Lions in the Bible: God's Emissaries

Lions appear, literally and figuratively, throughout the Bible as powerful messengers. What do they tell us about the nature of God prior to and since the coming of Jesus Christ?
by Suze Forster | Source:

The use of leonic symbolism in Scripture and the intervention of lions in the lives of the Hebrews prior to the birth of Christ provide us with one of the most powerful messages about the nature and character of God.

When lions appear in Scripture. In the literal sense, lions appeared by way of three specific functions in the Old Testament: they were either killed by extraordinary human beings (often with their bare hands), were sent by God to kill specific people, or were used to demonstrate God’s complete power over them (and, by extension, His domination of the natural world). When used figuratively, lions feature symbolically as five distinct characteristics: to describe the traits of human individuals, to characterize national traits, in descriptions of apocalyptic events and beings, to depict Satan and the Antichrist, and to illustrate one of the illimitable attributes of God. An exploration of the use of lions both literally and figuratively in the Bible illuminates not only the nature of God, but is a defining element in understanding how, while His nature remains constant throughout time eternal, His manner of interacting with Mankind dramatically altered with the life, ministry and Passion of His Son, Jesus Christ.

When lions are killed. When lions appear in Old Testament Scripture, they have a purposeful role in the exercising of God’s will. Both Samson and King David in their youth killed lions with their bare hands. Samson’s experience was directly divine - ‘The Spirit of God came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands’ (Judges 14:6) while David describes his in past tense – ‘When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it’ (1 Samuel 17:34-35). David’s encounter does not specify supernaturally augmented strength but as God’s anointed, God’s provision of such is by default identified, for lions, even young lions, were aptly capable of overcoming a fully grown man, much more so a youth.  The other instance of a man killing a lion was Benaiah (one of King David’s awed and revered ‘mighty men’) who went into a pit to kill one. To do so would have been to court extreme peril, for to corner a lion in a space from which it could not escape would be to incite it to fury. (2 Samuel 23:20).

When lions are sent to kill. Perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of the appearance of lions in the Old Testament is when they are sent by God as harbingers of His divine justice. They do not appear coincidentally and therefore (by virtue of their predatory nature) enact God’s will simply by doing what lions do to survive – kill. They are specifically commissioned by God to dispense justice in such an explicit fashion at a precise moment in time that it quite simply cannot be attributed purely to hailing the call of natural instinct. This was the case when the Man of God was slain by a lion sent by God for disobeying His instructions. ‘As he went on his way, a lion met him on the road and killed him’ (1 Kings 13:24). ‘“It is the Man of God who defied the word of the Lord. The Lord has given him over to a lion, which has mauled him and killed him, as the word of the Lord had warned him.”’ (1 Kings 13:26). A more explicit account of lions sent by God is that of the prophet’s son who, when his companion failed to heed his instructions (given by the Lord), was told that the instant he left the presence of the prophet’s son he would be attacked and killed by a lion. ‘By the word of the Lord, one of the sons of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with a weapon,” but the man refused. So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him.’ (1 Kings 20:35-36). The lion did not, through unfortunate coincidence, merely cross paths with him, kill him and cart off its prey. It found him (by implication of which means it was sent specifically to do just that even if the prophet’s son hadn’t foretold his companion’s grisly demise). Similarly lions were sent to maul the pagans settlers in Samaria for their sinful practices and idol centric culture. ‘They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people.’ (2 Kings 17:24-25). Again lions were commissioned specifically as dispensers of judgment.

