This passage, though seemingly short, to the point and straight forward, throws up so many questions as to how we are to interpret it in the light of what precedes or follows it as to make the passage almost impossible to understand in its original context.
What we must determine is this: What do the doors of Lebanon actually refer to, and what are the cedars that are going to be consumed by fire?
We could take the verse to refer to an actual deforestation through forest fire but verse 3 seems to discount this possibility seeing as it talks about shepherds weeping because their glory is despoiled (that is, the trees of Lebanon). It seems best, then, to reject the natural interpretation (just as the ‘cows of Bashan’ of Amos 4:1 shouldn’t be taken as a word against a literal herd of cattle) and look for a better context that unites the passage with the preceding verses which start at 9:1.
In other words, we should take the passage as referring to a judgment of God upon a people or nation, the Lebanon cedars being representative of that people.
Even this is by no means easy. I mentioned towards the end of the previous web page that we could understand the passage as God laying waste literal Lebanon through judgment so that His people, upon returning, might take possession of the land due to the numbers that are needing land on which to settle (Zech 10:10). Alternatively, if Lebanon as a nation is to be taken as being the object of God’s wrath, it could even be associated with the advance of the Lord outlined at the beginning of chapter 9 (v.1-8) where the Lord sweeps down the eastern flank of Lebanon before crossing directly through its territory to attack Tyre. This latter possibility remains unlikely, though, if my understanding of the chapter is correct - there seems little point in the Lord returning to talk about a future time of the coming King when He has been dealing with a nearer time when Israel will return to the land.
Again, the judgment here outlined may be referring to the Lord’s anger that is ‘hot against the shepherds’ (10:3), this being an outpouring of it. However, this again appears to be unlikely, simply because the shepherds are mentioned in 11:3 as weeping over ‘their glory’ that lies desolate and in ruin.
Or perhaps we should think of the verses as being indicative of the destruction of both Assyria and Egypt which is spoken of just a couple of verses before in 10:11? This probably has the most going for it simply because it follows on so clearly from this verse, but it would have to be determined just why the shepherds (of Israel) were so distraught that these two nations had been judged (11:3).
Other modern commentators look to the commencement of the next prophetic word/action which runs from 11:4 to the end of the chapter and take the verses as an introduction - but this doesn’t seem likely at all, again because the mention of the shepherds seems to exclude that possibility.
Older commentators rip the verses out of their context and apply it to an incident (or to incidents) that are reputed to have taken place shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple some 600 years in the future.
For instance, JFB, one of the older of the commentators on this passage, titles the chapter
‘Destruction of the Second Temple...’
and goes on to comment that the opening phrase
‘Open your doors, O Lebanon...’
‘...the temple so called as being constructed of cedars of Lebanon, or as being lofty and conspicuous like that mountain...Forty years before the destruction of the temple, the tract called Massecheth Joma states its doors of their own accord opened and Rabbi Johanan in alarm said, I know that thy desolation is impending according to Zechariah’s prophecy’
Josephus (page 361) also records that around 66AD, four years before the Temple’s destruction
‘...it was observed that the East Gate of the inner court had opened of its own accord - a gate made of bronze and so solid that every evening twenty strong men were required to shut it...the learned perceived that the security of the Sanctuary was dissolving of its own accord, and that the opening of the gate was a gift to the enemy; and they admitted in their hearts that the sign was a portent of desolation’
Though the dates assigned to both incidents span a full generation, it is evident that, at that time in Jewish history, such a sign of an open door could be taken as being a portent of doom, though Josephus notes that some of the Jews took it as a positive sign that God was granting them an open door, a gateway to happiness.
Though this does remain a possibility, the context of the passage hardly seems to fit in with all three of the verses and little weight should be placed upon them that this was the original meaning of the prophetic word. Certainly, God may have used the Scripture to highlight to the Jews the impending judgment upon the nation but they seem to have done very little about it like repent and turn from their ways which would have been a much better response than running up to it and closing it again!
