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Idolatry Cut Off; Shepherd Stricken and Sheep Scattered (Zechariah 13) August 21-25

The prophecy of chapter 13 continues right on from that of the previous chapter. The phrase "in that day" at the beginning of verse 1 shows that what is described here will accompany the events of chapter 12—that is, the return of Jesus Christ to defeat the enemies of Judah, the Jewish people's recognition of Him as their Messiah and their heartfelt repentance over their sins. Verse 10 of chapter 12 explained that the "house of David and...the inhabitants of Jerusalem" would receive the "Spirit of grace and supplication." They would beseech God in prayer for mercy and forgiveness.

Now, in verse 1 of chapter 13, we see what God will do in response. He again mentions the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying that a fountain will be opened for them "for sin and for uncleanness." The fountain imagery shows that this provision for cleansing away sin will be abundant and overflowing. Some see the fountain as representative of the shed blood of the Messiah. Revelation 1:5 says that Jesus "washed us from our sins in His own blood." This atoning agent through which sin and uncleanness is forgiven will be opened to the entire nation of Israel at the time of Christ's second coming. Yet the fountain could also signify the Word of God, as Jesus "gave Himself...that He might sanctify and cleanse [His people]...with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:26). Only after Christ's return will Scripture truly be opened to the understanding of the Israelite nation as a whole—teaching them the way out of sin and uncleanness. Then again, the fountain could symbolize the Lord Himself as "the fountain of living waters" (Jeremiah 2:13; 17:13; see also Psalm 36:8-9). The living waters in this figure depict the Holy Spirit, which will be given to Israel and then all nations to empower them to depart from the way of sin and uncleanness. Indeed, not only will the guilt of iniquity be expunged, but iniquity itself will be removed from the land—though not all at once of course and not entirely until all mankind is later glorified.

Zechariah 13:2 states that God will cut off the names of the idols from the land so that they will no longer be remembered. This shows idolatry coming to an end. As noted in the Bible Reading Program comments on Zechariah 10:2, idol worship was not a problem in Zechariah's day. Yet God showed the prophet that it would yet be a problem among God's people. This verse might also mean that the names of false gods will be removed from the language of the people. For instance, the fifth day of the week will no longer be called by the English name Thursday after the god Thor. A bowl of cereal will not be referred to as such, as the word comes from the Roman goddess Ceres. Even in Hebrew, the fourth month is named after the false Babylonian god Tammuz. This will apparently no longer be the case when God gives His people a "pure language" (Zephaniah 3:9).

God also says that He will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to depart from the land (Zechariah 13:2). Prophets here evidently refers to false prophets, as God will still inspire human beings to proclaim His truth and even to have visions—indeed more at this time than in all history (see Joel 2:28). The term "unclean spirit," used a number of times in the New Testament, occurs only here in the Old. This refers obviously to demons—the fallen angels behind much of false religion (see 1 Corinthians 10:20). They and their leader Satan will be imprisoned at Christ's return (see Revelation 20:1-3).

Any human beings who then lie in claiming to speak for God will face the death penalty (Zechariah 13:3). "In that future day, if anyone dares to utter false prophecies ('lies,' v. 3), his own parents—in obedience to Deuteronomy 13:6-9—will take the lead in executing him [though apparently not by stoning as in ancient Israel]. The Hebrew for 'stab' [in the NIV and 'thrust...through' in the NKJV] is the same verb as 'pierced' in [Zechariah] 12:10, thus indicating that the feelings and actions shown in piercing the Messiah will be directed toward the false prophets" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on 13:2-3).

Those who were false prophets before—including the false preachers of nominal Christianity—will cast off their religious-looking garb. Out of fear of humiliation and punishment, they will seek to hide their past occupation by claiming to be average, everyday workmen from their youth (verses 4-5).

