The Shepherds and the Sheep

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By Gary V. Smith and Timothy D. Sprankle

From Zephaniah–Malachi: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching

Kerux Commentaries



Exegetical and Theological Synthesis

Zechariah 11:4–17 details the prophet’s sign acts and their effects. For his performance, Zechariah chose two staffs and symbolically named them before breaking them. Their destruction demonstrated God’s displeasure at Israel’s disobedience and the disunity of his people. Between his shattering of the two staffs, Zechariah collected dues for his leadership duties, only to launch his thirty-shekel earnings into the potter’s field.[1]

Sign acts are common stock among Israel’s prophets. For three years Isaiah tramped naked through his land as a sign of what was coming—Assyrian exile (Isa. 20). Jeremiah bought, buried, and unearthed a filthy waistband as a sign of coming judgment on Judah (Jer. 13:1–11). Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days, turned, and endured another forty days of stillness as a sign of impending exile (Ezek. 4:4–8). Hosea married a harlot as a sign of God’s commitment to his unfaithful people (Hos. 3). These sign acts reinforced the prophets’ spoken words.

Furthermore, the shepherding imagery is applied both to God and those who lead his people. The shepherd paints a picture of protection, care, and guidance. God is the ideal shepherd (Ps. 23). Moses, David, and Amos served as shepherds prior to (and in preparation for) their appointed leadership roles (Exod. 3:1; 1 Sam. 16:11; Amos 1:1). On the other hand, prophets often rebuked bad leaders of their day for abusive and selfish oversight of their constituents (Jer. 23:1–2; Ezek. 34:1–10; Zech. 10:3).

Preaching Idea

Let’s cut loose from bad leaders.

Contemporary Connections

What does it mean?

What does it mean to cut loose from bad leaders? Bad leaders are not unique to Zechariah’s context; history has an unlimited number of tyrants and those who cut loose from them. Judas Maccabeus, a Jewish revolutionary, cut loose from Antiochus IV, who was an oppressive, godless opponent of the Jewish people (167–164 b.c.). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, cut loose from Adolf Hitler, who was an abusive, manipulative, and self-serving leader. But bad leaders trickle down to everyday life. They come in many forms: abusive and oppressive, manipulative and passive-aggressive, bitter and emotionally unstable, religiously motivated and secular. Cutting loose from them means separating oneself, creating space from, or standing against their influence.

We may set boundaries that keep us outside the immediate reach of a bad leader. A wife may seek temporary separation from an oppressive husband rather than suffer his abuse. An employee may request to report to a director rather than to a self-serving, ladder-climbing supervisor. An adult child may limit interactions with a manipulative parent—only on holidays or by phone—to protect herself from emotional harm. To stand in the path of repeated oppression, abuse, selfishness, or manipulation only enables bad leaders.

While all leaders may be prone to uncaring moments or seasons of misguided passion, what sets a bad leader apart is the consistency and intensity of his behavior. Bad leaders show a pattern of oppression, abuse, selfishness, and manipulation. They create a culture of fear, suspicion, and mistrust rather than joy, innovation, and connection. Their criticism tears down rather than uplifts. Their words open wounds rather than heal. Whether male or female, bad leaders make preserving the ego their mission.

Is it true?

Is it true that we should cut loose from bad leaders? Yes, but cutting loose is complex. Separating from bad leaders looks different depending on the context. Sometimes we need to cut loose from bad leaders completely. We may need to change jobs or request a transfer, quit a team or leave a church. When bad leaders steal our joy, corrupt our attitudes, manipulate us to live unethically, or push us to the point of despair, cutting loose is advised.

Other times cutting loose requires a certain level of due process, diplomacy, or discernment. Leaders, by definition, have authority—ascribed or assumed—making them hard to separate from. In some cases, bad leaders can displace blame, ruin others’ reputations, or inflict further pain. Citizens cannot cut loose from their political leaders without due process. Employees cannot oust their bosses without certain appeals. Wives cannot divorce their husbands without legal counsel. Sadly, cutting loose may not always result in a clean break.

Now what?

