by Al Maxey

Issue #544 ------- August 17, 2012
The behavior of men to the lower animals, and their
behavior to each other, bear a constant relationship.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)

Lions, Leopards and Lambs
A Reflective Analysis of the Prophet
Isaiah's Perplexing Prophetic Portrait

Someone once characterized the prophet Isaiah as a man of God whose message was messianic and whose method was metaphorical. Just as there is no question but what Isaiah had a lot to say about the coming Messiah, there is also no question but what he used figurative language quite frequently in his work to present the message of God to those about him (and, by extension, to us today through the OT book which bears his name). Although the first half of this book is primarily a message of judgment against the people of God if they refuse to repent, the latter half is largely one of forgiveness, comfort and hope, all of which find their ultimate and eternal fulfillment in the Messianic Kingdom, although there would be some degree of fulfillment even prior to that Coming when the Jews would be allowed to return from captivity to their homeland. Throughout his lengthy and numerous prophecies, Isaiah makes liberal use of metaphors, a literary device quite common among the peoples of that time and location. Although these figures sometimes cause interpretive problems for some today, their meaning was well-known to those who heard them then. They were never intended to be taken literally, although some interpreters have sought to do so, often to their theological embarrassment.

Some figurative representations purportedly drawn from Isaiah's prophecy have almost become part of our language, such as: "The lion shall lie down with the lamb." We have all most likely heard this expression many times (we've even heard it in sermons and seen it portrayed in art work, as in the painting seen at the beginning of this article), and so we have just assumed it was found in the Bible. Many would be shocked to learn, therefore, that this saying is not found in the Bible, although the concept is clearly a biblical one. Lions lying with lambs certainly makes for good alliteration, but the actual passages from the prophecy of Isaiah present the picture differently, although the spiritual truths being conveyed remain the same. The two passages in question, as they are rendered in the English Standard Version, are:

Isaiah 11:6-7
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard
shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and
the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little
child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall
graze; their young shall lie down together; and
the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

Isaiah 65:25
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the
lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall
be the serpent's food.

Are we really to conclude from these passages that a time is coming (assuming these prophecies have yet to be fulfilled) when serpents will eat dust? That lions will eat straw like an ox? That wolves will graze and dwell with lambs? That lions and calves will be close companions? That leopards and young goats will lie down together? That bears will graze like cows? That a little child will be their leader? These are strange statements, and over the centuries they have led to some rather strange speculations among biblical scholars. Obviously, one's understanding of these prophecies will be greatly influenced by whether one believes these statements are to be perceived literally or figuratively. One's thinking with respect to the purpose and scope of OT prophecy, as well as one's view of eschatology, will also play a significant role in how one believes these two texts from Isaiah will be ultimately fulfilled (or if they believe they already have been). Almost all scholars believe the two passages to be linked in some sense to the Messianic Kingdom, although they often differ among themselves as to the time and nature of that kingdom (some see it as following the Parousia, others relegate it to the Millennial Reign of Christ, while still others place it in the present Church Age). There are also scholars who believe that these prophecies have multiple fulfillments: the primary fulfillment being the return of God's people to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity, with secondary and tertiary fulfillments being during the Christian period prior to the Second Coming and then finally in the new heavens and earth. It is certainly not uncommon for OT prophecies to have several levels of historical and spiritual application. Although some will become rather dogmatic about their theory pertaining to the fulfillment of this prophecy, the wisest course is perhaps best summed up by Dr. Charles Ellicott, "Men have discussed the question whether and when the words shall receive a literal or allegorical fulfillment, and the answer to that question lies behind the veil" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 453]. In other words, some things are simply beyond our current ability to discern with absolute certainty. Thus, "we dare not fix times and seasons" [ibid, p. 574]. Yes, we may hold firmly to our studied convictions on the matter, and even share them with others, but we dare not become dogmatic and divisive over them.