Besides all this, the Scripture would be taken as referring to the Temple as ‘Lebanon’ - a rather strange label to put on the sanctuary.
Personally, I don’t feel it’s any of these (so why did I bother mentioning it at all?!!!) though perhaps the best I can say is that we should not tie the prophecy down to any one particular people or date in history but try to understand the typography and take it as a warning to us today about the things that God is removing from us that we might be a pure people before Him.
The cedars certainly stand for a trait within humanity and I will go on to try and describe that trait as it is associated with the tree and that, from this destruction, those who took pride in it will find that their life and livelihood is seriously undermined.
If the cedars are satanic spirits that men have allied themselves with then it makes perfect sense - as it does if they are indicative of wealth obtained through trade - or if they represent a literal city or nation. Indeed, there are numerous possibilities here that could fit.
What the warning should be to us, however, is that reliance and trust upon something that is not God alone will ultimately result in destruction and despair. Only God will stand the test of time and only a people who are rooted and grounded in Him will not be shaken and destroyed by whatever comes against them.
As a conclusion to this entire passage which runs from 9:1, it’s perfect. Whatever the future may hold for Israel, they are being reminded that, although some may seem to prosper by their affiliations and allegiances, their end is already determined and none too glorious.
Finally, the mention of both Lebanon and Bashan should not put us off limiting the prophecies scope to just those two areas. Both these regions are only mentioned as descriptive of the type of tree that is being singled out for mention. Similarly, mention in our day of the ‘English oak’ does not necessarily refer to any oak growing within England but to a specific type of oak that is commonly found within the nation.
Descriptions of the trees below are taken from Zondervan and TWOTOT unless otherwise stated.
This is the main judgment of these three verses, the following four descriptions in the next two verses are merely consequences and reactions to the destruction of the cedars of Lebanon.
The cedar (Strongs Hebrew word 730) is a tree of the pine family and is best suited to growing at higher altitudes and in dry regions. It grows to an average height of 85 feet, though it can surpass this and exceed 100 (some growing to 120) and its girth may touch 40 feet (though 30 is more usual). The ‘cedar of Lebanon’ has been identified as Cedrus libani.
‘Not infrequently the tree’s horizontal spread of branches equals its height. It is also common for this tree to spread its roots among the rocks and thus secure a stronghold...It is only natural that this lofty, firmly-rooted tree should be used as a metaphor to describe a person’s or nation’s moral character’
though, concerning the latter application, Zondervan notes that strength is actually an interpretation of the name that was given to it. They write
‘[The] word...appears to come from Arabia, the meaning being “strong and firmly-rooted tree”’
This appears to be the reason behind its usage in Hosea 14:5-6 (though the RSV decided to translate the word with poplar instead of cedar here) and in Ps 92:12 where the righteous are likened to both a palm and cedar tree, flourishing in the house of God.
Cedars today are as much as 2000 years old and it is possible that allusions to the tree may also be indicative of great age. The trees are able to send its roots down to penetrate underground rocks that give it added stability in adverse conditions.
The cedar tree was much in demand in the ancient world and, even outside Israel, it was acquired for prestigious building projects. Their timber is reputed not to be attacked by insects, is fragrant and is free from knots which ruin produce from other species.
The cedar, then, was the ‘king’ tree of the forests and here in Zech 11:1 especially is used to be a picture of what can be trusted in, what is both dependable and sure and will last the test of time.
Specifically, the meaning is that those things that man looks to for both security and stability shall be removed by a direct work of God. Though the Lord doesn’t specify the actual object of man’s foundation, there is plenty in the previous two chapters to at least hint at some of the things that the Lord will come against such as the false gods of Zech 10:2 or the confidence in their own ability of the shepherds of Zech 10:3. But it would be wrong for us to tie down the prophecy to any one of these - God is coming against all forms of security that man places his trust in as He chooses and therefore it is time for the Lord’s people to place their confidence upon and reliance solely in Him so that they do not react as the next four characteristics suggest.
