Israel’s Shepherds part 2: Human Trafficking (Zechariah 11:1-6,15-17)

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Zechariah 11:1-6, 15-17

Rev. Erik Veerman


Israel’s Shepherds part 2: Human Trafficking

Last week we focused on Zechariah chapter 10. It revealed two things… first, the passive failures of the shepherd leaders in Judah, and the result. And it revealed, second, the overwhelming active leadership of the Lord… all the ways that he cares for and protects his sheep.

Zechariah 11 returns to the failures of the shepherds. But it’s focus has shifted to their active failures… the ways in which they have harmed their sheep. It also includes the Lord’s judgment on them.

Instead of the whole chapter, we’ll take the beginning through verse 6 and end… the last 3 verses. Next week we’ll cover the middle. Zechariah 11 can be found on page 949. Zechariah 11, verses 1-6 and 15-17.

As we come to God Word, please stand, as you are able, in reverence. This is God’s holy inspired Word.

Reading of Zechariah 11:1-6, 15-17


Like many of you, my heart has been heavy. Last month’s report of widespread sexual abuse in another denomination has made me sad and angry at the same time. Saddened by the hurt and pain that so many people have experienced – lifelong pain. Angered by the so-called pastors who have inflicted this suffering, who were doing the very opposite of what they were called to do.

Part of me is also fearful. There is no denomination or church whose leaders are exempt from temptations to fail their sheep. The last couple of decades have revealed scandal after scandal. Worldwide church bodies overcome by report s of abuse by their spiritual leaders. And it hasn’t just been pastors, it’s included leaders of Christian movements, cross-denominational networks, and other ministries. They used their power to spiritually, verbally, and physically oppress people made in God’s image.

The heaviest damages have been done to the victims. But these scandals have also inflicted a serious toll on the church. A place that is supposed to be seen as a harbor and refuge is now often seen as a place to be wary.

How can this happen? How can a man called to pastor sheep entrusted into his care, turn on them? As I’ve reflected on the reasons, a few have come to mind.

The first and most obvious reason is sin. That’s the root cause. More specifically it’s the internal heart sin of pride and coveting and lust which led to external sinful and hurtful actions. As the apostle James puts it, it begins with temptations that lead to desires, which give birth to sin.

Second, there has been a failure of accountability. Because of the first reason, sin, there needs to be thoughtful and consistent accountability for any church leader. That includes policies to protect and recurring questions to ask and confirm. But when pride controls a man’s heart, he will either run from accountability or fight against it.

Third is a failure stemming from our culture. We exalt people. We look for and latch on to big personalities. In the church, we focus on a man’s gifting and forget his character. I heard someone say that recently and it’s true. In other words, if he is persuasive and winsome and gregarious, we think that must mean he is qualified and called to lead, but we overlook his character. And so, we prop him up; we focus on him and not on the Lord. And sadly, that fosters pride and unchecked power. It starts a downward cycle. It leads to the failure of that shepherd and worse… to abuse of the sheep.

Of course, none of this is new. The sinful heart motivations for control and power are not new. And the failure of God’s shepherds is not new. No, it’s all through Scripture and in the history of the church… the failure of judges and kings and priests… the failure of ministers and elders. I’m not saying that it’s the prevailing narrative. No, but it’s common enough that we all need to pay attention. We need to seek shepherds in the church that conform to God’s pattern, and we need to reject shepherds who do not.

The reason that we’re taking the first and last sections of chapter 11 together is that both focus on what unfaithful shepherds look like and God’s judgment against them.

Instead of working through these verses in sequential order, we’ll begin with the active failures of the shepherds and then God’s judgment against them.

I haven’t said this yet, but the book of Zechariah has gone from a very positive tone to now including some negative tones. If you remember, the beginning of the book was positive. In chapter 1, the people were called to repent! And we’re told their leaders did. Zechariah’s night visions were also positive. They pointed to God’s faithfulness, and they pointed to a faithful response by Joshua the High Priest and Zerubbabel the governor.

