By Neil Earle
After returning from series of traditional Worldwide Church of God (WCG) festivals late in 2003, some members ask: "Why do we not hear anything about the Millennium, the 1000 year reign of Christ, at our festivals? Why is Isaiah's picture of the lion, the lamb and the little child no longer on our church seal? Can you answer this?"
These questions require in-depth biblical excavation to even begin to answer. For decades the Worldwide Church of God used the descriptive vision of Isaiah 11:1-10 as our church seal, symbolizing our deeply-held commitment to the need for Christ's return and the institution of a 1000 year reign of peace apparently described in Revelation 20:1-7. Why the change in focus?
First of all it is important to set the context for the vision of the lion and the lamb. Isaiah spoke it in roughly 700B.C., when it seemed like the Assyrian Empire was about to batter out the life of both Judah and Jerusalem. (See Lasor, Hubbard and Bush, Old Testament Survey, pages 279-280). The background to Isaiah 11 goes back to Isaiah 9 and even further but Isaiah 9 is a good place to start. It recounts the historical details of the first Assyrian invasion and deportation of northern Israel under the Assyrian Tiglath Pileser around 733 B.C. Isaiah 9:1-4 celebrates the ultimate victory of God over Assyria outside the gates of Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:36) but it past-references the deportation of Zebulun and Napthali some years before:
"Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Napthali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:1-2).
Israel's humbling began with Assyria desolating the northern tier of tribes. But that invasion will lead to God's overthrow of Assyria as well. For it is Assyria that is the subject of this whole section – God or Assyria: Who will prevail?
There is no doubt. Note Isaiah 10: 5, 12, 33-34 – "Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger. When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart. See the Lord, the lord Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled, he will cut down the forest thickets with an axe."
God promises doom on Assyria after they deport Israel. But God promises to spare Judah and Jerusalem because of the righteousness of King Hezekiah of the house of David. This historic background sets up the famous "Lion and the Lamb" prophecy. It is centered on a classic Old Testament theme – deliverance for Judah through the royal house of David. Notice:
"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and power. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
"The wolf will lie with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:1-10)."
Notice three things:
The sublime beauty and richness of the poetry and also the jolting power of the word pictures. Imagine a poet jamming together two such unrelated concepts as a baby wandering off a blanket to stick its hand into a snake pit. Ugh. Hard to take. But that is part of the power of the passage. This is Paradise Regained, Eden Restored thanks to the wise counsel and moral commitment of the king from David's line. Note too that it is the wolf that dwells with the lamb – not the lion. It is good to always reread the text.
In a time when mighty Assyria is rising up like an overrunning flood and sweeping all before it God inserts this marvelous vision of Eden Restored. This poetic reversal seems out of context; it is so different from all the bad news swirling around but...that is a prophetic way of conveying God's speed and decisiveness. The news is fabulously good – God will punish Assyria. Sennacherib's armies take a beating at the siege of Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:36).
Note, there is no "thus says the Lord" in this passage. This indicates, says the Word Bible Commentary, that we are reading a vision, not a prophecy. Visions and prophecies are not exactly the same. If the picture of the lamb and the Lion seems too good to be true that is because it is. It is a visionary dream and dreams, as we all know, are a compound of reality and unreality. Keep that thought in mind as we proceed.
So how has this vision been understood across history? Let's start with the Jewish community. This beautiful vision was originally given to a Jewish nation under the threat of extinction around 700 B.C. The Jewish commentator Kimchi saw this oracle as referring to Good King Hezekiah. Ahaz, his father was a hopeless case, kowtowing to the Assyrians and importing their pagan religion. But Hezekiah was a king of faith. He turned the nation around. "He was successful in whatever he undertook" (2 Kings 18:1-8).
Eventually it was the faith of Hezekiah, coached by Isaiah, that resulted in God's defeat of the Assyrians under Sennacherib. Hezekiah became the toast of the Middle East – how had he done it, all the world wondered (Isaiah 18, 39)?
There is much here that matches the vision but much that does not. Jerusalem was spared but only for a limited time. True, the nations sent emissaries to King Hezekiah to seek his advice but the earth was not converted and Assyria would fight another day.