Verse 6 is understood by most commentators to refer to the former false prophets lying about how they received ritual, self-inflicted wounds, such as those the prophets of Baal inflicted on themselves in the contest with Elijah (see 1 Kings 18:28). While possible, there is no mention of any self-inflicted wounds prior to this point in Zechariah 13—and it seems a stretch to bring them into the account. In fact, it is just an assumption that the wounds of verse 6 are self-inflicted. It is also only an assumption that the description of where the wounds were received is a lie. Furthermore, given the end-time context of this prophecy, we should consider that false ministers do not typically cut themselves in religious ritual today.

A better explanation of this verse seems to be the minority opinion that this is a messianic reference—that the mention of wounds ties back 10 verses to the earlier appearance of the Pierced One in Zechariah 12:10 (and that the verses in between, 12:11-13:5, are parenthetical). Such an interpretation creates a more logical segue to the certain messianic reference in verse 7.

Dr. Merrill Unger, author of Unger's Bible Dictionary, takes this view of verse 6 in his commentary on Zechariah: "The boldness and daring of this Messianic prophecy and the dramatic abruptness with which it is introduced have frightened most expositors away from its true import on the supposition that it is inseparably connected with verses 2-5, and therefore, still has the false prophet in mind, and [that] to introduce the Messiah is flagrantly to ignore the context. But...the context is not actually violated. The entire section 13:1-6 constitutes a prophecy of Israel's national cleansing.... Verse 6 logically and forcefully presents the revelation of the Messiah as the cleanser from idolatry....

"The grammatical structure of verse 6 does not [rule out] a Messianic reference. While the...['him' in the phrase] ('Then some one will say to him') apparently refers to the same person (the false prophet) as in the preceding verse; yet grammatically it may not, and the author may conceivably have another person in mind. That he does so and resumes the subject broached in 12:10 ('They shall look unto me whom they pierced') is suggested by the evident connection between these two passages (the intervening context being parenthetical...[describing] the effect of Israel's exercising faith in the Pierced One).... The prophetic Scriptures offer numerous illustrations of such extended parentheses...." (Zechariah: Prophet of Messiah's Glory, 1970, p. 228).

Unger further contends: "The verse [13:6], accordingly, is not united to what immediately precedes [it] (an illustration of the main subject), but to the main subject itself, Him whom they pierced, for whom they are to mourn and by whom they are to be cleansed when they realize the wounds 'between His hands' [as the Hebrew literally reads], i.e., 'in His hands,' are those which He received on Golgotha's cross. The wounds in the hands are thus in harmony with the piercing of Zechariah 12:10 which precedes [13:6], and the smiting of the Good Shepherd, which follows [13:6].... Unsuccessful attempts have been made to make between thy hands mean something other than 'in thy hands'—between the shoulders (Rashi), the breast between the hands (Wright), the breast or chest (Feinberg, who cites II Kings 9:24 as an analogous case...but II Kings 9:24 is 'between the arms' and is not the same as 'between the hands'" (pp. 229-230).

In explaining the messianic interpretation of Zechariah 13:6, Unger says that Jesus Christ "with infinite grace and majestic pathos will reply to the heart-rending cry of His repentant people, with these I was wounded {smitten} in the house of my friends (me'ahavay, [literally] 'in the house of those who loved Me'). It is to be carefully observed He does not say, 'With these I was wounded by those who loved Me,' for this was not true. The Jewish leaders who [sought to] put Him to death, on the contrary, hated Him diabolically. [And the Romans who carried out the execution had no love for Him.] But it was dramatically, even pathetically true, that His wounds were those with which He was wounded 'in the house of those who loved Him,' for it was 'the house of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,' yes, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zechariah himself who loved Him, looked for Him, and foretold His coming. It was the house of Simeon, Anna, His own mother Mary who bore Him and tenderly nursed Him, of Joseph who lovingly provided for Him, and the house of Peter, James, and John, who although they denied and forsook Him in the hour of supreme trial, nevertheless passionately loved Him, despite their human failure and weakness" (p. 230).