But these last chapters have included some warnings. It hasn’t all been negative. No, chapter 9 was about the coming king and how God would save his people, but now there’s a clear call out to the failed leaders. As a reminder, this second half was written by Zechariah several years after the first half of the book. More people have returned from Babylon. And included in the newly returned exiles were likely priests and other leaders. So, what we may be witnessing in these 2 chapters is an influx of bad leaders into Judah. After all, they were the ones who didn’t return earlier. But it could also be that some of the existing shepherds were failing in their roles… just like the shepherds from their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.

Before we look at the description of these bad shepherds and God’s judgment, let me try to orient you to the chapter as a whole. If you look at the first 3 verses, they are written as poetry. You see that? That connects them to chapter 10… last week’s focus. The passive failure of Israel’s shepherds and the active shepherding of the Lord, who is the true Shepherd. These first 3 verses of chapter 11 return to the theme of the failed shepherds, but this time focusing on God’s judgment. If you look at the end of chapter 11, you’ll see more poetry. And it’s a continuation of God’s judgment on the shepherds. So, chapter 11 begins and ends with God’s judgment on Judah’s failed shepherds.

And notice that the middle section of chapter 11. It’s all narrative. In it, God asked Zechariah to act out a drama for the people. It’s a live illustration of the failed shepherds and the result. Next week, we’re going to dive into the role play. This morning, I included some of the middle section because it describes the evil of the unfaithful shepherds. It helps us to understand why God was so angry.

Hopefully that gives you a helpful overview.

1. The Active Failure of Judah’s Shepherds (Zechariah 11:5, 15-16)

Ok, let’s consider the active failure of Judah’s shepherds. What were they doing and why? …As we get into it, it’s pretty bad.

Look at how verses 5 describe the shepherds. “Those who buy them slaughter them and go unpunished.” These shepherds were figuratively buying sheep to slaughter them… to kill them. They didn’t care about the sheep. No, they cared about themselves. The failed shepherds were in the business of human trafficking. Metaphorically, I mean. They were buying and selling sheep, using and abusing them all for their own gain. To build up their power and money. In that way, they were slowly killing the sheep.

If you jump down to verse 16, we get even more details about what these shepherds were doing and not doing. By the way, this is the end of the role play section. God had asked Zechariah to role play one of the failed shepherds. This shepherd, it says, “…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.”

It's a horrible description. This example shepherd was not loving his sheep. He was not caring for them, or seeking to heal them, or nourishing his sheep, but instead, it says devouring their flesh – tearing off their hoofs. It’s awful. But what makes it worse is their hypocrisy. Back up to verse 6. It says, “those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the Lord, I have become rich,’ and their own shepherds have no pity on them” In their depraved minds, they had the audacity to thank God for the results of their detestable actions.

One commentator I read put it this way: “The leadership in Israel had become predatory and self-serving, exploiting others for their own benefit. They were like self-absorbed shepherds who callously raised and slaughtered their sheep for monetary gain and then praised the Lord for his generosity!” It’s so egregious and damnable.

At our denomination’s annual assembly this year, just over two weeks ago, we received a new study report. Its focus is on domestic abuse and sexual assault. It’s not an analysis of whether abuse is happing in our churches. Rather its guidance to the church on how to care for and minister to those who have experienced abuse. For pastors and elders, how to faithfully shepherd and protect those who are actively experiencing abuse. And how to confront and respond to the abusers. It’s very helpful. In the report, there’s an entire section titled “the misuse of spiritual authority.” It covers how to recognize spiritual abuse in the church and respond.

To quote the report: “Spiritual abuse is an attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs.... Spiritual abuse aims to solidify the power, prestige, and gratification of the abuser.”

And the report gets specific. It lists ways that spiritual abuse may be manifested:

• Emotional or psychological manipulation based on Scripture,

• Physical and sexual assault,

• Financial exploitation,

• Haughty, manipulative, demeaning, humiliating, accusatory, belittling, or shaming speech and/or behavior,

• Intimidation, coercion, and demand for conformity to non-biblical standards.

