“he-goats.” Leaders and rulers were called “he-goats.” The male goat or ram was used idiomatically by the figure of speech hypocatastasis for the powerful people or rulers, and it was especially true when used of ungodly leaders, as it is here and Zechariah 10:3. When one studies the use of “goats” in the Bible, and also studies their destructive behavior, it is easy to see why the Bible calls unbelievers or the unsaved, “goats” (cp. Matthew 25:33).
Part of the destructive nature of goats is due to the fact that they are “browsers,” not “grazers” like sheep and cattle. As “browsers” they taste almost anything and end up eating many things that are barely edible; besides shrubs, trees, and many plants that other animals don’t eat because they are toxic, goats occasionally eat things such as clothing (ancient clothes were made of cotton, linen, wool, and other natural, non-synthetic fibers, and could be eaten by a goat).
Goats are also extremely intelligent animals, and even learn from each other. If a goat is penned up but escapes, it will not only remember how to escape and do it again, other goats will see it escape and follow. That fact may have also helped the comparison between believers as sheep and unbelievers as goats. Jesus taught that the children of this world (the unbelievers) act more wisely or shrewdly than the believers do (Luke 16:8), and that is certainly often the case in business. Calling an unbeliever a “goat” is fitting in more ways than one.
Goats provided milk and meat, and they were also valuable for their skin, which was the most common source for the skin-bottles of the ancient world, so they were often mixed with sheep and herded in one big herd. But unlike sheep, which are quite defenseless against any enemy, goats could butt and kick much more effectively, and also escape much more effectively, including by climbing trees if the trunk had a slant to it. Both male and female goats raised in the biblical world had horns, and most modern goats of both sexes have horns, although the male goats are well known for being more aggressive.
The biblical image of unbelievers being “goats” also fits well with what many scholars feel is the true meaning of “Azazel,” the word that occurs only in Leviticus 16 and that the King James Version translates “Scapegoat.” The actual meaning of “Azazel” is likely “Mighty Goat,” and is a name of the Devil. Also, “goat-demons” are mentioned in Leviticus 17:7 and 2 Chronicles 11:15. [For more on Azazel, see commentary on Leviticus 16:8. For more on the figure of speech hypocatastasis, see commentary on Rev. 20:2].