What in the world is going on in Matthew 27:9-10?

Wrath Falls on the Worthless Shepherd:

Pattern and Fulfillment in Matthew 27


                  This paper will address the interpretive difficulty posed by Matthew 27:9-10, in which Matthew cites fulfillment of a quote from Jeremiah, though the precise quote does not appear anywhere in Jeremiah’s writing. Rather, the wording of the first half of the quote actually comes from Zechariah’s prophecy, while the latter half has no precise parallel in either prophet. I will argue that Matthew’s claim of fulfillment should not be dismissed simply because the precise wording is not found in Jeremiah, and I will do so by showing that Matthew is claiming the fulfillment of a pattern, rather than the fulfillment of a direct prophecy. This will include answering questions regarding why Zechariah is quoted, and how this pattern is fulfilled in the story of Judas. Again, the primary assertion of this paper will be that Matthew‘s claim of fulfillment is accurate and warranted, and that the wording discrepancy does not harm Matthew’s claim. Specifically, we will see that Matthew is pointing to Jeremiah through the lens of Zechariah; that he is tracing a stream from its fountainhead in Jeremiah as it runs through Zechariah to where it pools and collects in the Judas narrative. That stream (or pattern) can be articulated thus: when worthless shepherds shed innocent blood, God’s wrath will shatter them like pottery.

                  The structure of the paper will flow as follows. The first section will introduce the canonical reading of the text with a brief discussion of the pattern-fulfillment scheme in Scripture – the aim being to show that a proper and careful hermeneutic is essential to understanding texts such as Matthew 27:9-10. The second section will discuss the context and imagery of passages from Jeremiah 7 and 19 in order to map out the events from which Matthew seems to be drawing. It is here that we will see the beginnings of the pattern: the shedding of innocent blood by a worthless leader, judgment falling upon the guilty in a field, and the use of pottery as a symbol. The third section will discuss the context and imagery of Zechariah 11, in which the imagery noted in Jeremiah’s prophecy is injected and expanded, along with new images tied to the same theme. Judgment is pronounced on worthless shepherds, one of whom we see rewarded for his foolish services. Pottery as an image subtly hints at coming destruction. The fourth section will connect-the-dots, so to speak, to the Matthew 27, showing finally how the pattern is apparent in the life of Judas Iscariot. This will be followed by a brief summation and re-iteration to conclude the paper.


                  “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms…”[1] Without fighting the battles of the conservative resurgence again, it must simply be stated that this affirmation is necessary if one is to find any durable meaning in God’s Word. As The Chicago Statement affirms just 3 articles later: “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded…”[2] In the present case, Matthew pointedly affirms that the death of Judas is a fulfillment of Jeremiah, and also obliquely affirms that Zechariah is connected to Jeremiah by choosing to use the quotation from Zechariah 11. Therefore, though it may not be readily apparent to the reader how what is being said is true, we must submit ourselves to the text and attempt to understand the truth presented, rather than fabricating and inserting our own alternate attempt at truth. If Matthew the apostle, student of the hermeneutical school of Christ and Holy-Spirit-carried author of Scripture, says that the death of Judas fulfills prophecy from Jeremiah, we should seek to see things this way, rather than taking the easy road out by claiming that Matthew was wrong, mistaken, or working from some then-approved, now-illegitimate method. Perhaps it would not be unreasonable to assume that Jesus taught His disciples how to read the Scriptures, being their Rabbi, but thankfully we do not have to assume this. In Luke 24 we see the resurrected Jesus showing His disciples everything in the Scriptures which spoke of the Messiah. This teaching is the school out of which the apostles write their gospel accounts, even as they were also being “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[3] As a modern rap-artist states:

                        Look to the writings of the New Testament

Where the men taught by Jesus tell us what he meant

They show us how to read the OT

And Jesus sent the Spirit to help you and me[4]

The apostles were taught by Jesus how to read the Old Testament Scriptures. We must either submit to their methods and put forth the effort to learn them, or else discount the authority of Jesus to exegete Scripture.

The canonical hermeneutic[5] described above is absolutely essential to understanding Matthew’s claim in the text at hand. This approach is described by John Sailhamer as one which takes seriously the fact that the Bible is a written text, meaning that the content and the form are both theologically relevant[6].  Sailhamer asks the question, “…how does the canonical approach help uncover the hermeneutics of [the apostles’] use of Scripture?”[7], and goes on to show how the New Testament writers understand the historical narratives as a picture, or foreshadowing (in the typological sense), of the future[8]. This is precisely what we will observe in Matthew 27. If we are to allow the text to inform us appropriately we must work with the canonical categories[9] and “begin to use the lens the text itself provides”[10]. To re-iterate, the assumptions under which we will labor are: Scripture is inerrant, Matthew was taught by Jesus to interpret Scripture, Matthew was carried along by the Holy Spirit in writing, and therefore in light of these things he is correct in saying that the Judas narrative in chapter 27 of his gospel fulfills Jeremiah. Our task from this point on is to unearth his hermeneutic for arriving at that fact.

