I remember the feel of my first toy lion. His name was Parsley, but I don’t remember who gave him to me. In the 70s in England, another lion, Drooper, featured on the Banana Splits show which was aired regularly on Saturday mornings. Both lions smiled continuously. They were gentle lions. Playful. Affectionate lions. Although they had a mane and a tail, they lacked teeth. They were lions that would snuggle in a bed with you through the night. They were not lions who would drag you away into the African bush to eat you.
I changed my attitude to lions in school. I wasn’t interested in the books they assigned us to read. They were repetitious readers with little plot and no imagination. Because of my lack of interest as a reader, I was soon designated as ‘remedial’ and my mother was informed. My mother called on Aslan. She got herself a copy of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and then read me half of it. She gave me permission to keep my light on if I wanted to read further. Cruel but clever. The stunt cured my reading, but it also gave me goose bumps. Aslan the Lion is king of all Narnia. He is presented masterfully by Lewis as an allegory of Jesus Christ. He is wise and powerful. He is wild and unpredictable. I loved him and longed for him. I soon devoured the whole Narnia series as a result.
The lions in books and movies are figments of someone’s imagination. What are real lions like? I looked on-line for statistics and found the most comprehensive list given by San Diego Zoo. Lions are the second largest cat in the world, second only to tigers. They are massive. The male lions mature to a weight of 330-573 pounds, whereas the females weigh in at 265-397 pounds. This means that The Fridge, who played as a NFL defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears weighed the same as a small male or a large female lion. The head and body length of a lion can measure up to eight feet for a male and six feet for a female. They stand three to four feet off the ground.
Other interesting facts are that the lion is the only cat with a tuft on the end of their tail. The tuft covers a bony spur at the tail tip. The lion is the only male cat with a mane (tigers have a ruff). The lion’s eyes are set laterally on its head to provide a good angle of vision. It can see you. Its inner ear has a long mobile pinna able to localize a sound source. It can hear you. Its nostrils are large and it has complex nasal passages. It can smell you. Its massive limbs are built more for attack rather than running. It will kill and eat you if it wishes. It can run at 50 mph and leap 35 ft. No point making a move.
When we think of lions we often think of them living in Africa. In particular, we think of sub-Saharan and southern Africa. That is an accurate account of where lions live today, but it wasn’t always so. The Asiatic Lion is slightly smaller than African lions. Although Asiatic Lions are limited to a small reserve in India today, they once roamed from India all the way to Greece. It is the Asiatic Lion that lived in Palestine until the last ones were killed in the Middle Ages. Lions have been prized by hunters and their preferred habitat has often been destroyed. In North Africa Barbary Lions became extinct in the last century. It looked like the Asiatic Lion would suffer the same fate. One British officer during his short stay in India at the time of the Indian Rebellion killed 300 all by himself. Gir Forest National Park in India is doing its best to keep Asiatic Lions alive, and they are having some success (Incidentally they may be having a little too much success as in recent years some particularly hungry lions have dragged off members of the local populous and eaten them. One unfortunate 50-year-old was sleeping peacefully on his verandah when he became a meal for an Asiatic Lion).
Because lions roamed the lands which are the setting of biblical writing, they were used by biblical writers to symbolize traits exhibited by people and nations. Without going too deeply into who is being described, let’s look through the Bible and think about what images the lion conjures up. In Proverbs 30:30 a lion is described as a symbol of strength and power. There are no surprises there. The verse reads, “a lion, mighty among beasts, who retreats before nothing;” In context, the description is of a king who is secure against revolt.
A second characteristic of a lion that is used as a simile in scripture is its stealth. Psalm 10:9 describes a wicked man who is in cover and lies in wait. This lion-like man drags the helpless off and crushes them with his strength. So lions are not just used to describe people positively. In fact, Satan is described as a prowling lion looking for someone to devour in 1 Peter 5:8.
Historically lions are often associated with courage. Richard the Lionheart, king of England, would be an example of this. In 2 Samuel 17:10 we read, “Then even the bravest soldier, whose heart is like the heart of a lion, will melt with fear, for all Israel knows that your father is a fighter and that those with him are brave.” So, in biblical times too, soldiers with courage were compared to lions even if the speaker is predicting that they will fall away with fear before David and his warriors.
In Job 10:16, Job complains that God is like a lion. God is fierce. If he lifts his head up high God will visit him with even more tragedy. Job is likening his previous troubles to a fierce lion attack and he really doesn’t want to go through all of that again. However, is this an accurate description of how God treated Job or just a heartfelt expression of Job’s anxiety and grief?