With the above cautions and considerations in place, let us examine a few of the major views pertaining to these two passages from the prophecy of Isaiah. As with most OT prophecies, it is always important to ask how the people to whom it was originally given would have understood it, and what significance it may have had on their lives and circumstances. If the only fulfillment these prophecies had was thousands of years in the future, then one has to wonder as to their relevance to the people to whom they were first given. Thus, even though there may be further fulfillments to these prophecies (as there often are), there is nevertheless some degree of relevance for the people who first heard them. As noted earlier, Isaiah was not only a prophet who warned the people that judgment was coming (which would be carried out in their upcoming captivity), but he was also a prophet who informed them that God would not forever abandon them to their captors, but would bring about some degree of peace between them and their neighboring nations, and return them to their homeland. This, in fact, came about when Cyrus issued his decree allowing the captives to return and rebuild Jerusalem, its wall, and its temple. For a time there was peace in the land. The wolf, lion, leopard, bear (the aggressors) coexisted peacefully with the lamb. The teeth that formerly ripped and tore at the people of Israel, now turned from their thirst for blood and "grazed" alongside them on fare that did not require the death or destruction of the people.

The ravenous nations surrounding Israel are often spoken of in metaphors in the OT writings, and they are not infrequently viewed in terms of wild, carnivorous animals. For example, the Lord has this to say to His rebellious people through the prophet Jeremiah, "Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many" (Jer. 5:6). Notice that these are three of the same animals depicted in Isaiah's prophecy. Clearly, the passage in Jeremiah is not speaking of literal lions, wolves and leopards, but rather of nations that God will use to punish His people (who are often referred to as sheep and lambs) for their rebellion. Again, such metaphors are quite common in the OT writings. Thus, the Jews would have understood Isaiah's prophecy to be speaking of a time when the wolves, lions, leopards, bears and serpents would cease their attacks against God's flock and dwell in peace with them, a time that would come for them following their return from Babylonian captivity (although it would prove to be rather short-lived, as the Greeks and the Romans were hovering on the historical horizon). This, by the way, was the understanding of some of the great Jewish theologians, philosophers and historians such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who stated these verses were not to be understood literally, but rather "in a parabolical and enigmatical sense" [Dr. John Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Keil & Delitzsch refer to the prophecy as "an allusion full of enigmas" [Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 7, p. 287]. "The Fathers, and such commentators as Luther and Calvin, have taken all these figures from the animal world as symbolical" [ibid, p. 285]. "We find parallel pictures in Oriental poets, and in the Romans Virgil and Horace," thus "few would be disposed to take these descriptions literally" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, pt. 2, p. 478].

Those who do take these verses literally, however, believe Isaiah is speaking of a distant time when the animals will once again become vegetarians and dwell together in peace (which they generally believe will not happen until after the return of Christ, and will be the reality experienced in the new heavens and earth). God will return His creation to its Pre-Adamic/Noahic state where all animals were thought to be strictly vegetarians, where wolves cuddled with lambs, lions ate straw like an ox, and leopards slept with goats. This is a fairly popular view with some, and is bolstered by such passages as Genesis 1:28-30 and 9:1-4, which we examined in some depth in Reflections #543 -- The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma: Were Pre-Noahic Hominids Carnivorous? In response to this issue about the antediluvian diet, one reader wrote, "Doesn't Isaiah's portrait lend credence to the view that God originally designed all animals to be peaceful herbivores before the curse?" In the view of some, it certainly does, and additionally suggests that the animals will one day be returned to that state. Most scholars, however, reject this view since it requires the passages in Isaiah to be taken literally, which very few believe to be the case.

The most immediate fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy would seem to be the restoration of peaceful conditions between the people of Israel and their neighbors, and their return to their homeland following the captivity. Secondarily, however, most believe we find future fulfillment of these prophecies with the coming of the Messiah (in part following His first coming, and in its completeness following His second coming). From our perspective today we could perhaps refer to these as the Church Age and the Coming Age (although some would insert the Millennial Age just prior to the latter of the two, a view to which I personally do not subscribe). We will notice each of these two views briefly.

The Coming Age

Most Christians believe that at some point in the future our Lord Jesus Christ will return to claim His bride (the church; the redeemed), and that when that day comes it will usher in that new "eternal day" in which all things will be made new and imperishable. "In keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13). In fact, just prior to Isaiah 65:25, and providing a context for that passage, we read, "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in My people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more" (Isaiah 65:17-19). Although this would certainly be fulfilled in a more immediate and temporal sense with the return of the captives to Jerusalem, many scholars see a future and eternal fulfillment in the new Jerusalem. "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her Husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.' He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'" (Rev. 21:1-5).