These next four lines in the two subsequent verses outline four specific areas of trust that will be defeated by the destruction of the objects in which man trusts.
Zech 11:2a - Strength
‘Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined’
The strongest have fallen, what chance have the weaker?
The cypress tree (Strongs Hebrew number 1265) cannot be positively identified today. The AV translates it as ‘fir tree’ while Smith uses the word ‘juniper’, Baldwin opting for ‘cypress’ for no specific reason that I can tell. TWOTOT, quite interestingly, gives the translation as either fir, cypress, juniper or pine and is certainly covering all the options, but they do note that
‘The Aleppo Pine because of usefulness and size best fits the biblical data...’
This tree can grow to around 60 feet in height and can live through serious periods of drought.
It must be noted that the cypress here mentioned in the text is not spoken against in language that indicates that it is to be judged along with the cedar of the preceding line, even though Smith plainly states that
‘Three strong and valuable types of trees...representing proud rulers are to be devastated’
The point is an important one to make for it is this line plus the three next descriptions that outline the reactions of certain areas about the destruction of the one tree, the cedar. Here, then, the cypress is depicted as looking at the cedar and lamenting its demise because the cedar stood as the king among the trees, the one species that was a symbol of strength and immovability. The cypress, which is smaller and not as well rooted, sees its destruction and bewails the fact that, if the cedar wasn’t able to stand against the anger of the Lord, what chance does it have?
So, what the Lord is saying here is that, when God judges those things that men consider to be solid foundations and removes them from sight, men must look and begin to fear that if the great could not stand, what chance do they have?
Such a situation is actually a prime time for a wholesale turning to God and to the message of the cross.
Zech 11:2b - Protection
‘Wail, O oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled’
The refuge is laid waste, what protection have those within it?
The oak mentioned here (Strongs Hebrew number 437) is linked with the region of Bashan where it appears to have been a particularly significant tree, and is linked with this region in two other places in the Bible - Is 2:13 where it follows on from a word spoken against the cedars of Lebanon and where it seems to be indicative of man’s pride, and Ezek 27:6 where it is simply referred to as a commodity that was used in the construction of nautical vessels.
Zondervan comments that
‘The cedar was considered the most important evergreen tree, and the oak the most important deciduous tree’
and goes on to equate the oak with a symbol of strength using Druidic parallels to make the point (though what they have in common with Jewish thought at the time of the giving of the prophecy is not easy to determine!). The species normally linked with the Hebrew word, according to Zondervan, is either Quercus ilex or Quercus aegilops which means absolutely nothing to me and probably not too much to those reading these notes, either.
The key to understanding the passage is in the Hebrew word translated ‘thick’ by the RSV (Strongs Hebrew number 1208) which is a word that can be taken to mean ‘fortified’ and the root from which it comes is used of the ‘fortified cities’ in both II Kings 17:9 and Jer 5:17.
Baldwin opts for this interpretation because, she says
‘Mention of thick forests of Bashan, the famous cattle-rearing table-land to the north and east of the sea of Galilee, is surprising...the trees “would have been in clumps of woodland rather than continuous forest”’
Though it is surprising (if Bashan was, indeed, devoid of forest at this time in the nation’s history), the words used enforce the assertion made above that no literal destruction of trees is being referred to but that imagery is being adopted which conveyed specific meaning to the Israelites that they would understand.
If, then, the sentence should indicate that the oaks should wail on account of the fortified forest being laid waste, the indication is that either the oaks were rooted within the inner areas of the Lebanese forest and saw their protection go, or that, because they grew only in small clumps, they realised that such a small group of trees could not withstand a similar onslaught from the Lord.
The latter interpretation yields much the same interpretation as we gained from the previous point and I tend towards the former view that, because the strong, protecting cedars were laid waste, the oak tree realised that its safety was removed.
Therefore, the Lord’s word to the Israelites is that those things that are trusted in for protection will be removed from being the nation’s comfort and, on account of that work, the people who trust in them will be alarmed and terrified. Again, as we said in the previous section, such a situation is actually a prime time for a wholesale turning to God and to the message of the cross.