A lion may eat 66 pounds of meat in one sitting. They need an average of 11-15 pounds of meat a day. They are not a cheap pet. They are voracious eaters and Psalm 17:12 describes a hungry lion who is waiting for its next meal. Again, though, this describes wicked men. Does the Lord have a ravenous appetite?
A final characteristic of a lion to consider is its majesty. The same verses in Proverbs that described the first point indicate majesty as well as power. Majesty is a stately quality. It is awe inspiring. Lions are definitely that. So one perspective of lions that would connect well with God in general would be their majesty.
We could use the descriptions of lions above to creatively talk about God in various ways. However, when did biblical authors directly compare God to a lion? What do we learn when the Bible compares the King of Kings with the King of the Jungle?
In his 31st chapter Isaiah warns God’s people not to turn to the Egyptians for help. There is something better available to them. The terror of the Assyrians in warfare is put in right perspective and the right perspective comes when God is thought of like a lion. Isaiah 31 reads:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help
and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
2 And yet he is wise and brings disaster;
he does not call back his words,
but will arise against the house of the evildoers
and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.
3 The Egyptians are man, and not God,
and their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and he who is helped will fall,
and they will all perish together.
4 For thus the Lord said to me,
“As a lion or a young lion growls over his prey,
and when a band of shepherds is called out against him
he is not terrified by their shouting
or daunted at their noise,
so the Lord of hosts will come down
to fight on Mount Zion and on its hill.
5 Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts
will protect Jerusalem;
he will protect and deliver it;
he will spare and rescue it.”
6 Turn to him from whom people have deeply revolted, O children of Israel. 7 For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.
8 “And the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of man;
and a sword, not of man, shall devour him;
and he shall flee from the sword,
and his young men shall be put to forced labour.
9 His rock shall pass away in terror,
and his officers desert the standard in panic,”
declares the Lord, whose fire is in Zion,
and whose furnace is in Jerusalem.
Another passage that refers to God as a lion is found in Lamentations where Jeremiah describes what it is like to suffer the righteous judgment of God:
Like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding,
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help.
In this second passage Jerusalem is in ruins and Jeremiah is suffering bitterly. He has seen the horrors of warfare up close and personal and to him they look like the ravages of a lion.
If God is the lion of Isaiah 31, there is no real competition between the horses of Egypt and the powerful God/Lion. We see how near-sighted it is to solve our problems by solely looking at material solutions. The spiritual reality of God transcends the realities of the latest military technology. Chariots and horses seemed cutting edge when Isaiah wrote, but in our age the prophets of God might warn us about relying too heavily on drones, allies with stealth bombers, or well-connected spy networks. No political or technological solution is a substitute for God.
If we should not lean too heavily on our allies because their strength is nothing compared to God, we should also not look at our enemies with hearts filled with fear. The Assyrians were the enemies of Isaiah 31 and they were masters of terror. They impaled, skinned, crucified or beheaded many of their enemies. It is in the face of such brutality that God encourages the Israelites to look to him. To describe himself in ways that seem encouraging in dire circumstances, God describes himself through the prophet as a lion. No-one messes with God.
There are a number of attributes that ‘God as Lion’ communicates. We will look at five.
Firstly, God is fierce. Considering that the context of Isaiah 31 is warfare, a fierce God is highly appropriate. A small pussy-cat who mews at the enemy would not be a helpful ally at all. Israel can be confident that their God will fight fiercely. A fierce God strikes fear into the heart of the enemy. He causes them to shrink away in reverent fear. To be on the wrong side of God is not only foolish, it is fatal.
In conflicts through the ages many people have evoked God’s support of their cause. In ancient times national deities were routinely conjured into action by the nation’s priests. In the last century, young men could be motivated by persuading them to fight for ‘God and country.’ As the west became more Christian it became more frequent for both sides to claim that God was on their side. However, Abraham Lincoln showed his wisdom when he declared that it’s impossible to force God to be on our side, but to discern whether we were on his side. Rather than the self-assured arrogance of imperial thinking, or the conviction that human might is right, we should humbly seek out the agenda of God the Lion. Which battles does God want to fight? What wars does God want to win? Engaging in conflict that is obviously immoral by biblical standards would be opposed to God.