Part of that which is to be made new is the full and final transformation of our human nature so that we perfectly portray the very nature of our Lord Jesus. Disciples who struggled with their human natures here on earth (Rom. 7:15f), will no longer experience that struggle there. Indeed, disciples who may have struggled somewhat with one another here (Acts 15:39), as we often do because of our human nature, will find those struggles forever behind them. All such adversarial encounters are past. We are forever remade, recreated, transformed. It will be an eternal realm characterized by peace, harmony, safety and tranquility; a realm beautifully portrayed figuratively as a land where wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, lion and calf dwell intimately together. It is "a figurative representation of ideal spiritual conditions" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, the OT, vol. 2, p. 308]. Thus, this prophecy "sets before the eyes of all believers the glorious peace of the Messianic Kingdom, in which men, without the ferociousness of their sinful nature, will be at peace with one another" [ibid, p. 395]. This complete transformation of the human nature will, of course, not occur ultimately and universally until after the Consummation, at which time the Coming Age will be inaugurated. Therefore, some biblical scholars believe this prophecy from Isaiah will not be fully fulfilled until that final day arrives for which all of creation eagerly awaits (Rom. 8:19f).

The Church Age

On the other hand, there is most certainly a sense in which the kingdom of God, and the reign of our Lord Jesus, and the manifest power of His Holy Spirit, is already very much in force in our present world, although the people of God continue to "struggle against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12), and this struggle will intensify as the end draws near, and as Satan is released for his "little season." Nevertheless, during this Christian dispensation we see a partial fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (indeed, many scholars feel it to be the primary fulfillment of that prophecy). It is believed the statement "a little child will lead them" (Isaiah 11:6) is a reference to the Messiah (with specific reference to His incarnation as the Innocent Child who would become King of kings), with the statement "dust will be the serpent's food" (Isaiah 65:25) being a reinforcement of the prophesied curse against (which also speaks of "dust") and defeat of "that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan" (Rev. 12:9; 20:2) by the Christ Child (Gen. 3:14-15).

As for the animal metaphors themselves, they are perceived under this theory of interpretation as being representative of the wicked, vicious nature of the unredeemed who are then converted by the gospel from their predatory ways. Thus, you have a blood-thirsty wolf like Saul of Tarsus who meets Jesus and is transformed into one of the leaders of His flock. Instead of slaughtering lambs, this wolf now associates with them, dining on the same spiritual fare (as it were). Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote that this prophecy "is fulfilled in the wonderful effect of the gospel upon the minds of those that sincerely embrace it; it changes the nature, and makes those that trampled on the meek of the earth, not only meek like them, but affectionate towards them. When Paul, who had persecuted the saints, joined himself to them, then the wolf dwelt with the lamb" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. He continues with the following: "Men of the most fierce and furious dispositions, who used to bite and devour all about them, shall have their temper so strangely altered by the efficacy of the gospel and grace of Christ that they shall live in love even with the weakest and such as formerly they would have made an easy prey of" [ibid]. "The very highest instance of power with which we are familiar is that spiritual influence which transforms those who have gone furthest away from God, from Truth, and from righteousness -- those who are to the moral world what the tiger, the lion, or the asp is to the animal world. The gospel of Jesus Christ has this power. With such wonderful intensity does it work on those on whom its truth is brought to bear, that it redeems and renews the worst, so changing them in life and in spirit that it may be said of them that the wolf dwells with the lamb" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, pt. 1, p. 210]. "The gospel of Christ can change the very nature of these: taming the most ferocious, raising the most fallen, liberating the most enslaved, making beautiful the most deformed of the children of men; it can do so by the power of Truth and of the Spirit of God" [ibid, p. 211].

