It was pleasant and delightful to hear what the Prophet said at the beginning of the chapter, for he promised that a fountain would be opened, by which the Jews might cleanse away all their filth, and that God, having been reconciled, would be bountiful to them. As then he had promised so blessed and happy a state, what he had said before might have been so taken, even by the true and faithful servants of God, as though the condition of the Church were to be after that time free from every trouble and inconvenience; hence Zechariah anticipates such a conclusion, and shows that the happy state which he had promised was not to be so looked for, as it though the faithful were to be free from every affliction, for God would in the meantime severely try his Church. Though then God had promised to be bountiful to his Church, he yet shows that many troubles would be mixed up with its prosperity in order that the faithful might prepare themselves to endure all things.
This discourse may indeed appear abrupt, but its different parts harmonise well together, for God so regulates his benefits which he bestows on his Church in this world, as ever to try it in various ways. What is here said was especially necessary, since very grievous afflictions were nigh at hand: for, as it is evident from history, that nation was on the borders of despair when the coming of Christ approached. This then is the reason why the Prophet seems at the first view to join together things so contrary. For what he has hitherto promised tended to prepare the faithful to bear all things patiently, inasmuch as deliverance was nigh. But in the meantime it was needful that they should be expressly encouraged to persevere, lest they should succumb under the extreme evils which were not far distant.
The sum of the whole is, that before the Lord would cleanse his Church and bring it back to perfect order, very grievous calamities were to intervene, for a dreadful disorder there must be when God smites the very shepherds; and the apostrophe, when God addresses the sword, a thing void of reason, is very emphatical. It is much more striking than if he had said, “A sword shall be raised against my shepherds and against my ministers, so that the flock shall be dispersed.” But the metaphor, as I said, is much more expressive, when God directs his words to the sword itself; Awake, watch, O sword, — how? against my shepherd
Most of our interpreters confine this passage to the person of Christ, because in Matthew 26:31, this sentence is quoted,
“Smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered:”
but this is no solid reason; for what is said of a single shepherd ought probably to be extended to the whole order. When God says in Deuteronomy 18:15,
“A prophet will I raise up from the midst of you,”
though mention is indeed made of one Prophet only, yet God includes all the Prophets; as though he had said, “I will never deprive you of the doctrine of salvation, but in every age will I show that I care for you, for my Prophets shall be ever present, by whose mouth I shall make it known that I am near you.” This passage is quoted as referring to Christ, and very suitably, because all the Prophets spoke by his Spirit, and at length he himself appeared, and by his mouth the heavenly Father spoke familiarly with us, and fully explained his whole mind, as it is said in the first chapter to the Hebrews
“In various ways and often did God speak formerly to the fathers by the Prophets, but now in these last times by his only-begotten Son.”
As then Christ possesses a supremacy among the Prophets, and hence rightly applied to him are the words of Moses; so also as he is the head and prince of shepherds, this pre-eminence justly belongs to him. But what is said by the Prophet is however to be viewed as a general truth. In short, God threatens the people, and declares that there would be a dreadful disorder; for they would be deprived of their shepherds, so that there would be no government among them, or one in great confusion.
The word עמית, omit, is rendered by some, kindred, (contribulis — one of the same tribe,) by others, kinsman, (consanguineus — one of the same blood,) and by others, one connected, (co-haerens ,) that is, with God; and they have considered that this passage cannot be understood of any but of Christ alone: but they have taken up, as I have said, a false principle. The Greek version has citizen ( τὸν πολίτην,) and some render it, as Theodotion, kindred (sumfulon — one of the same tribe.) Jerome prefers the rendering, one connected or united with me (cohaerentem mihi .) (175) The word, according to the Hebrews, means an associate, a neighbor, or a friend, or one in any way connected with us. God, I have no doubt, distinguished pastors with this title, because he gave a representation at himself by then to the people; and the more eminent any one is, the nearer, we know, he is to God: and hence kings and judges, and such as exercise authority, are called his sons. So also pastors are called his associates, for they spend their labor in building up the Church. He is the chief Pastor, but he employs his ministers to carry on his work. This is the reason why they are called the associates of God, that is, on account of the connection between them, for they are co-workers with God, as Paul also teaches us. In short, the Prophet calls pastors the associates of God in the same sense in which Paul calls them fellow-workers. ( συνεργους , 1 Corinthians 3:9.)
Having said that the sword was permitted, nay, commanded, to rise against the shepherd, he immediately adds, that the sheep were dispersed. We then see that in these words is set forth a calamity that was to be feared, and which the people were not able to escape, in order that the faithful might not be too much disheartened, as though God would disappoint them, but that they might stand firm amidst grievous troubles and violent commotions. Since then this disorder was nigh, Zechariah bids the faithful to continue firm and patiently, and quietly hope, until God showed himself again propitious to them, and those evidences of his favor appeared of which he had before spoken. We now see what the design of the Prophet was. But we must especially notice, that it is a sure presage of the people’s ruin and destruction when pastors are taken from them; for when God intends to keep us safe, he employs this instrumentality, that is, he raises up faithful teachers, who rule in his name; and he rules them by his Spirit, and fits them for their rank and station: but when he strikes them, he not only forsakes the people, but also shows that he is the avenger of wickedness, so that the people themselves are destroyed. This is the import of the Prophet’s words.
But this, as I have already observed, was fulfilled in Christ; for he accommodated the passage to himself when his disciples fled from him. Though they were but a small flock, being very few in number, yet they were scattered and put to flight. In that case then, as in a mirror, appeared how truly it had been said by Zechariah, that the scattering is nigh when a pastor is smitten.
By the word sword, he means affliction; for though Christ was not slain by a sword, yet crucifixion and violent death are fitly designated by the word sword.
It follows at the end of the verse, And I will turn my hand to the little ones. Some consider that the little ones would be exposed to many evils, because the Lord would ever hold his rod in his hand to chastise them. But the Prophet, I have no doubt, meant what is far different, — that God would show mercy to them, when the body of the people had been as it were torn into many parts. For all the godly might have been wholly dejected when their shepherds were taken away, and when the people were become like a straying flock. God then comes to their aid, and testifies that his hand would be extended over the miserable and the poor ones, who had been almost overwhelmed by a mass of evils.
This passage is also very serviceable to us in the present state of the Church: for we see how God has lately cut off many pastors, so that what is called the Church is become like a mutilated body. We also see that God often deprives of good and faithful pastors those who have abused his truth, or with impious contempt rejected it. We might then in this case be terrified and cast off all hope of salvation, were we not to remember what Zechariah teaches us here, even that though the Church were contemptible in the world, and though the faithful were few in number, and all of them exposed to calamities, yet God’s hand will be over them, so as to gather for himself again a Church from the torn members. This is the import of the whole. It follows —