A Tale of Two Lions

Lions might seem like an odd topic for a Bible study. I don’t usually spend a whole lot of time thinking about lions unless I’m building a habitat in Planet Zoo or thinking about rewatching The Lion King. But then last week, I heard an excellent sermon about the lion that Peter talks about in his first letter. Peter warns, “Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, WEB). Hearing about this “roaring lion,” the people he preys on, and the way to guard against him got me thinking of another Lion mentioned in the Bible–Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

I was shocked when I did a word search for “lion” in the Bible and found over 100 verses. I hadn’t realized there were so many lions in the Bible. There are animal lions like the ones Samson and David slew and the ones that didn’t eat Daniel (Jud. 14:5-6; 1 Sam. 17:34-35; Dan. 6:16-22). There are vicious, wicked people who are compared to dangerous lions (Ps. 7:1-2; 22:13, 21; 57:4; 2 Tim. 4:17). There are accounts of God protecting His people from both real and metaphorical lions (Ps. 91:13; Heb. 11:32-33). Comparisons between people and lions are used as compliments and blessings (Deut. 33:20, 22; Num. 24:8-9; 2 Sam. 1:23), or as criticisms and warnings (Ps. 10:9; Prov. 28:15; Eze. 22:25). Lions figure prominently as a creature that’s local to areas where the Bible writers lived. They presented a very real danger and their use in these writings would have been readily understood by the hearers.

With all the mentions of lions in the Bible, another thing that surprised me is that the the Lion of Judah and the comparison between the devil and a lion aren’t mentioned very often. There’s really only one or two verses each that explicitly discuss those two lions. That doesn’t make these ideas any less important, but it did surprise me. I think, though, that these two uses of lion build on overall patterns in the Bible of using lions to talk about stand-out examples of goodness and wickedness.

Wicked Lions

One of the most prominent ways that lions are used in the Bible is to describe the dangerous natures of wicked people. In several psalms, the writers compare their adversaries to lions, highlighting the danger they face as they cry out for God to protect and deliver them (Ps. 10:9; 17:12; 22:13, 21; 35:17; 57:4; 58:6).

Yahweh, my God, I take refuge in you.
Save me from all those who pursue me, and deliver me,
lest they tear apart my soul like a lion,
ripping it in pieces, while there is no one to deliver.

Psalm 7:1-2, WEB

The imagery of God’s people being hunted by lions who threaten to “tear apart my soul” lays groundwork of lions standing-in for human or spiritual threats that likely influenced Peter’s letter. This imagery also shows up in prophecy (Jer. 50:17, 44).

Raise a signal flag that tells people to go to Zion.
Run for safety! Do not delay!
For I am about to bring disaster out of the north.
It will bring great destruction.
Like a lion that has come up from its lair
the one who destroys nations has set out from his home base.
He is coming out to lay your land waste.
Your cities will become ruins and lie uninhabited.

Isaiah 4:6-7, NET

It is against this backdrop that Peter writes to his first-century audience of Jews and Gentile converts. Most would have been familiar with the Old Testament writings, and those who might not have been before conversion would be learning from those scriptures. Peter’s comparison of the devil to a lion works even without the OT background, but it’s even more effective when we know the history of how lions were used in scripture.

Good and Mighty Lions

In sharp contrast to the depictions of dangerous, wicked lions stands Bible verses about people who are like mighty, powerful lions. In David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan he says, “They were stronger than lions” (2 Sam. 1:23, WEB). Proverbs tells us “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1, WEB). Most of Ezekiel 19 compares Israel to a lioness (Ezekiel 19:1-9). Moses’s blessings on the tribes of Gad and Dan speak of them as a lioness and a lion (Deut. 33:20-22). Most notable, though, is this passage from Jacob’s prophecy for his sons.

Judah is a lion’s cub.
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down, he crouched as a lion,
as a lioness.
Who will rouse him up?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs.
The obedience of the peoples will be to him.

Genesis 49:9-10, WEB

I wonder if perhaps this prophecy, with its connection between lions and kingship in the tribe of Judah, is why Solomon had 12 lions on his throne (1 Kings 10:19-20). It’s ultimate fulfilment, though, comes through Jesus Christ.

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Revelation 5:5, NET

Jesus is identified elsewhere in scripture as both David’s son and his Lord (Matt. 1:1; 22:43-46; Acts 2:22-36; Rom. 1:1-4). He inherits the kingship covenant that God made with David’s decedents as well as the blessings spoken of here in Genesis. And though Revelation 5:1-14 is the only time Jesus is explicitly identified as the Lion of Judah, it’s not the first time God reveals Himself as a lion.

The Lord as a Lion

The verses talking about God as a lion stand out for their sharp contrasts. On the one hand, people like Job and Hezekiah talk about God attacking them as if He were a lion (Job 10:16; Is. 38:13). But then on the other hand, God reveals Himself as a powerful, protecting lion.

This is what the Lord says to me:

“As a lion growls,
a great lion over its prey—
and though a whole band of shepherds
is called together against it,
it is not frightened by their shouts
or disturbed by their clamor—
so the Lord Almighty will come down
to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights.
Like birds hovering overhead,
the Lord Almighty will shield Jerusalem;
he will shield it and deliver it,
he will ‘pass over’ it and will rescue it.”

Isaiah 31:4-5, NET

The imagery of God as a protecting lion are more rare, though, than times when He compares Himself to an angry, vengeful lion (Jer. 25:37-38; 49:19; Hos. 5:14-15; 11:10; 13:6-8). We don’t often like to think of God as dangerous, but if we don’t realize that He’s a God of justice and wrath as well as mercy and love then we run the grave danger of underestimating Him. God’s self-revelation in scripture is nuanced (for example, when Jesus is called Lion of Judah He appears in the next verse as a Lamb who was slain [Rev. 5:5-6]). It’s impossible to put Him into just one box, or even to fully comprehend all the facets of His character right now with our human minds.

The peaceful meadows will be laid waste
because of the fierce anger of the Lord.
Like a lion he will leave his lair,
and their land will become desolate
because of the sword of the oppressor
and because of the Lord’s fierce anger.

Jeremiah 25:37-38, NET

The descriptions of the Lord as a Lion remind me of a quote from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When Susan learns that Aslan is a lion, she asks if he is “safe.” Mr. Bever replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Someone as powerful as a lion can’t really be called “safe.” But do we want a toothless, tamed God? I want to worship the Lord who is powerful and mighty enough to totally conquer an enemy described as a roaring lion that prowls around looking for a chance to devour everyone. When you’ve got a lion after you, it’s reassuring to have a Lion at your side. Especially one who is Good and who has already triumphed over the enemy as the Lamb slain to redeem us from sin (Rev. 5:5-14).

Featured image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Unto the Lamb” by Julie Meyer

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