When a pastor or elder in the church uses his position of authority to do any of these things, he’s failing his sheep and worse, spiritually, emotionally, or physically killing them.

It’s detestable and God hates it.

2. God’s Judgment on them (Zechariah 11:1-3, 17)

That’s why God was so furious at Israel’s shepherds. They were using and abusing God’s sheep for their own appetites and selfish glory. Their slaughter of God’s sheep deserves his full wrath. It defames his name. That’s why God’s judgment at the beginning and end of the chapter is so intense.

If you look at the first three verses, it may not make sense at first. It speaks of cedars, and cypress, and oaks. Those are all types of trees. Lebanon is mentioned in verse 1. Lebanon was known for its cypress and cedar trees. Bashan is mentioned in verse 2. Bashan was known for its oak trees.

As a comparison, think of the giant redwoods of the pacific northwest. Tall, and large, each with its own glory, and towering over the forest. But look what happens to the majestic trees in verses 1 and 2. They were consumed by fire, they fell, and they were felled, meaning cut down. They were all burned or fallen.

This is God’s judgment on the unfaithful shepherds. Verse 3 tells us that. “The sound of the wail of the shepherds, for their glory is ruined.”

The second half of 3 is similar. This time it’s the lush vegetation and trees near the Jordan river. That’s what the “thicket” refers to. It has all come to ruin and destruction.

God will harshly judge these corrupt shepherds. And if you didn’t get it the first time, God gets quite explicit down in verse 17. “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!”

That word “woe” in the Hebrew is a grave warning. It implies impending doom and condemnation. Woe to them, the worthless shepherds.

One of the things we’ve seen over and over in Zechariah is how it points to Jesus and salvation. In fact, the second half of Zechariah parallels the week leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross. In chapter 9, we read and considered the prophecy of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. We call that the triumphal entry. Next week, we’ll consider the prophecy of Judas betrayal with 30 pieces of silver. The week after, chapter 12, how Jesus would be pierced.

Well, the parallel of the failed shepherds in these chapters is fulfilled in the failure of the Pharisees and scribes. They were the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. And they were doing the very thing that Zechariah prophesied against and warned. We read part of Matthew chapter 23 earlier in the service. And actually, turn there. It’s page 984 in the church Bible.

We didn’t read the whole chapter because of the length. But notice it uses that same warning, “woe.” 7 times! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” And Jesus language is so condemning. He called them blind fools, serpents, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs. He said that their proselytes are twice as much a child of hell as they are. Over and over he spelled out the ways in which they degraded the people for their own self-indulgence, and all the ways that they killed God’s righteous ones and his prophets.

Let’s take a brief tangent. Jump down to Matthew 23 verse 35. It talks about the blood that they shed. It goes all the way back to Abel in Genesis 4. But then look who it includes. Again, verse 35. “…the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” That reference to Zechariah son of Barachiah is a reference to our Zechariah. The one who wrote the book of Zechariah.

Now, it’s possible that this is a transcription error. Some of your Bibles note that. It may say in the margin that not all manuscripts include “son of Barachiah.” We don’t have the original manuscript to confirm whether it’s there or not. The reason this may be a transcription error is that in 2 Chronicles 24, a different Zechariah was killed in the temple. That Zechariah was a priest, son of Jehoida. So, a scribe may have incorrectly added “son of Berechiah” to a later manuscript. To be sure, it’s possible that our Zechariah was also killed in the temple, just like the earlier Zechairah. I think that is very feasible. The reason I wanted to mention it is because it’s a question that comes up in the study of Zechariah.

Ok, back to Matthew 23 as a whole. The parallel is clear. Israel’s shepherds failed in the past. In Zechariah 11, God pronounced a “woe” upon them. And in Matthew 23, Jesus reveals their continued failures and pronounced his “woes” upon them.