The age of monarchs, sadly for the British, is over. America sent King George packing and most monarchs now have symbolic rather than actual power. In a democratic republic the people are more responsible for the armed conflicts between nations. Of course, politicians declare war and make peace, but the people elect them. Looking at the politicians we can elect, especially if they are to be commander-in-chief (as the president is), we must try and discern if the officials we would vote for are more likely to mobilize our armed forces for what is right and godly or what is corrupt and solely self-serving. Although western nations, particularly America, might be the most advanced and well-armed powers in the world, God will fight for whomever he will. It is ultimately foolish to march into a conflict with an arsenal of nuclear weapons if the spiritual reality of the fierce God of Israel is in opposition to you.
In my opinion, we have seen some evidence God influencing battles in the modern era. God has his hand on Israel. I believe that is why, against overwhelming odds, the surrounding nations were not able to crush them in the armed conflicts that followed their independence. For the west, in a renewed age of terror, a godless secular approach to warfare is not appropriate. We need to seek God to see what he is doing. Then we must align ourselves with him.
We must remember that God as lion is fierce. We should also remember that God as lion is destructive. A fierce lion might be effective without actually having a fight. A destructive lion is devastating. In Isaiah and Lamentations God as lion destroys. He destroys the enemies of Judah, but ultimately he destroys Judah itself. How can God do such a thing? Holiness and righteousness are a serious business. We have trivialized our theology in the west. We easily see God as our friend, but we do not so easily welcome God’s holiness. There is no-one like God. Rather than an interesting point of trivia, this fact is central to godly living. His righteousness is like the noon-day sun and it burns up any impurity that dares enter his presence. Writers in the Bible who encounter God fall down as dead or cry out, “Woe to me because I am a man of unclean lips.” Our impurity is a big deal. As the creator of the world, who has watched his possession go astray, he is justified in washing the slate clean as he did in the days of Noah. A holy God, who is completely righteous is fearsome to behold. The image of a lion who executes righteous judgment is entirely appropriate.
In the Narnian series it is asked whether the God-figure Aslan is a safe lion. The idea is laughable that Aslan would be safe. However, the wise reply is that he is good. Thank God that he is good, we may think. This is because we so soon believe that we are good. It is a basic error in our worldview to think that mankind is intrinsically good and therefore there is no threat to us from the lion who is entirely good. Our lack of goodness that demands justice. Something or someone needs to be destroyed. If we understand the nature of the human soul, we should brace for the claws of the lion to rip into our flesh and for our destruction to be complete. However, God does rip into flesh and pierce humanity because of our unrighteous rebellion. But the flesh that God allows to be torn and the side that he pierces is that of the Son. He destroys sin by taking it on himself. However, if we do not respond to the sacrifice that he made in Jesus, he must destroy unrighteousness and that means that people remain subject to his wrath.
Eustace, in the Narnian series is a self-interested little snot of a young man. His unrighteousness and particularly his greed gets him into a lot of trouble. However, when he is transformed into a dragon because of his greed Aslan rescues him … by destroying him. He tears off layer after layer of skin to destroy the dragon that Eustace has become. Finally, after a painful transformative process, Eustace becomes the young man he was always created to be. Destruction is not often a pleasant process, but it can be one that is good.
Although God as lion is fierce and destructive, he is also protective. We are told in the Bible that God is a jealous God. This means that he claims what is his by right. He is jealous for his people because they are his by a covenant made with Abraham and then renewed and developed in the time of Moses. Just like a bride and a groom belong to each other, so God and his covenant people belong with each other. Then God protects those who are his. He shelters them he covers them.
The strange imagery in the passage is of God as lion growling over his prey. The analogy, though, is not to focus on the status of that which is protected or shielded. It is a carcass and Israel is not a carcass. The focus is on the stance of the lion. To get between an animal and its food is a foolish thing to do. Fooling with a hungry lion who is protecting his food is like fooling with a loving God who is protecting his people. It is best to leave well enough alone.
In our world today people are martyred. In years gone by people have been martyred. Does the reality of the suffering of God’s people show that God is not really protective? Does church history show that God does not really protect? If our understanding is that this present world is all there is to reality, we might be justified in thinking that God is arbitrary or non-existent. However, an eternal perspective allows us to see that through death God welcomes his weary people into an eternal rest where they are protected and secure forever. Even without this perspective, though, we must remember that the value of humans is in serving God himself. God protects people in ways that serve his purposes and as God’s people mature they are grateful when he protects them from harm, but they are also grateful to be a testimony to his power through suffering and martyrdom. In the security of the west we understand protection from suffering. We do not understand as fully the experience of protection of the soul through suffering. However, the Bible shows evidence of God protecting his people in both ways.
