. Can sheep live without a shepherd? “No. Sheep cannot live without the shepherd. They are entirely dependent on the shepherd for everything. They require constant care and watching over. So leaving them unattended… greatly endangers their lives.”
Without a faithful shepherd to lead and guide us, we are susceptible to all those things… on a spiritual level. We easily get lost. We follow paths in life that lead to our destruction. Without the water of life, we die from thirst. We’re vulnerable to enemies of the faith that want to devour us – like those false hopes and dreams and religion that we talked about earlier.
All those things were happening to the people. They had shepherds in name only who failed to shepherd. And the sheep wandered off and were lost. We’ll find out next week that it was actually worse than that. The shepherds were using and abusing their sheep.
The point here is that we each need faithful shepherds. Ultimately, we need THE shepherd – the Lord himself. And we need faithful shepherds that can guide us to him, to his Word, and care for our souls.
The True Shepherd
And that brings us to the second part of this chapter. It’s about the true Shepherd. The good Shepherd. The great Shepherd The Lord himself. You see, we’re not just left with what happens when there are no faithful shepherds, no Godly leaders… No, God revealed through Zechariah what the true shepherd would be like and accomplish.
It begins right there in the second part of verse 3. “for the Lord of hosts cares for his flock, the house of Judah.” He identifies them as his flock. If you will, the sheep of his pasture. He is The Shepherd who cares for them.
Notice that these verses are written in the first person. It’s God speaking through Zechariah. To be sure, all of Zechariah’s prophecies are from the Lord. But there are times when God speaks directly in the first person. “I” “I will” “I shall” “I am” 14 times! God is active. This is the contrast in the chapter. The passive failures of the shepherds in first 3 verses are contrasted with the active shepherding of the Lord himself.
It teaches us who God is as shepherd. It reveals how God shepherds us. And the result of his shepherding.
God is the great shepherd. He cares for and loves his sheep. Over and over in these verses, we see how God protects, and guides, and provides for his people. And it begins with the description in verses 4 and 5. It includes all these things that symbolize stability and faithfulness and protection. He is the “cornerstone,” the foundation. The “tent peg,” the anchor that holds things together. He’s the “battle bow,” who protects. This is who the good shepherd is. He is faithful and will fight against the wolves who want to steal his sheep. And notice the second half of verse 5, it’s not just the Lord, no it’s also the shepherds who serve under him. “They shall fight because the Lord is with them.” In other words, the Lord leads and protects his sheep through shepherds who lead and protect his sheep.
Think back over our study of Zechariah so far. We’ve seen several themes surface over and over. Like the “p” words – the Lord’s protection, his presence, his people, and his peace. Those elements are here as well. Ok, some of you are going to roll your eyes at this, but I was reading a commentary this week. The author brought up several “r” words. “R” words that apply to this chapter. Restoration, Return, Redemption, and Rejoicing. By the way, the purpose of alliterations is to help you… “r”emember.
And these are all things that the returned exiles longed for. Restoration of the city, Return of the people, Redemption from their rejection, and Rejoicing instead of despair. In a way these four things are a reversal of the exile. When the exile happened 100 years earlier, they lost their city and temple, they were scattered, they became separated from God, and they were hopeless. But this chapter promises an unwinding of all that.
And actually, verses 6 summarizes all those things. “I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the Lord their God and I will answer them.”
We have some friends who literally live on a boat. Actually, they used to live here in Tucker. They sold their house and bought a boat. They have 5 kids – they homeschool. I used to work with the dad – he does most of his work remotely. They travel all over the place. Well, several years ago we visited them. They were docked at marina and we got to see their boat. A big catamaran. But the kids were nowhere to be seen. They were scattered all over. So we asked about them. They said, oh, watch this. And then they rang a little bell. Within 1 minute, all the kids were there. They knew that sound. And they knew that when that bell ring, they needed to return asap.
In verse 8, the Lord said “I will whistle for them and gather them in.” You see, each shepherd has a unique whistle. And when he whistles, the sheep know that sound and they immediately return to their shepherd.