What is really clear in both is how God hates religious hypocrisy. It’s in the top tier of things that God hates. God’s warning for leaders in the church is clear. It’s all throughout Scripture. Look back at our confession of faith this morning. The catechism question is, “what are the sins of superiors?” In other words, what are the sins of leaders? The list is long and the supporting scripture references are even longer. God desires all who lead to lead with faithfulness to the call, and to forgo all the temptations of sin.

That’s a warning for us. Certainly, it’s a warning for all pastors and elders in the church. But we can also extrapolate that out beyond just the shepherds. We can include teachers and leaders in the church. In the book of James, God warns all teachers in the church. It says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” That judgment will be based on whether teachers are faithful to teach and care for the souls of those whom they are teaching. The judgment for leaders in the church will be on how they care for and protect their sheep.

But this is also a broad warning for the church. It is the church who raises up shepherds to lead and guide. So, when her shepherds fail, the church is partly to blame. Notice back in Zechariah 11, verse 6, it wasn’t just the failed shepherds who were judged. No, it says, “For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, declares the Lord.” In other words, the failure of the leaders were in part due to the failure of the people. That means we are broadly responsible to raise up qualified shepherds. And one qualification is having hearts tuned in the spiritual needs of the body… and whose character matches his gifts. That means it’s not just the outward ability to lead and teach that qualifies someone to shepherd, but it’s also the inward heart to care and serve and love and protect.

We need to raise up shepherds who love the Lord, who are committed to Christ, and who are motivated by the Gospel. And to be clear, the Gospel is believing in God’s work of salvation which has been accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To say it in a different way, the very center of a shepherd should not be himself. No, the very center of a shepherd should be the hope that he has in Jesus, his desire to give God the glory, and serve his people.

Last week, we considered Jesus. We considered how he fulfilled the chapter 10 picture of the good shepherd. How he followed through on all those things to protect, and guide, and care for his sheep. And how he ultimately gave his life for his sheep. I don’t want to be redundant but that certainly applies to this chapter as well. What a striking contrast. Foolish shepherds who were killing their sheep contrasted with the good shepherd, our Lord, who laid down his life for his sheep, so that his sheep may live.

Let me connect that directly to our text. Even though Jesus was a perfectly faithful shepherd who cared for his sheep, he’s the one who underwent the judgment that the faithless shepherds deserved. Furthermore, he himself was the lamb who was slaughtered, in the place of the sheep who were being slaughtered. The worthless shepherds were feeding on their sheep… but Jesus fed his sheep. He gave his life so that they may feed upon him and live.


As we come to a conclusion, I want to go back to our denomination’s study report. It uses a phrase over and over in the ministry to those suffering. It’s the phrase “Redemptive Shepherding.” The report is clear in how it defines that phrase. It is to “bring redemption and light to circumstances, and to display the gospel to those who hurt.” To be sure, the report gives helpful and practical steps to minister to needs and to protect the abused, but it also emphasizes the ministry of the Gospel in the work of shepherding. Even though the report focuses on abuse and assault, the idea of redemptive shepherding is a broader shepherding tasks for all in the church…

• It includes shepherding people into the family of God… into the church, which gives people true belonging and identity because we are unified by the Gospel.

• It means shepherding with the Gospel promise that we are without condemnation. There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

• Redemptive shepherding includes the hope of Gospel. The Gospel is more than just our reconciliation to God, it’s also lasting hope. It’s future grace in eternity with God. The hope and peace that sustains us in life.

• And redemptive shepherding points to our status before God because of Jesus. Our shame and the weight of sin have been replaced with honor and forgiveness. A good shepherd will lift up his sheep in this truth.

A shepherd who focuses in on these Gospel promises, while caring for and protecting his sheep, is a shepherd who is faithfully fulfilling God’s call. In fact, he’s doing the opposite of what the unfaithful shepherds were doing. These redemptive promises lead to life and not death. They give us a sure foundation so that the sheep are not scattered. And they point to God and the Gospel, and are not self-serving.

So for our church, and really, the broader community in Christ, may we seek out faithful shepherds who serve and love the flock in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, and may we reject unfaithful shepherds whom God rejects.

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