When lions are preternaturally overcome.
The Bible cites many instances where lions are preternaturally influenced, contravening all prevailing parameters of nature so that their behavior can only be attributed to divine intervention. When the Man of God was killed by a lion for disobeying the Word of the Lord, the lion stood as a sentinel beside the body so that those who passed by were in no doubt that it had been sent by the Lord to kill the Man of God, for nowhere in the account does it mention that it ate the Man of God, nor did it attack the donkey ridden by the Man of God which stood docilely by, nor did it attack or even threaten the passers by as a warning to stay well clear of its ‘prey’. ‘Then he went out and found the body thrown down on the road, with the donkey and the lion standing beside it. The lion had neither eaten the body nor mauled the donkey’. (1 Kings 13:28). The law of nature designates the role of male lions to that of procreators and territorial protectors – they produce offspring and will war against other male lions attempting to infiltrate the pride or unseat their supremacy (the lionesses kill to provide food for the pride). They will kill if wounded, starving, and even rogue lions have allegedly killed for sport. They do not kill without purpose. The lion’s failure to devour the man or even the donkey attests to God’s influence over its natural instincts. Perhaps the most famous account of lions in the Bible is the account of Daniel in the lions’ den. ‘“My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.”’ (Daniel 6:22). As was the practice in Babylon at the time (and later in the Roman Empire ), the lions kept in such dens were almost always half starved for a two-fold purpose: to awe and impress spectators with their ferocity and guarantee that those thrown down to them were savaged immediately. That this occurred to the false witnesses against Daniel just moments after his release from the den – ‘At the King’s command the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.’ (Daniel 6:24) – demonstrates yet again that they were under the influence of God, for it proved that they had not failed to maul Daniel simply because they were not hungry. Job 38 is a testimony of all things of nature being at His eternal command, even lions – ‘Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?’ (Job 39:39-40) – explaining His complete control over their provision, actions and reactions.

The leonic themes of the bible. Lions don’t merely make a literal appearance throughout the bible, but a thematic one as well. 

Leonic symbolism is used to describe personal traits: to describe Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:23); to describe formidability, righteousness and bravery (1 Chronicles 12:8) (Proverbs 28:1); and to depict God’s superior power through imagery portraying him crushing/trampling the lion (where the lion is used as a symbol for the strength of evil people ultimately overwhelmed by God) (Job 4:10-11) (Psalm 91). 

Leonic symbolism is used to describe national traits: the tribes and the nation of Israel as a whole are described as a lion using powerful imagery to convey strength and might (Genesis 49:9) (Numbers 23:24) (Numbers 24:9) (Deuteronomy 33: 20, 22) (Isaiah 15:9) (Ezekial 19:1-3, 5-7) Revelation 5:5); lions were used in the architecture of the Temple to convey strength and might (1 Kings 7:29) (1 Kings 7:29, 36) (1 Kings 10:19-20) (2 Chronicles 9:18-19) (Ezekial 41:19); it was used to describe the wrath of hostile enemies (Psalms 7, 10, 17, 22, 35, 57) (Proverbs 28:15) (Jeremiah 51:38) (Daniel 7:4); and to describe the might of enemies whom God had given the power to overcome the Israelites when they submitted to sin and disobedience (Isaiah 5:29) (Jeremiah 4:7) (Jeremiah 5:6) (Jeremiah 25:38).

Leonic symbolism is used to describe future apocalyptic events: prey and predator will ‘lie down together’ (coexist peaceably) (Isaiah 11:6-7) (Isaiah 65:25) (Revelation 4:7) (Revelation 9:17) (Revelation 10:3); cherubim had four faces, each face symbolizing might, including the lion (Ezekial 1:10).

Leonic symbolism is used by God to describe His own might: (Jeremiah 50:44) (Hosea 5:14) (Hosea 13:7-8).

Leonic symbolism is used to describe Satan and the Antichrist: Satan (1 Peter 5:8); Antichrist (Revelation 13:2).

So what does this mean? What is God trying to tell us by way of this recurring theme of lions, both literal and figurative? The first thing to note is that lions do not make a literal appearance in the New Testament as instruments of God’s justice, although they continue to feature strongly in the literature of the scriptures to convey powerful messages and agitate striking images in the hearts and minds of believers. Why?

