What does the Bible mean by the expression the lion and lamb shall lay down together?! Written by Dr Andrew Corbett, President of ICI Theological College Australia, and author of the popular commentary on the Book of Revelation- The Most Embarrassing Book In The Bible, September 24th 2011
The “lion and the lamb shall lay down together” is often cited a prophecy speaking of a literal utopia on earth to come – a Golden Age – referred to as ‘The Millennium’. It is argued that since so many of the prophecies regarding The Christ’s first appearing were fulfilled literally, surely such prophecies of a Golden Age will also be fulfilled literally. This yet-to-come Golden Age (“The Millennium”) is spoken of as “Paradise Restored” – an age of Paradise on earth where there will be no death, sorrow, pain or sickness. The prophets described this era with the expression, “the lion and the lamb shall lay down together…” But there is a slight, ever so slight, problem with this: the expression, the lion and lamb shall lay down together does not occur in the Bible! The closest we can get to it Isaiah 11:6.
¶ 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.
I was with a group of pastors recently in Sydney where one of them quizzed me about the prophecy in the Old Testament referring to the lion and lamb laying down together. I gently pointed out that this expression doesn’t appear in the Bible. They immediately challenged my assertion. I quoted Isaiah 11:6 and pointed out that it refers to the wolf and the lamb not the lionand the lamb. I pointed out the significance of this prophecy and its most probable interpretation. They said that they would check this out when they returned home to their computer and I presume correct me if they could prove me wrong. I haven’t heard from them.
It’s interesting how many things are cited as if they are in the Bible. Like, one shall put a thousand to flight and two shall put ten thousand to flight is often quoted by leadership teachers about the power of an individual or a duo. But how many realise this citation refers to what Israel’s enemies could do to them if they broke Covenant with God (not what they would do to their enemies)? (Deut. 32:30)
The particular almost-biblical-expression in question is used to promote “Pre-Millennialism” which is the idea that Christ will return and set up a Golden Age on earth for a thousand years where even normally carnivorous animals will become vegetarian. This idea has gained much popular paperback-theology endorsement. But I am proposing a quite different view for your consideration.
In Tom Wright’s book, “Justification”, the master exegete and Biblical scholar describes the difficulty in challenging a view of Scripture which is almost universally accepted and taken for granted, in the same way that it must have been difficult for Copernicus to convince the world that the Sun did not revolve around the earth – but rather, that the earth rotated around the Sun. “Look” Copernicus’s objectors and scoffers might have contested, “each morning the Sun comes up then each evening it goes down. There you have it! The proof! The Sun goes around the earth.” But despite the objective data presented by Copernicus, the general perception continued and his objectors preserved the status quo, at least for a while.
Perhaps in a similar way, what I am proposing might meet with similar Copernican objectors. I am going to attempt to show that Isaiah 11:6 should not be taken in a wooden literal sense. Having already shown that the expression the lion shall lay down with the lamb…does not occur in the Bible, I am going to argue that neither is the very concept proposed – a Golden Age on earth, called the Millennium – to be what the Bible teaches.
“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.
The Book of Isaiah employs metaphors. Metaphors are word pictures. The Promised Messiah is described in Isaiah as a “tender shoot” or a “root” (incidentally, both metaphors occur in Isaiah 11). These word pictures of the Christ paint Him as the hope of Israel and One who would be born as a child and grow. The particular metaphors in question: the wolf, is frequently used in the Old Testament to speak of Israel’s enemies. For example, Jeremiah speaks of Israel’s enemies as a lion, a wolf, and a leopard.
¶ Therefore a lion from the forest shall strike them down;
a wolf from the desert shall devastate them.
A leopard is watching their cities;
everyone who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces,
because their transgressions are many,
their apostasies are great.
Similarly, Israel is frequently described as lambs, or sheep. To speak of wolves and lambs laying down together, is to describe the effect of the New Covenant. That is, the largely ethnically-centred Old Covenant, would one day be replaced by the for-all-the-world-New-Covenant where Jew and (the previously hostile enemy) Gentiles are brought together under the same Covenant.
¶ Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility
The context of Isaiah 11 is the ministry and achievement of the Messiah. The resultant New Covenant would make peace between formally hostile enemies. There are some beautiful prophetic metaphors in Isaiah 11 which describe this. Such as verse 18, The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. This is not a picture of a Utopian Golden Era, referred to as The Millennium, rather it was a prophetic picture of the resultant peace from the spread of the New Covenant. How far will this New Covenant spread?
or the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Of course, these various ideas come to affect how we understand the Book of Revelation. Some will continue to think that the Bible forecasts an earthly Utopia just as some continued to think that the Sun went around the earth in Copernicus’s day. To be sure, one day Christ will return, as the ancient creeds say, to judge all people and bring our dimensions to an end. In a sense, the New Heaven and the New Earth speaks of the New Covenant but it ultimately speaks of a time to come when –
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
In the meantime, the wolf lays down the lamb every time an Arab and a Jew find a common bond in knowing Christ as the Promised Prophet, Messiah and Saviour. And this is happening today perhaps more than people realise.
Dr. Andrew Corbett
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I have written a fuller explanation of the book of Revelation in my eBook – THE MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK IN THE BIBLE (click here to read a preview). The application from the Book of Revelation is that despite what appears to be an impotent Church struggling to serve an apparently impotent Christ, the Church is in reality made up of overcomers who lay down their lives gladly to promote Christ and His Gospel. In so doing, the Kingdom of Christ is extended, prayers are offered and heard, miracles are graced, and the believer can die with infinite hope that their Lord will keep them for eternity and clothe them with a new body which can not be subject to pain, injury, sorrow, or sin. With this knowledge we can endure momentary hardship during the brevity of this life on earth. We can be assured that our greatest delights and deepest moments of fulfilment are yet to come in the life to come.
¶ “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Dr. Andrew Corbett, Legana, Tasmania, Australia, August 15th, 2011