A fourth way to understand God as lion is as one who is active. In the Field Museum I have seen the man-eating lions of Tsavo. They were active in 1898 in Kenya-Uganda. Their story is frightening. They dragged railway workers out of their tents and killed and ate them. The Indian workers refused to work because so many were killed. Low estimates say 35 people may have been killed by the lions and higher estimates place the death toll around 135. However, although I can stand within two or three feet of them, they do not strike any fear into my heart. They are no longer active – they are stuffed lions. God is active and his word is active. God is not an invention of deluded people in primitive ages of history. God’s not dead. Nietzsche was wrong. We did not kill God. We lacked the power. Communist regimes did not extinguish God. He is infinitely resilient. Whatever clever arguments people throw at believers; whatever evidence there might be that God has left the world, God is active in his own ways. The Bible compares his activity not just to any old lion, but he compares it to a young lion.
Deists believe that God set the world in motion and then took a back seat. He wound up the world and then walked away, letting it work according to its design. We can call God close when we need him for a math exam, or a family tragedy, but generally he floats somewhere just above the clouds in a disinterested way. However, Paul contradicts this when he tells the Athenians of a God in whom we live and move and have our being. In Colossians he talks about Jesus as being all and being in all. God fills his world and is active. This is why the Psalmist cries out that he cannot escape God. Each of our lives shows the fingerprints of an active God. Are we aware of what he has been doing in and around us lately? It might be good to post some reminder that God is active in this world, like a young lion, it is worth remembering.
Finally, God as lion is courageous. His courage is displayed in Isaiah 31 by the undaunted way he approaches shepherds who do their best to scare him and make him go away. He moves on towards his goal relentlessly.
When we think of courageousness in the Bible, we often think of Joshua. After the death of his mentor, Moses, he was thrust into leadership and given the task of taking the people of Israel into a land where they were grasshoppers in the eyes of their enemies. Joshua had to fight walled cities like Jericho and battle against enemies who outnumbered him or had some superior technologies. It was natural to be fearful, but Joshua was told to be courageous. God tells him in Joshua 1 to be strong and courageous because He is with Joshua. The courage of a Christian comes from the courageous resources of God. The lion heart of a believer comes from the lion heart of God.
In the children’s story, The Gruffalo, a scared mouse bluffs his way out of being eaten by pretending he is going to meet a Gruffalo. As he leaves the fox, he says, “Silly old fox, doesn’t he know? There is no such thing as a Gruffalo!” He says similar things to an owl and a snake. Imagine his surprise when he meets a real Gruffalo. The mouse survives the encounter and then uses it for his own benefit. He walks with the Gruffalo back to the predatory, snake, owl and fox. This time he has more confidence and courage and his fears are diminished. It is not because of any great transformation in the mouse. He has not become mighty and fearsome. It is because the snake, owl and fox see the immense Gruffalo standing behind the tiny mouse. I think this illustrates that although there is nothing invincible in ourselves, we walk with a God who is a courageous lion. The analogy fails a little if we think of courage as facing and overcoming fears. I don’t really think of God as having fears. The analogy works when we think of the disposition of one who is fearless and then gives us the courage to face our own trials.
A general application comes from the analogy of God as lion. God is majestic and worthy of worship. This is true of all the persons in the trinity. We have focused on Old Testament writing to this point, but we should not neglect Revelation 5:5. Although there is some dispute about how this verse is translated, it is generally accepted that The Son is portrayed in Revelation as both The Lion and The Lamb. This contrast of majesty and meekness is true of Jesus and is reflected in his life on earth. These seemingly contradicting images come from a deep understanding of what took place on the cross. The New Testament looks on the cross as a moment of glory and triumph, but it is also a moment of sacrifice. The lion defeating its prey would be a great picture of Jesus defeating sin. However, the lion is not fully illustrative of all that Jesus is. He is also the lamb.
The tension between these two images is expressed in a song by Big Daddy Weave called The Lion and the Lamb. When I was a child and I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I was deeply moved by the great Lion Aslan revealing himself as a lamb. The knowledge that he is a mighty lion but he chooses such gentleness is an awe inspiring concept. In a lesser way it is the wonder we feel when the President plays with their children. The same fingers that could press a button destroying the world, plays ring-a-ring-a-roses with a child. So God is master of the universe but also the one who touches our face with moonlight as we sleep securely in our beds. As the song The Lion and the Lamb states:
Our God is the Lion, the Lion of Judah
He’s roaring with power and fighting our battles
And every knee will bow before You
Our God is the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain
For the sin of the world, His blood breaks the chains
And every knee will bow before the Lion and the Lamb
Oh every knee will bow before the Lion and the Lamb