Because everything changed with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Before Christ, the Spirit of God lived outside of Man but inched closer and close to His chosen people, by meeting face to face with His chosen leaders among the Israelites (such as Moses – Exodus 33 & 34), manifesting in the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-11), and commissioning the Tabernacle and Ark of the Covenant which would become a dwelling place for His Name (Deuteronomy 12:11) (1 Kings 8:29). The Messiah had not yet come, and the Holy Spirit was yet to dwell within the hearts and souls of the faithful following Pentecost. The God of all Creation was separated from Man both literally (behind the heavy curtain that divided the

Holy Place in the temple from theMost Holy Place where He resided) and spiritually (by virtue of original sin). Devotion in the early days of the Israelites’ history before and after the exodus was excessively difficult due to the seductive lure of the many pagan civilizations surrounding the mobilized Hebrew nation.


With the coming of Christ and His revolutionary revelations, the relationship between Creator and Created was redefined, re-established and re-written at the moment of His death on the Cross. The God who had previously communicated almost exclusively through the prophets and the great iconic paragons of moral and spiritual virtue prior to Christ had, through His Son’s life, death and resurrection, not only created a pathway through the shedding of His Son’s precious blood back to Him but imparted in undiluted essence and unrestricted availability His own Holy Spirit into the very marrow of the souls who dedicated themselves in love and worship to Jesus.

Lions became unnecessary in the dispensing of judgment and the demonstration of divine power. Where once they had been utilized to send powerful messages of God’s sovereign power and indomitable might, they recede into figurative literature with the emergence of one figure that eclipsed all representations of authority and divinity that had entered the Israelite landscape both manifestly and emblematically. Jesus (or more precisely, his death and resurrection) was the realization of reconciliation between God and Man, two entities estranged by way of Adam and Eve’s sin and the fall of Man, two entities indivisible and reconciled through the death of Jesus. Where once God lived outside of Man – in an ark in a tabernacle behind a heavy curtain – He now submerged Himself within the very hearts and souls of the children who had once been so far flung from Him.

Lions feature so strongly in the Old Testament and in such startlingly shocking incidents as a means of conveying the potency of the Almighty, only to make a swift departure with the coming of Christ, other than allegorically, that they in fact make the most powerful unwritten statement about the nature of God and the identity of the Messiah. There was none like Jesus before His coming, and no other like Him after His death and resurrection. God no longer required lions in a literal capacity to carry a message or even appear with the same frequency in the post-resurrection literature of the scriptures – the greatest and most influential of all messengers had arrived and His life, death and resurrection had changed the world. It had ushered God back into the world through the Pentecostal miracle which granted that all who believed – from those loftily positioned in society to leprous outcasts – had not only equal and unfettered access to the Most High God through His Son Jesus Christ, but that God loved and cared for all equally without consideration for earthly status, privilege or wealth.

Jesus marked the singular pivotal point in the history of humanity where God no longer communicated with Man from outside of His Creation (through the iconic Israelite leaders and the prophets) but from within man through the stirring of the Holy Spirit in each faithful heart. Jesus became both the Messianic Lion of revolution and the sacrificial Lamb of God. He was the ultimate leonic symbol of the power and the glory of God  - the Son sent by the Father to release the resounding roar of the promise of salvation first avowed in His covenant with Abraham. Jesus was the lion of justice and mercy, the mighty King of His pride of the faithful. Leonic symbolism all but ground to a halt with the coming of Jesus because the lions that once were employed in the physical world and so prominently in the cultural and literary symbolism of the Hebrew consciousness were supplanted by a lion without equal, without parallel, without rival.

That lion was Jesus.

When you reflect on His teachings, His life, His promise of salvation through His shed blood, invite into your heart the leonic power of the Risen Christ who, if you but ask, will fill you with the courage and fortitude of His lion heart to continue to take His message of hope and forgiveness and eternal salvation out into the world to the lost, the forgotten, the broken and the mistreated until He comes again to reconcile His scattered flock unto his Sacred Heart.

May the illimitable fount of blessings poured forth by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit permeate into every thought, word and action of your day, and may you experience the peace and hope and joy of unity with Jesus Christ – King of Kings whose lion heart now beats in the breast of each and every one of us.


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Published by: John
Date: 2010-06-12 05:02:02
I found the Lion of God.

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