Lions are mentioned 100 times in Scripture. They are portrayed positively and negatively; sometimes in a literal sense, at other times metaphorically in a variety of contexts.
The Barbary or Atlas lion and the Asiatic lion were the lions of the Bible lands. Their domains originally overlapped.
With an impressive dark mane, and weighing in at a maximum of 230kg for males and 190kg for females, the Barbary lion was an animal to be reckoned with. But, contrary to other lion subspecies, it did not gather in prides due to a lack of prey in its arid surroundings.
As a result of its use in gladiatorial contests and the diminution of its territories, especially in North Africa, it was hunted to extinction near the close of the last century.
Lions and humans
Throughout history and in the Bible, there has been an ambivalent relationship between lions and humans; lions are both feared and admired. It is often presented as an emblem of royalty and a symbol of fearlessness, strength and invincibility.
Masai initiation rites have traditionally included killing a lion as the ultimate proof of manhood. In addition, one of David’s mighty men was Benaiah, who ‘had killed two lion-like heroes of Moab. He also had gone down and killed a lion in the midst of a pit in a snowy day’ (1 Chronicles 11:22).
On the other hand, lions do occasionally prey on humans. A famous and enthralling example of this occurred in 1898. It is chronicled in the book The man eaters of Tsavo, which was later produced as a film (and, more recently, another film — The ghost and the darkness).
In this incident, two notorious male lions brought the Kenya Railway Construction Project to a halt when they savaged 135 labourers. Eventually Lieutenant John Henry Patterson shot both, after a series of failures in his ingenious attempts to trap, poison and kill them. The lions can now be seen in the Chicago Field Museum.
There is a strange biblical account concerning lions in 2 Kings 17 where Israel is captured and taken to Assyria, and then the king of Assyria uproots people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath and Sepharvaim, placing them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel (v.24). But we read that God punished the Assyrians by setting lions on them: ‘And it was so, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they did not fear the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them’ (v.25).
Ironically, in ancient Assyria, lion hunting was a sport reserved for the nobility. In this instance, God turned the tables and demonstrated his sovereignty in much the same way that the plagues he used to chastise Egypt in Exodus mimicked the deities the Egyptians venerated.
Today, if you take a day trip to the British Museum, you can see numerous depictions of the Assyrians glorying themselves through their obsession with lion hunting.
Daniel in the lion’s den
Before David fought Goliath, he reminded King Saul that the Lord who delivered him from the paw of the lion and the bear would also deliver him from the hand of the Philistine (1 Samuel 17:37).
For the record, it wasn’t the case that the lions which Daniel shared the night with in the den were overfed or domesticated, since they overpowered the families of those who accused him before they even reached the floor of the lion’s dinner table (Daniel 9:24)! Daniel would have taken encouragement from David’s confident expectation in the Lord prior to him slaying Goliath.
A stone was placed over the den, making an escape attempt impossible. It was also sealed so that the purpose concerning Daniel could not be altered (the law of the Medes and Persians was irrevocable) (Daniel 6:8, 15-17).
‘Nobody would dare break the king’s official seal, so that when the pit was opened, everybody would have to confess that God had performed a great miracle. It makes us think of the stone at our Lord’s tomb that was sealed by the Roman authorities, and yet Jesus came forth alive’ (Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, David C. Cook; p.1367).
Daniel explained to Nebuchadnezzar that the Lord had sent his angel to shut the lions’ mouths since he was innocent before God and the king. This angel was surely the same one Nebuchadnezzar had seen in the fiery furnace — the pre-incarnate Christ himself.
When we encounter threatening or unfair situations beyond our control, we would do ourselves a great favour if we encouraged ourselves in the Lord, as Daniel and David did.
There is a warning in 1 Peter 5:8 to beware of the devil, who is compared with a lion seeking whom he may devour. This is not a case of over-spiritualising or hyper-allegorising, since Peter has already established the context as submitting to God and resisting the devil.
‘The message for us today is, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). You and I live in a lion’s cage. That cage is the world, and there is a big, roaring lion prowling up and down the cage. Peter calls him our adversary, the devil’ (J. Vernon McGee, Daniel, Thomas Nelson; p.98).
Similarly David’s poetic language in Psalm 57:4 — ‘My soul is among lions; I lie among the sons of men, who are set on fire, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword’ — likens his aggressors to a pride of lions. In his soul’s anguish, he prays for safety from his enemies who lie in wait for him.
Whenever we read the Bible we should enquire what it reveals to us about the Lord Jesus Christ. Genesis 49:9-10 prophesies that the coming Messiah will be the lion of Judah, bearing the sceptre of kingship.
‘Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall be the obedience of the people’.
In Revelation 5 we learn that the lion of Judah is also the lamb of God, that the conquering king is also the suffering servant. Only he was worthy to open and read the scroll and loose its seven seals. The Lord Jesus is Prophet, Priest, Saviour and King, who will reign for ever and ever.
But, finally, C. S. Lewis also reminds us that ‘He’s not a tame lion’!
The author is a member of the FIEC Pastors’ Association and a researcher for the Reachout Trust.