Open your doors, O Lebanon, so that fire may devour your cedars! Wail, O pine tree, for the cedar has fallen; the stately trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan; the dense forest has been cut down! Listen to the wail of the shepherds: their rich pastures are destroyed! Listen to the roar of the lions; the lush thicket of the Jordan is ruined! . . .” (and so on to v.17). Zechariah 11:1-17
There are some occasions in which the only good and true response is weeping. I was preaching in a conference earlier this year and a friend came to virtually all my meetings and brought his wife to the last few. He told me that there were times in the sermons when he had shed tears. “I was glad,” he said, “to find that the gospel of Jesus Christ could still cause me to cry.” Yet if I told one ministerial friend that incident, that a man had wept when he heard me preach, he would quickly grin and turn it into a quip, “You were preaching so badly were you?” Ha ha. I know this because I told him of the occasion when almost 49 years ago I heard that this church had called me to be its minister I broke down in tears. He turned that into a quip too; “ . . .the thought of living in Aber. for the rest of your life.” Ha ha. Some men are afraid of strong emotions, and yet the personal nature of the Christian faith, the themes of a God who loves us enough to become our Father, and sends his Son to lay down his life to save us from hell, and this same Jesus loves us and ever lives to pray for us, who is going to take us to be with him and like him in heaven for ever – has this never created strong affections in your heart?
Or think of the lost nature of men and women. When William Chalmers Burns, the great missionary to China, saw the vast crowds of people in Glasgow, walking up and down its street, he had to turn aside into a close to weep. Burns was a very tough man. He had to be strong to endure all he did as a pioneer missionary in 19th century China, yet he was touched by the feeling of the lostness and the future destruction of men and women. The title of Eric Russell’s biography of J.C.Ryle, That Man of Granite With a Heart of a Child, is taken from a phrase spoken about him by one of his successors. God make us like that, as wise as serpents, as harmless as doves, as tender as the Jesus who wept, the one who said, “Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.”
1. FUTURE JUDGMENT REQUIRES PRESENT GRIEF. (vv.1-3)
This chapter, Zechariah 11, begins with wailing and ends with woe. The people are facing a future judgment. It will be unavoidable and terrible û utterly horrific but absolutely fair. It will be inescapable. It is the divine response to man’s inhumanity and cruelty and godlessness, so consider what the true human response to it should be. If we wail at the Dresden bombing, and the killing fields of Cambodia, and the racial genocide of Rwanda, and the ovens of Belsen, and the civil war of Syria, and all such times of the ghastly wickedness of man then what should be our response to the judgment that brings hell down on the heads of so many rebels? Our grief must be commensurate with the coming judgment
This is the opening theme of this chapter. You see it continues to be written in poetry, the opening first three verses, the preface to the chapter which then turns back to prose. What should be the response of the whole country of Lebanon to this encounter with the divine wrath? The flood gates of the grief of the whole nation should be open. “Open your doors O Lebanon” – and the pain of every citizen and inhabitant should pour out, their tears flowing like a river, like that great Thames barrage being lowered and the waters flow in and drown the city.
But the judgment coming upon Lebanon is like a mighty wave overflowing from the lake of fire. Can Lebanon’s cedars defend her? Can Bashan’s mighty oaks defend Bashan? Are the lush pastures going to protect the shepherd kings from disaster? Will the thickets of the Jordan protect the lions? God’s waves of judgment will wash over Lebanon’s cedars and destroy them (v.1), and the pine trees will burst into tears as they see their mightier kith and kin ruined. The huge oak trees of Bashan will not be spared; they will all be cut down, and the shepherds will see the wild fires racing across the prairies helpless to halt them, and all the grassland will be destroyed. Not even the mighty lions will find a place to hide as their lairs in Jordan’s thickets are ruined.