The crucial element to understand about Matthew’s hermeneutic is his understanding of patterns and fulfillment. Blomberg asserts:

 Clearly, Matthew is employing typology here rather than any kind of single or double fulfillment of actual predictive prophecy…there is enough ‘analogical correspondence’ for him to be convinced that God is in fact sovereignly at work, even in the tragic events of Jesus’ betrayal and Judas’ death, just as he had been in the highly symbolic ministries of the prophets Zechariah and Jeremiah.[11]

Matthew is not claiming that the Judas narrative was predicted by Jeremiah. He is not proposing that Jeremiah spoke specific words about a specific man who would die in this particular way. Rather, the apostle is seeing a pattern in God’s sovereign direction of events. There are multiple examples of this within this gospel account[12], and indeed within the writings of the other apostles as well. The pattern-fulfillment scheme becomes more and more prevalent through the Scriptures as later biblical authors look back upon what has been written by earlier biblical authors, recognizing the patterns which are present therein and relating the correspondence of those patterns to events in their own day. It is this recognition of a pattern of events in the history of Israel which Matthew has noticed and related to the similar event he has in mind.


                  We come, then, to the question: “To which events in Jeremiah is Matthew referring?” Many commentators jump to Jeremiah 32 – the account of the prophet purchasing a field for 17 shekels. This is a lazy and fallacious hermeneutic. Yes, Jeremiah 32 is the only time in that prophecy when we see a field being purchased, but the intent and tone of that passage is entirely different from the tone of the Judas narrative. In Jeremiah 32, the LORD commands the prophet to purchase a field even though Israel is about to feel Yahweh’s hand of discipline via the Babylonians. Why? Because it is a sign from the Lord that restoration will follow: “For this is what Yahweh Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”[13] Jeremiah 32 is about restoration. Does this correspond to the Judas narrative – a story of betrayal, guilt, suicide, and wicked religious leaders? No, it doesn’t. But, because it comes up in a biblical search engine, commentators seem content to relate the two.[14]

A more thorough search of Jeremiah reveals 2 passages which clearly relate to the narrative in Matthew 27: Jeremiah 7 and 19. These two passages narrate the circumstances around the promised judgment and exile of God’s people, showing their wickedness and guilt. This is the pattern to which Matthew is referring. Judas and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day drink from the same diseased cup passed down from the hands of Manasseh and the people of God in his day.

The first 26 verses of Jeremiah 7 indict the people of God for their false religion. The people cling tenaciously to the fact that Yahweh’s temple is in their midst, and yet they are indulging in all manner of wickedness: “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ – safe to do all these detestable things?”[15] Verses 12-15 pronounce to the people that they must repent or be driven from Yahweh’s presence, away from the temple to which they so wretchedly cling. The description of judgment comes to a head in 7:27-8:3. The people of Judah have indulged, among other idolatrous folly, in the unspeakable wickedness of sacrificing their children to Molech in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. And who has been the leader of this descent into madness? The King, of course – as go the shepherd, so go the sheep. 2 Kings 21gives us a parallel look at this time of history. The historian tells us that King Manasseh “did evil in the eyes of Yahweh”, building temples and altars to pagan gods, practicing sorcery and divination, consulting spiritists and mediums, and even going so far as to sacrifice his own son in the fire.[16] “Manasseh led them astray, so that they did more evil than the nations Yahweh had destroyed before the Israelites.”[17] Thus, the judgment proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah against the worthless shepherd and his sheep is that the Valley of Ben Hinnom will no longer be called Topheth, but rather will be called the Valley of Slaughter, “for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth…”[18]. God’s hand will come so strongly against this people that Judeans will lay in the open as food for animals. In the valley where they have shed the innocent blood of their sons and daughters in sacrifice to Molech, their blood will now be shed. It is a staggering image of wrath.

The pronouncement of judgment against Manasseh picks back up in Jeremiah 19. Yahweh tells the prophet to say, “Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears it tingle.”[19] As an image for the wrath which is about to be poured out, the Lord instructs the prophet to purchase a clay pot from a potter, take some of the elders, the people, and the priests, and go to Hinnom Valley. While they are watching, Jeremiah is instructed to smash the pot in their sight and say to them, “This is what Yahweh Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. The will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.”[20] Jeremiah shatters the jug to symbolize the shattering of the people for their obstinate sin: the shedding of innocent blood, idolatry, and false hope in the temple. Thus broken pottery becomes an image tied to God’s wrathful judgment; Yahweh’s shattering of the wicked among his people.

