“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!”
declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:7 (NIV)
For anyone who is not a regular, a quick explanation. For the past several months, I’ve been blogging my way through the texts that concern a specific period in Jewish history when the people were forced into exile by their enemies and then returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple there. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is in the middle of a year-long contemplation of exile as an overarching theme of the Great Story.
As I excavate the meaning of exile, I can’t help but escape the fact that suffering is part of the exilic process. I don’t find this a surprise. Followers of Jesus are told to expect suffering time and time again. Jesus was very direct:
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues.”Matthew 10:16-17 (NIV)
“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”John 16:32-33 (NIV)
As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.
Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”Matthew 8:19-20 (MSG)
Of course, this line of thinking runs against the current of popular culture which tries to avoid suffering at all costs. As I mentioned in a post last week, God’s kingdom as Jesus presented it is typically opposite the kingdoms of this world.
In today’s chapter, Zechariah is once again envisioning events in the future, when a “fountain” is opened to cleanse the people of sin and impurity. Zech returns to the theme of the Messiah as Shepherd. The Shepherd is struck and His sheep are scattered. This is the very verse that Matthew points to in his biography of Jesus when Jesus is arrested and the disciples all run for their lives into hiding.
The remainder of Zech’s prophetic poem concerns a period of suffering, and it is fodder for scholarly debate. It could relate to any number of great persecutions that God’s people experienced. Many scholars believe that it dovetails with the prophecies of the book of Revelation. I find both to be reasonable conclusions, and I am reminded in the quiet this morning that prophetic text can be layered with meaning, so I’m comfortable with the answer that it is “both, and.”
In the quiet of this morning, I find my heart wrestling with the reality of suffering in this life journey. It’s not a question of “if” but of “when.” We heard an excellent message about this exilic theme of suffering yesterday. I received a text from a friend who said that the key question for him was this: “Who is God in my suffering?”
Scholars have chronicled a distinct shift in Hebrew prophetic writing during the 70-year Babylonian exile. The theme of their message shifts from God being the righteous judge to God being redeemer, sustainer, and the promised savior amidst their suffering. “Who is God in my suffering?” Some see God as the punisher. Some see God as an ambivalent spectator. Some choose not to see God at all. I can’t help but notice that Zech’s vision is of a suffering Shepherd, just as Isaiah did:
There was nothing attractive about him,Isaiah 53:2-3 (MSG)
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
At the end of today’s chapter, the suffering Shepherd and suffering exiles own one another. “This is my people,” God says. “This is the Lord our God,” the people say. Both walk the path of suffering and find one another along the way.