Dr. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) declares, "There can be no doubt that the prophet means here to describe the passions and evil propensities of people, which have a strong resemblance to the ferocity of the wolf, or the lion, and the deadly poison of the serpent, and to say that those passions would be subdued, and that peace and concord would prevail on the earth," and "all this is partially realized wherever the gospel prevails" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. It will be universally realized, of course, at the future coming of Christ. Such peace and harmony is only partially realized now wherever the gospel holds sway over the hearts of men, thus transforming them more and more into His likeness. "The passage is figurative, and it points to harmony among men, who, in the Messiah's kingdom, shall no longer prey one upon another; a kingdom which when fully realized shall be one of perfect peace" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 10, pt. 1, p. 203]. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) wrote, "The people of God are comparable to lambs, for their harmlessness and innocence; and wicked men to wolves, for their fierceness and cruelty; but, by the grace of God, the latter become as mild and gentle as the former, and live upon the same spiritual food, and join with them in attendance on the Word and ordinances, where they find spiritual refreshment and comfort together. ... Wolves and lions will have their nature changed, and be in fellowship with the saints ... and shall no more drink the blood of the saints" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword].

In 1599, in the translation notes to The Geneva Bible, we read, "Men, because of their wicked affections, are named by the names of beasts in which the same affections reign; but Christ by His Spirit will reform them and work in them such mutual charity that they will be like lambs, favoring and loving one another, and cast off all their cruel affections." Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, in their Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, concur that these animal metaphors "may be figures for men of corresponding animal-like characters" [p. 522]. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, wrote that the nation's "officials are like wolves tearing their prey" (Ezek. 22:27). Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, spoke of those who "come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ferocious wolves" (Matt. 7:15). As Jesus was sending out the seventy (some manuscripts say seventy-two), He stated to them, "Behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves" (Luke 10:3). These were common metaphors and similes used to represent certain people and their characteristics -- people who could be, and many of whom would be, transformed by the power of the Spirit of God given to them when they accepted by faith God's gift of salvation through Christ Jesus. In my personal view, it is this that constitutes the primary meaning of the Isaiah passages for us today, although I certainly believe it had a more immediate significance for the people of Israel as they faced captivity, and that it will also not be completely and universally realized until the return of our Lord Jesus to claim His bride. Until that great day, may we, who are His lambs, continue to proclaim His grace to those in the darkness about us, for His Gospel and His Spirit have the power to transform even the fiercest foe into a sensitive saint.

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Immersed By One Spirit
Rethinking the Purpose and Place of
Baptism in NT Theology and Practice

(A 304 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Readers' Reflections

New Wineskins Article -- If you are not familiar with the publication New Wineskins, then please take some time and check out their web site. It is a powerful voice for responsible reform within the universal One Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. The articles and features will challenge you to think, and in so doing will broaden your understanding of His Word, as well as draw you closer to your Lord and His people. I generally have an article in each issue, and am also one of the publication's "Special Correspondents" (along with Rubel Shelly and Edward Fudge). My article in the current issue is Soaring Beyond Our Shibboleths. Again, please take a look at this publication. I think you'll like what you see. Also, if you do, recommend it to your friends and family. They too will be edified.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, would you please spread the word that the Muskogee Church of Christ is seeking a Minister. We are an active congregation of about 250 with a weekly budget of about $8,000. There is a good eldership here, and many good things are happening. Additional information for those who might be interested can be found at our Web Site.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I love reading your work. It makes me "take time out and think." I may not agree with everything you say at the time I read it, but by the time I ponder it and pray about things, I am learning that we have been crippled in our faith and there is joy to be found in our service to the Lord.

From a Missionary in the Fiji Islands:

Al, if you would, please send me a signed copy of each of your three books: Down, But Not Out ... One Bread, One Body ... Immersed By One Spirit. Thank you. Grace and peace to you.

From a Reader in Georgia:

With regard to your article "The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma" -- Sooooo many cats, sooooo few recipes! (LOL) By the way, what's up with the folks in TN? Bless you, brother.