These scriptures make the beginnings of the pattern clear. The worthless shepherd Manasseh has led his people to indulge in every imagineable wickedness, but in Jeremiah 19, the focal wickedness is their idolatry, particularly regarding the sacrifice of their sons and daughters to the fires in worship of Molech. The worthless shepherd Manasseh has not only shed innocent blood by making his own son pass through the fire, but he has led the people to do the same. The worthless shepherd’s hands are dripping with the innocent blood of children. Therefore, God will soon shatter the nation like pottery; the Valley of Hinnom will become a Valley of Slaughter. When worthless shepherds shed innocent blood, God’s wrath will shatter them like pottery.


                  We have seen the worthless shepherd pattern in Jeremiah, but what about Zechariah? The narrative of Judas has one obvious connection to Zechariah – the price of 30 silver pieces – but is the worthless shepherd pattern evident? Does Matthew’s use of Zechariah go deeper than simply the appearance of a number which corresponds to his telling of the story of Judas? Certainly! In fact, the quotation used by Matthew comes in the context of Zechariah portraying a bad, or foolish shepherd, which is set in the larger context of Yahweh pronouncing judgment upon those who should be shepherding his people. The event to be examined in the life of Zechariah the prophet is an illustration of the worthlessness of the shepherds of Israel, whom God will judge and break.

Zechariah 9 begins an oracle of judgment against the enemies of Israel. Yahweh pronounces the coming destruction of all those who oppress his people. However, included in this oracle of judgment upon the enemies of Judah, the Lord also promises judgment upon the shepherds of Judah!

                  Therefore the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd. My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for Yahweh Almighty will care for his flock…Listen to the wail of the shepherds; their rich pastures are destroyed…Woe to the worthless shepherd![21]

Immediately after this pronouncement of judgment upon the shepherds, the Lord directs Zechariah to begin working as a shepherd. From the beginning, Zechariah can only be said to be a very poor shepherd. He gets rid of other shepherds and the sheep hate him. He illustrates what Yahweh has said about the shepherds of his people: “I grew weary of them and said, ‘I will not be your shepherd. Let the dying one die, and the perishing perish. Let those who are left eat one another’s flesh.’”[22] Moreover, despite the fact that he has done nothing but cause havoc, Zechariah is paid 30 silver pieces for his work.

The Lord then gives Zechariah a command similar to that which he gave Jeremiah: go pay the potter. Jeremiah was instructed to buy a clay pot which he was to smash in illustration of the coming judgment. Zechariah is told to take his wages for worthless shepherding and pay them to the potter. If the command is analogous, one might safely assume that what is being illustrated is also analogous. In essence, the Lord is telling Zechariah to instruct the potter to make more pots for smashing.[23] In Jeremiah, the smashed pottery was a symbol of judgment against the people and their worthless shepherd. In Zechariah, the worthless shepherd pays the potter enough to make many pots, since there are many shepherds to be shattered.

The pattern has thus held through the Zechariah passage. The Lord’s anger burns against the leaders of Israel during Zechariah’s day, and he promises to punish these worthless shepherds. Zechariah illustrates the worthlessness of the leaders who slaughter the sheep and go unpunished[24] in that he becomes weary of the sheep and steps back to let them die and devour one another.[25] The worthless shepherd lets the innocent sheep die, and profits from it. In judgment of this sort of shepherding from the leaders of Israel, the Lord will punish them, make them wail, destroy their pastures, and bring woe upon them. He will smash them like the many clay pots purchased with Zechariah’s 30 pieces of silver. When worthless shepherds shed innocent blood, God’s wrath will shatter them like pottery.


                  Thus we come to Judas in Matthew 27. Hopefully some of the parallels between the two prophets and Judas have already become apparent. This pattern of worthless shepherds coming under the judgment of God for shedding innocent blood is fulfilled here. For clarity’s sake, let’s dust off the prophetic images which recur in Judas.

First and foremost, Judas is the fulfillment of a worthless shepherd because he sheds innocent blood. Manasseh sacrificed his innocent son to the fires of Molech, and Judas betrayed God’s eternally innocent Son to the wicked religious leaders. Zechariah portrayed the worthless shepherds of Israel by leaving the sheep to die, and Judas fulfilled the pattern of a worthless shepherd by betraying the Lamb of God to death. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the Valley of Ben Hinnom was to be re-named the Valley of Slaughter where the bodies of those judged would lie, and the field bought with the money Judas was paid for betrayal was re-named Akeldama – the Field of Blood – when the body of the worthless shepherd fell headlong into it.[26] Jeremiah broke pottery in a field where judgment would take place, and Judas’ 30d bought Potter’s Field – where judgment would take place. Zechariah was paid 30 silver pieces despite the fact that he was an incompetent, worthless shepherd. Judas was paid 30 silver pieces for his traitorous services. Zechariah did not get to keep his payment for worthless shepherding, but threw it into the temple to the potter. Judas did not keep his payment for betrayal, but threw it into the temple to the priests.