How do we cut loose from bad leaders? First, we must realize that cutting loose may neither be quick nor straightforward. Depending on the nature of the relationship—familial, social, recreational, volunteer, or vocational—different rules of separation apply. Furthermore, our cutting loose will affect others, so we should be cognizant of the ripple effect of our departure. In some churches, the exit of one family launches a mass exodus. The resignation of an influential staff person may inspire others to quit. Thus, from the outset we must consider the following questions: What is the nature of our relationship with the bad leader? Whom will our departure affect? Whose counsel can we seek to sort through this complex issue? What damage would be done if we didn’t cut loose from this bad leader?

Second, we must make an exit plan. Do we depart dramatically or slip away quietly in the night? Do we speak our mind to the bad leader before leaving? Do we invite a mediator into that conversation? Do we share our grievances with others? Do we leave the door open for future restitution, or do we never look back? These questions tie into the initial step. How we exit depends on the nature of the relationship and ensuing ripple effect.

Third, we must maintain our integrity by avoiding slander. Not all bad leaders are criminals, heretics, or evil people. Some are simply immature and selfish. Launching a crusade against bad leaders is typically not needed. God will not give them the last laugh; he will expose them. In time, their followers will scatter, and their influence will dissolve, as in the case of Hitler, Antiochus IV, and other bad leaders.

Creativity in Presentation

To illustrate cutting loose, secure a large pair of scissors, rope, and two people willing to have their arms or legs tied together. Identify one of the participants as the “leader” and the other as the “follower.” After tethering their arms or legs together (with plenty of slack between the two), ask the leader to guide his follower through various scenarios, saying: “Leader, drag your follower through the mud.” [Encourage them to act out crawling through mud.] “Leader, take your follower over a cliff.” [Encourage them to jump off the stage.] “Leader, pull your follower down.” [Encourage them to both fall to the ground.] “Leader, go to the bathroom (or dentist).” [Encourage the follower to cut loose—quickly!—with the scissors you provided. Test in advance that the scissors can sever the rope.]

In American’s “coming of age” story, the people chose to cut loose from Great Britain. Rebelling against “taxation without representation,” the Founding Fathers declared independence from their birthparents. Consider reading (and projecting) the opening two paragraphs from the famous United States Declaration of Independence, highlighting “the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government.” Also note the driving aim to preserve “unalienable Rights” given by God for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Having an exceptional reader from your congregation, live or filmed, will add to this illustration’s dramatic effect. Wikipedia provides a helpful overview of the historical background, text, meaning, and impact of the document.

As a pastor, I (Tim) frequently hear emotional stories of people cutting loose from bad leaders at home, church, and work. A wife cut loose from an uncaring husband after twenty-plus years of emotional neglect. A family cut loose from a former church after the father’s repeated attempts to discuss shady financial practices of the elders were ignored. A young man cut loose from his employer after his boss continued to overschedule, underpay, and disrespect his time off the clock. None of these people cut loose without emotional pain. Before using their stories, get permission and guard some details to protect their privacy. An interview with someone who has cut loose would be even more compelling. If you prefer historical examples, consider retelling how Bonhoeffer or Judas Maccabeus cut loose from bad leaders in their day.

Whatever way you choose to make the message stick, be sure to communicate this: The rejection of the good leaders will lead to destruction, for many will follow worthless leaders. So let’s cut loose from bad leaders.


[1]       Gospel writers remembered the event, citing it in their description of the “blood money” Judas received for betraying Jesus (Matt. 27:1–8; cf. Acts 1:18–19). See earlier related note on 11:14.

This post is adapted from Zepaniah-Malachi by Gary V. Smith and Timothy D. Sprankle. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

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About Author

Gary V. Smith is professor of Christian Studies at Union University. Prior to Union, Dr. Smith taught Old Testament and Hebrew, and served as Interim Academic Dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has completed academic research in Jerusalem, Israel and in Cambridge, England. Dr. Smith and his wife Susan live in Jackson, Tennessee. They have two children and five grandchildren. <br><br> Timothy D. Sprankle is senior pastor at Leesburg Grace Brethren Church in Northern Indiana. He has taught Bible in academic and church settings since 1995 and pastored for ten years. Sprankle is also a conference speaker and coauthor of God’s Big Picture.

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