This poem climaxes the message of Zechariah 12:2-13:6. The voice of God announces judgment and mercy; Yahweh speaks into the situation. The shepherd and people of Israel, Yahweh says, will experience judgment but a remnant will emerge from the refining fire.
Zechariah 9-14 has already used shepherd imagery. Israel’s shepherds (leaders) have led their people into idolatry (Zechariah 10:1-3) and merchandized their flock for their own self-interest (Zechariah 11:4-6). Israel rejected a good shepherd who resigned (Zechariah 11:7-16). Israel’s shepherd is “worthless” and the prophet pronounced a poetic woe against him: “May the sword strike his arm and his right eye!” (Zechariah 11:17).
Just as the second half of the first oracle ended with a woe against the “worthless shepherd,” so the first half of the second oracle ends with a poetic woe against “my shepherd.” God commands the “sword,” also invoked in the first poem (Zechariah 11:17), to (1) awake and (2) strike the shepherd. Clearly, this is a violent act (cf. 2 Samuel 23:18; Isaiah 123:17; Jeremiah 50:9). This appears as an act of judgment parallel to the judgment of the “worthless shepherd” earlier.
However, this shepherd is closely associated with Yahweh who calls him “my shepherd…who is close to me.” The language of “close” is only used elsewhere in Leviticus and designates a neighbor or fellow-Israelite (cf. Leviticus 6:2; 25:14, 15). Given the emphasis to the house of David in Zechariah 12 and the leadership issues present throughout Zechariah 9-14, this probably refers to Yahweh’s chosen servant from the house of David. Yahweh has a covenantal relationship with this shepherd and, therefore, is “close.”
Yet, this shepherd is struck with the sword and his flock is scattered. It seems most appropriate, in the context of Zechariah 9-14, to read this “striking” as judgment and thus this shepherd is identified with the “worthless” shepherd in Zechariah 11:17. The judgment includes the people as well since they are scattered and the “little ones” experience the “hand” of God (cf. Amos 1:8; Isaiah 1:25). The scattering, as sheep do without a leader, is an obvious metaphor for the exile (cf. Ezekiel 34:5, 6, 12, 21).
The result of this judgment is that two-thirds of Israel will be “cut off” (“cut down” or perish) and die. Just as God “cut off” the idols in Zechariah 13:2, so God will “cut off” the majority of Israel in judgment. But one-third will remain in the land, that is, they will live.
There will be a remnant. God will not utterly destroy Israel; she shall live and not die. God will refine and test the remnant (cf. Psalm 17:3; 66:10; Jeremiah 9:7). This process will purify Israel and through it they will again learn to “call” on the name of God. In other words, the covenant between Yahweh and Israel is renewed. God again claims Israel: “They are my people.” And Israel will again confess, “Yahweh is our God.” This is the grand covenantal theme of the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Jeremiah 24:7; 31:33; Ezekiel 37:23, 27; Hosea 2:23; Zechariah 8:8). It is a theme that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the eschatological reality of the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-5).
Contextually, the shepherd is judged, but early Christians read this text in the light of Jesus. Both Matthew (26:31-32) and Mark (14:27-28) place Zechariah 13:7b on the lips of Jesus who reads it through his own context. “Striking the shepherd” refers to the cross while the “scattering” refers to the response of the disciples to his suffering. The disciples will “fall away” because Jesus is arrested and goes to the cross. The synoptic writers, especially Matthew, envision a mini-exile as the disciples scattered but then gathered again in Galilee as the beginning of new community (a renewed Israel).
It appears that Jesus recognizes that the situation in Zechariah parallels his in some way. Both shepherds are killed and their flocks are scattered. But is there more than a mere parallel? Does Jesus function as this shepherd in some sense? That is, does Jesus suffer the judgment of Israel in his own person much like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53? Yahweh strikes his own shepherd but does so for the sake of Israel’s renewal and, ultimately, for the nations.
Jesus goes to the cross as a criminal. He is (unjustly) convicted of treason. He is crucified with insurrectionists. As Isaiah 53:12 announces which is quoted in Luke 22:37, he is “numbered among the transgressors.” He suffers with Israel and for Israel. He is the suffering servant who bears the judgment of Israel for the sake of redemption.
Yahweh strikes his own shepherd for the sake of the sheep.