From a Reader in Texas:

Thanks for the article titled "The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma." I had never thought much about this subject, so it was a great read and a good topic to ponder. It also sounds like your "fan club" was busy this week!! (LOL) Thanks for all you do. You are appreciated.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

It is a sad day when a reader, whose views have been challenged by your writings, not only demands to be removed from your mailing list, but then (even worse) contacts your ISP and reports you for abuse!! Little by little, the legalists will continue to walk away from you, but they will not soon forget the words you have written! For them to think that the word "denomination" is a bad word is just ridiculous. Anyone who pays attention knows that the Church of Christ group is a denomination. I enjoy your in-depth articles so very much! Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Interesting thoughts on "denomination" in your comments in your last Readers' Reflections section and in the article previous. My Webster's Collegiate Dictionary also defines denomination as: "A religious group with a particular set of beliefs." I think that would include the Church of Christ group. Many of our brethren use the term to designate a church that teaches and practices "error," and is therefore not the "one, true church." In this regard I would have to say that the Churches of Christ teach and practice about as many "errors" as the "denominations." So, once again, we are, in reality, a "denomination" (by definition).

From a Reader in Alabama:

I just read your last Reflections ("The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma") and, as usual, you have given me something to think about. I was alarmed to read, however, that "man most likely evolved in a God-ordained, -overseen and -controlled manner." I am on my way now, as you suggested, to read Reflections #475 -- Theory of Evolutionary Creation: Are Christianity and Evolution Compatible? -- to see if I can better understand what you are saying. If not, I will certainly need some help understanding what you are saying.

From a Reader in Texas:

I am trying to do a serious study of homosexuality as it is portrayed in the Bible. I am a regular reader of your Reflections, yet notice that there are no entries on your Topical Index for this subject, so I went to your Textual Index. It appears to me, from looking at several NT references, that your following two Reflections articles: Issue #121 -- The IDEAL For Marriage: Our Creator's Divine Design and Issue #305 -- The Nature/Nurture Dilemma: A Reflective, Respectful Response to Saints Struggling with Homosexuality are the primary essays to read from your files. I would appreciate you pointing me to any other writings of yours on this subject that I might consult. Without going into any great detail, my personal belief is that it is not a sin to be a homosexual by orientation, but that the sin lies in the behavior -- just as it does with a heterosexual. Thank you in advance for your consideration.

From a Reader in Texas:

"The Antediluvian Diet Dilemma" was a good article, especially in the wake of the recent Great Chicken Armageddon, where all good believers rushed out to buy fried fast food! I'm just glad God doesn't seem to mind my milk and granola bar fetish.

From a Reader in Texas:

I love the cartoon of the "caveman cook" in your latest Reflections. I haven't read the article yet because I plan to read it at the drive-in movie tonight while waiting for the sun to go down. Looking forward to what appears to be a very interesting article!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I just want to live on your street in the new heavens and earth, okay?! Then I can just come over to your mansion and sit and listen to you for eons!! Will that be alright?!!

From a Reader in Connecticut:

I really enjoy the photos of you, your family, and especially your grandchildren that you post on your Facebook page. Grandchildren are such a JOY to the soul. Although we have only one, life becomes so much more focused when I look at him. I heard it said that becoming a grandfather is God's way of giving a father a second chance! I think there is some truth to that. As you know, my wife and I are making great strides in our spiritual journey. Again, I can never thank you enough for this. Al, you have helped me more than you know. We are forever grateful. As always, may God continue to bless you and yours.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, you have been a great encouragement to me. Coming from a Christian Church background, it is a blessing to talk to a brother in the Churches of Christ who does not think one's salvation is based around the instrument. I feel so blessed when I run into that kind of grace, because I have experienced the other side of the Church of Christ too!! Oh, the hurtful and harmful things I have read -- no, I think I should say the ugly things I have read. Apologetics Press sent me a free book that was nothing less than an assassination attempt in ink of Rick Atchley ("Richland Hills and Instrumental Music"). So brother, I applaud your work and your writings! I don't know how you manage to do all the writing you do, but please keep it up!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I try to read as many of your past Reflections as I can from your Archives every day, catching up on what I have been missing all these years. Something especially caught my attention today: a preacher who said he dresses casually except on Sunday. Where did we ever get this notion of "dressing up" for Sunday church services? After all, our service to God and His children is our "worship" every day of the week. Aren't we told: "Don't be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God" (1 Peter 3:3-4). Yet, I know of folks who don't "go to church" because they don't have nice clothes to wear. I love our preacher who fills the pulpit wearing jeans, just like most every other person here in "cow country." Anyway, thank you for always taking time to address my concerns when I email you. Your web page has made such a difference in my life, and now I'm trying to pass it on to as many people as possible!

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