But the vision appeals. In the 1830s an American Quaker named Edward Hicks started a whole series of paintings on the theme of the Peaceable Kingdom. These were popular at a time when some American Christians felt that the United States was the place where the millennium would begin. Preachers such as Fountain Pitts and Samuel Baldwin taught in the 1850s that the United States was the fifth kingdom mentioned in Daniel's vision in Daniel 2.
"The "America as Israel" theme derived from late-eighteenth-century new England prophecy writers, and a variant of British-Israel theories current during this time obviously appealed to national vanity. The United States would prevail with God's help and would lead the world into a millennial age when commerce and trade, agriculture and manufactures, science and art would flourish and humanists would know but one kind of government – Republicanism, and one religion" (Paul Boyer, When Time Shall be No More, page 86).
This view is known as postmillennialism – Christ will return after America and Britain have cleared the way for a world of peace. Hicks may have been in this school. It took the bloody American Civil War (1861-65) to knock post-millennialism off its perch in favor of pre-millennialism, the view that Jesus must return as conquering King to set up the thousand year reign (Revelation 20: 1-6). This view is till prevalent today and can be heard on the airwaves in full force.
The main point for this article is to note that pre-millennial preachers such as Cyrus Scofield, Billy Sunday and Hal Lindsey have the propensity of fitting Isaiah's vision of the Lion and the Lamb into this 1000 year time period.
But there are problems with that view.
For one thing the millennium itself seems a promise specifically designed for Christian martyrs of the first century, "those who had been beheaded." For another, Revelation 20 is a highly symbolic chapter as evidenced by verse 14, "death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire."
Thus Christian interpretations of the Lion and the Lamb have ranged from the strictly literal (God will change the nature of wild animals in the millennium) to the highly symbolic: "[A]n extended figure of speech is being used to make a single overarching point, namely, that in the Messiah's reign the fears associated with insecurity, danger, and evil will be removed, not only for the individual but for the world as well" (John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, page 283).
To mention the Messiah, of course, is to introduce Jesus Christ into the prophecy and indeed Paul's reference to Isaiah 11 in Romans 15:12 supports the belief that somehow Jesus is tied to this marvelous vision.
So what are we to conclude?
For openers we have to understand what it means to speak of visions. All nations and communities have them. They are exalted depictions of some ideal state that has never yet obtained on earth but are worth preserving for their beauty and call to try harder. The United States has "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the British have the Arthur legend of the good knights of the Round table of Camelot and Canada has the myth of "the true North strong and free." One could also add the once touted slogan "the Mounties get their man." These expressions are condensed and poetic depictions of certain realities people want to idealize in their society:
With glowing hearts, we see thee rise/The true North strong and free.
From far and wide O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
Is that true, literally? Just what is the true North? How do we stand on guard? To raise such questions is to see how futile it is to try to translate a national dream into a literal reality. The vision is designed to encourage, inspire and move people along.
Isaiah's wonderful vision of the lion and the lamb contains the violent jarring of symbols – the leopard with the goat, the cow with the bear. The baby with the snake. Hebrew scholars called this "block logic" – the throwing together of two contradictory concepts to get at a higher truth. See Proverbs 26:4-5 for a clear example of this literary device.
So what is the higher vision of the Lion and the Lamb? Does it have to apply to the thousand years of Revelation 20, a millennial period which may be a highly symbolic depiction of the redemption of Christian martyrs? Not necessarily. We know Jesus is involved in this vision and that is a key insight. It seems wise to conclude with Old Testament expert Derek Kidner that the vision fits a broad-based Christian interpretation best of all:
"As a picture this is unforgettable and expresses reconciliation, concord and trust with supreme effectiveness. The reign of Christ already produces this kind of transformation in the sphere of human character, and will ultimately change the whole creation (see Romans 8:19-25). Whether this will be realized literally as depicted here is another matter" (New Bible Commentary, pages 639-640).
Reconciliation, concord and trust – how better for writers without videos and the Hollywood production machine to express these concepts than a lion at peace with a calf, a cow feeding with a bear and a child playing with a snake. This forcing together of things otherwise held in tension is a great demonstration of the ultimate in reconciliation, of a better world made possible here in part under the reign of Christ and ultimately in "a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13).