Zech 11:3a - Authority
‘Hark, the wail of the shepherds, for their glory is despoiled’
The authority of leadership is undermined, how can the leaders rule?
The word translated here by ‘glory’ in the RSV (Strongs Hebrew Number 155) is the word used for the mantle of authority that was worn by the prophets - for example, Elijah and Elisha in I Kings 19:13, 19:19, II Kings 2:8, 2:13 and 2:14. This mantle (though the word is not used exclusively with this meaning) was the symbol of the prophets’ authority and anointing from God, an illustration that the Lord was upon them and working through them to do as He pleased.
This seems the best interpretation of the word here and ‘glory’ seems to add something to the word that is not rightly there in the text. The root from which this word comes can mean something like ‘mighty’ and, by extension, that which is considered either majestic or glorious, but this specific word that’s used in connection with the prophets needs to be understood more in the light of recognised or imparted authority.
What the text is saying, then, is that, because the cedars are destroyed, the leaders (of Israel?) are thrown into despair because their authority (or their ‘right to rule’) has also been removed from them. They will neither be able to lead effectively nor have many follow them because the source of their great power over the people has been judged and destroyed by God Himself.
The Scripture almost certainly is commenting on the judgment promised upon the leaders in Zech 10:3 where, although God declared His anger, He did not at that time make known just what He was going to do. Here, it is seen that He will not directly remove them from office but remove the authority of their office from them, thus preventing them from being able to rule.
In the NT, though it is recorded that the scribes and Pharisees were elevated into positions of great honour which they readily accepted (Mtw 23:6-7, John 5:44), they were beginning to lose the power they had over the people when the early Church found themselves confronted by them, the early Church readily opposing them and getting away with it on the whole (Acts 4:1-22)! Even though many still followed after the interpretations of the Pharisees and scribes, their authority over the people had begun to wane and the Jews who came to believe in Christ were necessarily required to turn their backs on their interpretations (though some still tried to syncretise both ways - Acts 15:1).
Zech 11:3b - Self-exaltation
‘Hark, the roar of lions, for the jungle of the Jordan is laid waste’
Pride is laid low, how can man glory in his own greatness?
The word translated ‘jungle’ here (Strongs Hebrew Number 1347) is the usual word used for ‘pride’ - both positively and negatively - throughout the Scriptures. TWOTOT comments that
‘The primary meaning of this root [from which the word comes] is “to rise”...The basic idea of rising or growing is reflected in [numerous usages, one of which is in] the phrase the “swelling jungle...of the Jordan” in Jer 12:5, 49:19, 50:44 and Zech 11:3. The latter is a description of the area of rich and thick vegetation on both sides of the southern sections of the Jordan valley...The jungle may be so called because of high growth or high water in flood’
Here in Zech 11:3, though ‘jungle’ gives the sentence good sense, the underlying meaning is man’s arrogance, the exaltation of one’s self as if in triumph over and above those around.
As Smith notes concerning the word
‘...the specific reference is to the jungle of the Jordan, but the basic meaning of pride shines through’
The lions here roar with distress because their jungle is laid waste - even though it isn’t actually their jungle that’s been devoured but the cedars of Lebanon (11:1 - the possibility remains that ‘of Lebanon’ may be taken to refer to the type of tree laid waste and not the geographic location)! This indicates that the word for jungle should be understood in the context of man’s pride. That is, when what man boasts of (the cedars) are brought to nothing, their reason for confidence in themselves are undermined and shown to be as empty as it really is.
Pride is not far from any of the four consequences of the action of the Lord in destroying the cedars of Lebanon but the bottom line is that of false security and trust in things that are not reliable. As Jesus pointed out, a secure foundation within a believer’s life is what needs to be laid (or, rather, found) and built upon. Insecure footholds in the world will eventually crumble and destroy the structure that has been built upon them (Mtw 7:24-27), in this case though a direct intervention of God Himself.
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