Verse 7 brings us to the time of that trial. It explains how the Pierced One came to receive His wounds—a logical transition from verse 6 if that verse is understood in a messianic context. God the Father is now speaking of His Companion whom He has appointed Shepherd over His people. This is a clear reference to the Messiah, and Jesus specifically applied this verse to Himself (see Matthew 26:31). It may be shocking to read in Zechariah 13:7 that God actually commands the sword to strike the Messiah. Yet like Isaiah 53:10 and the symbolism of Israel's sacrificial system, this verse shows that the death of Jesus Christ was no accident but was divinely determined—even required—in His plan to redeem humanity from sin and its consequences (see also Acts 2:23).

"When the Shepherd is struck, the sheep (cf. 10:3, 9) are scattered, in fulfillment of the curses for covenant disobedience (Deut 28:64; 29:24-25).... [One commentator] maintains that the thought is that the Lord 'will scatter Israel or His nation by smiting the shepherd; that is to say, He will give it up to the misery and destruction to which a flock without a shepherd is exposed ... The flock, which will be dispersed in consequence of the slaying of the shepherd, is the covenant nation...the flock which the shepherd in [Zechariah 11:4]...had to feed.' This part of [chapter 13] v. 7 is quoted by Jesus not long before his arrest (Matt 26:31; Mark 14:27) and applied to the scattering of the apostles [on the night He was delivered over to the authorities] (Matt 26:56; Mark 14:50), but they are probably intended to serve as a type of the Diaspora [i.e., Dispersion or Scattering] that occurred [when the Romans invaded] in A.D. 70 and following [—the greatest fulfillment to come in the end time]. Some take 'I will turn my hand against {or 'on' or 'over'}' in a negative sense, others in a positive one... [One commentator] strikes a balance: 'For correction, but in mercy, ver[ses] 8, 9. Comp[are] Is[aiah 1:]25 ['I will turn My hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy']. 'The little ones' are the remnant (vv. 8-9)" (Expositor's, note on Zechariah 13:7).

The scattering of the national flock and the refining of the remnant is the subject of the next two verses—verses 8-9—which constitute the end of chapter 13. The Roman destruction of Judea in A.D. 70 may have been partially in view here. But the context of what follows in chapter 14 makes it clear that the end time is the primary setting. The "two thirds" and "one third" of 13:8 probably refers to parts of the entire national flock, including the northern tribes of Israel, not just Judah. The prophecy of this verse parallels that of Ezekiel 5, which shows that in the end time one third of the nation will die of famine and pestilence, one third will die from military weapons and one third will be taken into foreign captivity. (You may wish to review the Bible Reading Program comments on Ezekiel 5 at this point.)

At the end of Zechariah 13:8, the phrase "one third shall be left in it" can be misleading, as it seems to imply that after two thirds of the people are killed, one third remains in the land (rather than going into captivity). Yet the phrase is better comprehended as "one third in it shall be left"—that is, one third of those who are in the land to start with will be left alive and not immediately killed (not that they will necessarily still be in the land). In verse 9, God says He will bring this remaining third through the fire—the fiery trial of the Great Tribulation. As Ezekiel 5 and other passages show, they will be taken into captivity. Yet of these, we learn elsewhere that only about a tenth will survive (see Amos 5:3; Isaiah 6:11-13, Living Bible).

In the imagery of refining silver and gold through the smelting process, we see again the theme of God purging His people of iniquity—purifying them. And this process is not for the physical, national Israelites alone. The spiritual people of God, those of His Church, go through trials to produce patience and a perfected character (see James 1:2-4). Indeed, similar language to that of Zechariah 13 is used of some of God's spiritual people of the end time who will have to endure the suffering of the Great Tribulation. God tells them, "I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be [truly] rich" (Revelation 3:18). Those of both national Israel and the Church who are purified during the Tribulation will in the end be part of the true people of God.

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