Every person in the world has family and friends who love them, and the thought of their destruction is enough to break their hearts. Think of the response of Paul as he considers what lies before his own brothers. The words I am referring to begin the ninth chapter of Romans, a chapter which opens up the theme of the sovereignty of God over all men and women to evaluate and discriminate and judge. There is none other chapter like it on the fearful Almightiness of God in all of Scripture, and yet this is how it begins û just as the chapter before us begins, “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” Of course that is not the only response to the judgment of God. We bow in holy reverence before God as the Lord Jesus did and we say, “Even so O Father for so it seemed good in your sight.” We bow before the will of God. He has every right to deal with me as I deserve. He has no right to be unfair, but we know that God is just in all his ways. They are all righteousness and truth. This God does not desire that any should perish. This God has loved this sick world of cruel rebels, and he has provided his Son and his Spirit and his gospel and his people to be its light. He stretches out his hands to our defiant and disobedient generation and says, “Turn! Turn to me! Why will you die?” But they turn away from him and continue walking down the broad road. Its end is their destruction. When all our preaching is exhausted and everything we say is silenced then all we can do is weep. You know the story of a Salvation Army evangelist who was at his wit’s end when all his attempts to reach men and women with the gospel seemed totally ineffective, and he went to the founder of the Salvation Army, General Booth, and told him of his impotence and frustration. What could he do? Booth said to him two words, “Try tears.”
2. THE FAILURE OF THOSE WHO LEAD. (vv. 4-6)
One of the causes of man’s depravity is the failure of human leadership. What happened in Germany can in part be attributed to the wickedness of Hitler and his policies, and so too in Russia with Stalin, and China with Mao, Rwanda with Hutu leadership, and the various Muslim factions whose leaders justify all the barbarism and murder that characterises the daily reports of their bloodshed and assassinations. How many people have been led astray by evil men? You know the great warning of Proverb chapter one of coming under bad influence: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. If they say, ‘Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; we will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder; throw in your lot with us, and we will share a common purse.’ My son, do not go along with them, do not set foot on their paths; for their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood” (Provs. 1:10-16). All over the world today evil leaders have exhorted men to do evil actions.
We can turn the thought this way, of the failure in the professing church of preachers, pastors, theologians and evangelists, to stick to Christian truth as revealed in the Bible. Imagine if every preacher in Wales today were to tell their congregations the truth of their state and the complete sufficiency of Christ, that we all deserved eternal death because of our sin, but God in his mercy had loved us and proved an atonement in the Lord Jesus, that all who believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life. What think ye of Christ? Do you have Christ? That is the message, and then what an impact on the nation it would be! But what do we have? We have universalism. We have religious words bled of their meaning. We have modernism; we have the papacy; we have the cults. Think of John Newton’s great hymn, no. 89 in the Olney Hymns…
What think you of Christ? is the test
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of him.
As Jesus appears in your view,
As he is beloved or not;
So God is disposed to you,
And mercy or wrath are your lot.
Then if you ask what John Newton himself thinks of Christ, then he is happy to tell us in the final fifth verse of that hymn…
If asked, what of Jesus I think,
Though still my best thoughts are but poor,
I say, he’s my meat and my drink,
My life, and my strength, and my store;
My Shepherd, my Husband, my Friend,
My Saviour from sin and from thrall;
My hope from beginning to end,
My portion, my Lord and my All.
Now many men shepherding Israel before and during the ministry of Zechariah were cruel shepherds û like the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, demanding the people to carry burdens and submit to their dictates, and tell them that that was the way to get to heaven, by doing what they were told by Pharisees. Remember Jesus’ outrage and condemnation of those wicked shepherds!
What is our calling today? To be true pastor preachers. Though men reject us we still preach the word of God. We’d pastor them, though they rejected us, teaching them and exhorting them with all patience and wisdom. We would take them to heaven with us through Jesus Christ, and so here in Zechariah the Lord speaks to his people and their leaders: “Pasture the flock marked for slaughter” (v.4). They don’t want your words and your prayers and concerns. They choose death, but you pasture them. Lead them to green pastures and still waters. They don’t want that green, green grass. They want other food that is sweeter to their taste because they are marked for slaughter, vessels of wrath before prepared for destruction. They love to sing and shout out “Praise the Lord” because since they believed the health and wealth heresy they’ve got a lot more money in the bank. It seems to work for some, especially for the preachers! “Praise the Lord, I am rich” (v.5). But in Jesus’ story the rich man died and went to hell. Salvation comes in what you think of Jesus not what you think of money.
The God who was patient in the days of Noah, who let his servant preach righteousness to a defiant and disobedient people for 120 years before finally opening the waters of the deep and drowning the world, it is this same Lord who is speaking in Zechariah 11 to the people of his day – and ours too! He says, “For I will no longer have pity on the people of the land, declares the LORD. I will hand everyone over to his neighbour and his king. They will oppress the land, and I will not rescue them from their hands” (v.6). A second captivity, but now with no hope of deliverance. The angels that rebelled and did not keep their first estate are cast into darkness and kept in chains until the judgment of the great day. So it will be for all the world who live and die rejecting God.