The Lord will gather his people from all over. Verse 10 refers to Egypt and Syria. Far off places for them. Yet God would gather his people from all over. And there would be so many people, that there wouldn’t be enough room in Judah! Where Jerusalem was. So the lands of Gilead to the east of Judah and Lebanon to the north of Judah would become part of Judah, in essence. The good shepherd would call and the people would return.
And part of their return is that they would be redeemed. That word is captured right there in verse 8. “I will whistle for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them.” God was saying, they will be mine, again. Redemption has a sense of being purchased and saved. The good shepherd bought them back. Verse 11 says God will bring them “through the sea of troubles” and he will “strike down the waves of the sea.” This is both a reminder of how God saved them from Egypt in the Exodus (God brought them through the Red sea), and it’s a promise that God will do it again! It will be like a second exodus. The good shepherd will save his people.
And verse 7 talks about rejoicing! It says their hearts would be glad. The children would be glad. And that would result in rejoicing. And not just rejoicing in a general way, no it says, “their hearts shall rejoice in the Lord.” The Lord was giving them a picture of the future, and part of the promise is gladness and rejoicing in the Lord. Really, it’s worship for what God is and will do. The true shepherd will lead his people in rejoicing.
And the chapter concludes with a great summary of it all, “I will make them strong in the Lord, and they shall walk in his name.” No more aimless wandering without real shepherds. No more household gods nor following diviners or false dreams. No, God would lead them as their all-sufficient shepherd.
By now, some of you probably have Psalm 23 in mind… you know, the Lord is my Shepherd. Or maybe several New Testament verses that point to Jesus as the good Shepherd, like John 10 which we read earlier.
And that’s good…. everything about this second half of chapter 10 is fulfilled in Jesus. He is our good Shepherd. Yes, the people in Jerusalem at the time had a near term restoration in mind, but one of the problem was there was no great earthly leader to fulfill these promises. And furthermore, their shepherds, as we read, failed to lead.
No, what they needed and what we needed was a great shepherd. We needed a restoration of our wandering ways which were leading us to destruction. We needed a shepherd to be present with us. We needed a shepherd who would not forsake his sheep, or forget about his sheep, but one who would love and care for them. And Jesus became that shepherd. He came to gather his sheep from all over, even leaving the 99 to find the one!
We needed a shepherd who would overcome all the threats and temptations and evil and protect his sheep. And Jesus became that shepherd, fighting for his sheep, protecting his sheep, and ultimate giving his life for his sheep that they may live. There’s no greater shepherd who can care for and guide and defend his sheep.
Jesus is the one who would fulfill those 4 “r” words of the chapter.
• Restoration – a restored spiritual city with God’s presence forever.
• Return – a gathering of his sheep from all over the world.
• Redemption – overcoming the eternal consequences of sin through his death… and the sealing of our redemption through his resurrection.
• And Rejoicing – praising him for all of this. Worshiping him as the perfect and great shepherd.
Jesus is the shepherd that we each need to follow. He’s the one we need to look to and listen to and know and be able to hear his voice. He is the anti-type of the failed shepherds who were asleep at the wheel. Who were letting their sheep wander and who were not leading them to God.
Let me put it this way, as we draw to a close. Jesus needs to be the shepherd of the shepherds. One way to know that your shepherds (your elders) are faithful shepherds is that their shepherd is the Lord. They should be pointing you to Jesus as they follow him. They should be calling you to trust in the Lord and to pray to the Lord, as they trust in and pray to the Lord. And faithful shepherds should seek to defend you from false gods and false Gospels. They will point you to God’s Word and faith in Jesus. They will care for you and love you and have compassion for you. Those are the marks of faithful shepherds.
Now, to be sure, every earthly shepherd (every elder) is inadequate. Yes, it’s partially the vestiges of sin, but it’s also the weakness of the human condition and that we are each finite. I know that there have been and will be times that I let you down. That’s a recurring burden that I carry. I’ve never asked our elders here whether they have similar feelings of inadequacy as elders, but I suspect so. That’s why the primary responsibility of the human shepherds of God’s flock is to point you to the great shepherd – the great shepherd of Zechariah 10, Jesus. The great shepherd that will never let you go, will never fail you, will always be there for you. Who will never fall asleep at the wheel.
May our shepherds point us to the great shepherd of the sheep, and may we follow their lead, and trust in Jesus.