On a slightly broader note: there is also a parallel pattern with the religious leaders of Judas’ day. In Jeremiah 7, the people superstitiously cling to the temple, thinking that because they have the Lord’s presence among them they are free to sin as they wish.[27] The religious leaders who agreed to help Judas betray Jesus exhibit some of the same mindsets: because they have and “keep” the law, they are free to kill Jesus in order to protect the status quo. Those in Jeremiah’s day cling to the temple, and sin. Those in Judas’ day cling to the law, and sin. Moreover, the Lord speaks through Zechariah with his accusation against the leaders of Israel during that day, saying “…the people wander like sheep oppressed for lack of a shepherd.”[28] Matthew relates to us that “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”[29] Judas is not the only worthless shepherd in Matthew’s narrative. The religious leaders who have left Yahweh’s people to be harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd, who have conspired to shed the blood of an innocent man, also fit squarely into the description of the worthless shepherd.


                  When worthless shepherds shed innocent blood, God’s wrath will shatter them like pottery. It was true for Manasseh, the worthless shepherd. It was true for the worthless shepherds of Zechariah’s day. It was true for Judas and the other worthless shepherds of his day. All shed innocent blood, and all felt the judgment of God. All experienced the shattering power of God’s wrath.

Thus it is clear that as Matthew is narrating the story of Judas, his mind goes back to what he knows of Scripture and recognizes the events in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Zechariah which parallel the events of Judas’ betrayal and death. He is not claiming the plenary verbal fulfillment of some predicted prophecy, but rather is claiming that this pattern – which has been present through Israel’s history – has reached its ultimate example. Of all the worthless shepherds, Judas was the worst. Of all the innocent blood which was shed, the shedding of the perfect Lamb’s blood was most grievous. Of all the judgment which fell upon worthless shepherds, Judas experienced the worst: “…woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”[30]

The hermeneutic displayed by Matthew is apparent. Judas’ betrayal and death does, in fact, fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah (and Zechariah). The pattern holds. When worthless shepherds shed innocent blood, God’s wrath will shatter them like pottery.

                [1] The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “A Short Statement”, article 2

                [2] Ibid., article 5

            [3] 2 Peter 1:21

                [4] James M. Hamilton Jr., “The Messiah in the Old Testament: A Rap” (prepared for the final meeting of a Messiah in the Old Testament class, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, November, 2008), [on-line]; accessed 4 May 2012; available at http://jimhamilton.info/2008/11/18/the-messiah-in-the-old-testament-a-rap/; Internet.

                [5] For further reading on the Canonical Approach, see B.S. Childs’ OT Theology in a Canonical Context and John H. Sailhamer’s Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach. For more recent examples of this methodology, see James Hamilton Jr.’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, and Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty.

                [6]John H. Sailhamer, “The Canonical Approach to the OT: Its Effect on Understanding Prophecy,’ JETS 30/3 (1987): 307.

                [7] Ibid.

                [8] Ibid.

                [9] B.S. Childs, OT Theology in a Canonical Context (London: 1985; Philadelphia: 1986), 6.

                [10] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 18.

                [11] Craig Blomberg, G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson eds., Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 95-96.

            [12] See James M. Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, pp. 365-367, for a more detailed discussion and chart of Matthew’s fulfillment passages.

                [13] Jeremiah 32:15, NIV

                [14] This seems similar to the word-study fallacy, in which it is assumed/asserted that the only passages in Scripture which address a particular topic are those which contain the specific word considered. For example, it would be fallacious to assert that the only passages in Scripture which speak about atonement are those in which the word “atonement” is found.

            [15] Jeremiah 7:9-10, NIV

                [16] 2 Kings 21:1-6

                [17] 2 Kings 21:9, NIV

                [18] Jeremiah 7:32

                [19] Jeremiah 19:3, NIV; and cf. 2 Kings 21:12 for the precise parallel to these words.

                [20] Jeremiah 19:11

            [21] Zechariah 10:2b-3; 11:3a,17a, NIV

                [22] Zechariah 11:8-9, NIV

                [23] I am indebted to Dr. Duane Garrett for this idea, which was presented in his Old Testament Theology class lecture during the Fall 2011 semester, November 11.

                [24] Zechariah 11:5

            [25] Zechariah 11:9

                [26] cf. Acts 1:18-19

            [27] cf. Jeremiah 7:4-10

            [28] Zechariah 10:2b

            [29] Matthew 9:36, NIV

                [30] Matthew 26:24, NIV


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