3. THE AUTHORITY OF THE LORD WHO LEADS. (vv.7-14)
In the fulness of time comes the Good Shepherd, the one who does not flee when the lion and the bear attack the flock. He comes to his own kinfolk of Israel, even though his own did not receive him and finally cried, “Crucify . . . away with him . . . release unto us Barabbas.” Yet he came to them and wept over them, and urged them to come to him for rest, and made them such offers of pardon and rest if they would trust in him. “Come unto me,” he cried to the flock marked for slaughter. “Why will you die?” he asked them.
What help he had with him, two staffs! A staff was used to drive away wild beasts, and Jesus the Messiah was abundantly equipped for this work. See him driving away the Pharisees and also the Sadducees who were lording it over God’s flock. One staff was called Favour û what omnipotent grace had called and kept this flock, even before the foundation of the world. The other staff was called Union and symbolised that this flock was joined together because it was joined to the heart of the Lord with bonds that none could break. And the Lord pastured them, early on upon a mount he preached a mighty sermon to them. In homes and from a boat and by a well and in a synagogue and in the homes of tax collectors, and in the court of the Temple Jesus the good Shepherd pastored the flock of God.
Then he speaks in the historic present and he tells us that in one month he got rid of the three shepherds. We are given no identification of these wicked powers, but we know that from the beginning of his ministry, from his first month of shepherding, he is instantly overcoming disease, demons and death, and yet he meets hostility from the false shepherds and their followers. He was despised and rejected of men though he pastored them as no other leader ever had. Then that time for ministering ended. Three brief years of public shepherding ended and an increasingly weary Jesus set his face steadfastly to Jerusalem so that the climactic aspect of his ministry might come to an end when the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep. He was not weary of the work that God had given him to do, but he was weary in the work. Though he was in his early thirties he seems to have looked as if he were fifty. He had no words of comfort for the false shepherds nor for those who had swallowed their teaching. They had hated him and plotted his death, and so he said to them, “I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh” (v.9). There will be no shepherds in hell. If Christ is rejected then life is rejected too. All that happens is that the dying die and the perishing perish, and those who refuse to imbibe by faith the whole of the real God-man, the body and blood of Christ û they have a mere existence henceforth, without Christ, and only have one another to feed upon. They swallow Marx and Dawkins and the atheists.
So the Mosaic covenant with the land and the nation of Israel and the adjoining nations that profited so much from being close to the people of God û that all came to an end, and its termination came with great symbolism as the Messiah broke across his knee the staff called Favour. There would be no longer a holy building and a holy city and holy clothes and a holy nation with holy offices. They would all be gone, the offices of priests and kings and levites and judges and prophets and scribes and elders were all revoked; the tribes were all terminated in the great day of the Messiah. He had accomplished redemption for his people, and the little ones in the flock, the poor in spirit and those who mourned, God’s afflicted ones, watching all that Christ did, knew that the end had come, for they knew the word of the Lord. But his enemies dismissed his ministry to the nation. “It must end now,” they said and they gave him, as it were, a severance package, thirty pieces of silver. That’s what it cost them to get rid of the Shepherd from Nazareth. But they did not even give it to him directly. Though they owed him for everything, even the very breath they had to breathe, they would give him nothing at all. They would not enrich him, rather they gave it to his worst enemy, a friend to whom he had shown the greatest love who turned on him and betrayed him to death. They thought it best to crucify him û that is how they repaid him for all his loving kindness to them, speaking as no man spoke, and removing disease from Galilee, and exorcising all those possessed with demons. “Let the potter profit from such a handsome price,” said his Father and so the potter was given it (v.13), not the crooked priests, or the king. Then, all that work done, the second staff was broken (v.14), the staff that spoke of the Union of Israel and Judah with one another and with Jehovah. This God turned away from Jerusalem and Judea and Israel and went into the world with the gospel.
4. THE TERRIBLE END OF THE PEOPLE WHO KILLED THEIR MESSIAH. (v.15-17).
What happened to these people who killed their Shepherd Messiah by crucifying him? These last verses, 15 through 17, describe the foolish shepherds that took over the land after Pentecost. When God revoked the covenant that he had made with this land and this city something fearful happened. The event actually stopped Jesus in his tracks as he was carrying his cross on his way to Calvary so that he turned on the wailing women with solemn words of warning. Didn’t he say to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills ‘Cover us!’ For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Lk. 23:28-31). Jesus commanded the leading women of Jerusalem to break their hearts because of what was going to happen to them and their children. What a fearful time was coming when a woman said to another, “You’re the lucky one. You don’t have children. Do you know what they do to children, especially to girls? You are blessed by being barren. What is going to happen to me and my daughters? I would rather a mountain fell on us and covered us than we had to face the weeks ahead.”
So what happened after the death and resurrection of our Lord? Israel came under the influence of different Zealot leaders who took it in turn to provoke Rome and challenge its authority. They were shepherds who did not care for the lost, or seek the young, or heal the injured, or feed the healthy (v.16). They absolutised evil as being Gentile Rome, and taught that if only imperialism could be crushed that this would achieve Utopia. They had no wisdom. They would assassinate the Roman legionnaires, and launch night raids on Roman garrisons resulting in fearful retaliations by the Roman authorities. Finally the Jewish Zealots gathered an army that challenged the Empire. What fools! Worthless shepherds! Destroyers of their own country! Because Rome sent in legions of battle-worn veterans under the future Emperor Titus, and they overwhelmed the Jews everywhere until the remnant of Israel was left in two places, in Masada near the Dead Sea and in Jerusalem. Rome was patient. The Jeews in Masada finally all took their own lives in a mass suicide. The siege of Jerusalem was worse. It lasted four years. The Zealots fought among themselves. There was terrible devastation when the walls were breached and the Temple set on fire. Josephus claims that one million, one hundred thousand people were killed during the siege, mostly Jews. No mercy was shown to women or children, and 97,000 were taken prisoner and sold as slaves. They had killed the Good Shepherd, and the shepherds who led them took them to this destruction.
5. THE USES GAINED AS WE SURVEY THIS SOLEMN CHAPTER.
i] The first three verses remind us that no power in this world can protect us when God rises in judgment. The cedars of Lebanon are like twigs before the Ancient of Days when he comes in judgment. The only safe place to be in all the universe is hidden in the wounded side of Christ, joined to him by faith.
ii] The next two verses, 4 and 5, are warning us of the folly of resting in the comforts of money. Men may cry, “Praise the Lord, I am rich” but the men who have shepherded them will be the very ones who will fleece them. Remember Jesus’ words – “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). Treasure Christ, the pearl of great price.
iii] Verse 6 tells us that the time comes when our personal iniquity is filled to the brim and our national wickedness becomes intolerable to God Almighty and he hands us over to receive the wages of sin. “I will no longer have pity on the people of the land” (v.6). How fearful such words, spoken by so merciful a God. The western world is experiencing such a process now with no promise of rescue.
iv] Verse 7 tells us that there is one who is full of love and mercy, the Good Shepherd, who will even lay down his life for sheep! Isn’t this the most well known and beloved of hymns?
The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want; he makes me down to lie
In pastures green, he leadeth me the quiet waters by.
v] Verse 11 declares that times of trial and testing come into our lives and God’s people can know that this is not happening by chance or bad luck or through meaningless fate but God has spoken and it is done. “The afflicted of the flock . . . knew it was the word of the Lord.” It is the Lord! Then let my tongue keep silent. It is the Lord! Then let me, though as afflicted as Job, trust in my Saviour.
vi] Verses 12 and 13 remind us that specific prophecies concerning the death of Jesus Christ abound in the Old Testament, though this one was written over 500 years before Golgotha, even the details recorded here of how much Judas was paid for betraying our Saviour. Then let us trust the infallible word of God and obey it.
vii] Verse 15 through 17 warn us that if we will not have Jesus Christ to rule over us then there will be someone or something who is going to do so. Who will that be? Whom are you calling ‘Lord’? You reject my Saviour? Will you find anyone better? As you go home challenge yourself as to whether you are saying, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice?” Choose ye this day whom you will serve! But please say, for your eternal soul’s sake, “But as for me I will serve the Lord.”
23rd March 2014 GEOFF THOMAS