The lion has long been considered the "king of beasts" because it is so feared by man and animals alike. In recent years the pack hunt has been characterized by some as "cowardly." The fact that it is the female that does most of the work in the hunt has caused some to call the male lion "lazy." But throughout most of history, and among those who live with lions, the animal has been king. The range of the Asiatic lion once stretched from North Africa to India, and even into Europe. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Bible is full of lions, both literal and figurative.
Real lions figure in one of the most famous stories of the BibleDaniel in the lion's den. This shows that lions lived and were captured for use in painful executions as far east as Babylon. Essentially, Daniel was one of the first "gladiators" of which we know. He was not the only one to face lions, however. Some did not have as favorable a result to their leonine encounters.
Facing real lions
Daniel was not the only person in the Bible to face real lions. Some people were killed by them.
A young prophet had gone up to prophesy against the altar at Bethel. He was told to go home by a different route and not eat while in Israel. Due to a lie by an older prophet he disobeyed God. Shortly after he left the prophet's house a lion killed him. When word came to the old prophet of a dead man in the road with an ass and a lion waiting by it, he knew it was the young prophet and fetched and buried his body. (1 Kings 13:24-32)
It was not always safe living next to a prophet. After King Ahab let the Syrian king, ben-Hadad, go after he had been captured, another prophet was sent to prophesy against the king. As part of his preparation, for he wanted to look like a soldier wounded in battle, he asked a neighbor to strike him. When the neighbor refused, the prophet warned him that a lion would kill him as soon as he left the prophet. When the man left a lion killed him. (1 Kings 20:35-36)
After the fall of Israel the Assyrians repopulated Samaria with people from other lands. When they showed no inclination to obey God, He sent lions among them and they killed some of the people. (2 Kings 17:25-26)
Lions got their share of being killed, too. Samson killed a lion with his bare hands, and then made a riddle about it (Judges 14:5-20). Before facing Goliath, David told Saul that he had killed a bear and a lion in protecting his sheep (1 Sam 17:34). One of David's mighty men even followed his commander's example. Among the deeds of Benaiah, the Bible tells of him killing a lion in a pit during the winter snows (2 Sam 23:20-23).
Psalm 104: 20-22 tells us that God personally feeds the lions. "Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God. The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens."
Perhaps not in the category of "real" lions, but certainly not totally figurative, would be carved images of lions. Solomon was apparently enamored with lions. He had images of them made on the "molten sea," the laver of the Temple (1 Kings 7:23-37). His ivory throne included fourteen gold lions, one on each side of the throne and two on each of six steps up to it (1 Kings 10:18-20).
Lions are frequently used figuratively in the Bible. Because of their reputations, sometimes the use is favorable, and sometimes unfavorable. It is probably from these uses that we can learn the most lessons.
Twice in the book of Proverbs lions are used as an excuse. "The slothful man saith, There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets." (Prov 22:13; similar is Prov 26:13) If we start imagining lions, perhaps we should see how the writer categorizes usslothful.
Several of the tribes of Israel were compared, favorably or unfavorably, to lions: Judah (Gen 49:9), Gad (Deut 33:20), and Dan (Deut 33:22). Ezekiel 32 describes the king of Egypt as a lion being hunted and ensnared. Two complete nations were also described as having leonine characteristics. In Daniel 7, Daniel is given a vision of history to come. He sees four nations pictured as different beasts. The first, obviously Babylon, is pictured as a winged lion which, at the end, loses its wings. In a similar symbol, John is shown another "Babylon," a beast with the body of a leopard, the feet of a bear, and the mouth of a lion (Rev 13:2). Although many who don't understand the basics of interpreting prophecy give various interpretations to this beast, in its description and its context John is very clearly speaking of the nation of Rome, which was about to bring severe persecutions on the church. In both these latter cases, Babylon and Rome, it is the destructive power of the lion that is being emphasized. These were nations who would try to wound God's people, but their power would be broken.
God's judgement on sinners is pictured using a lion. Amos tells those who do not follow God, but still seek "the day of the Lord," that the day they seek will be one of death for them, and not of life. In one of the great word pictures of the Bible, he says it will be "As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house, and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him." (Amos 5:19) When God seeks to bring destruction, it can come in many forms, including a lion, and is unavoidable.
The most common figurative use of the lion is to portray evil in general, or evil men. David, who had fought lions, used this picture frequently, such as this passage from Psalm 17:11-12: "They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth; Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places." Peter used the lion to describe Satan. "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." (1 Pet 5:8)
One could get the impression that the lion is to be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, the Bible sometimes uses the lion to portray the positive as well as the negative.
Ezekiel used a young lion as a parable for the nation of Israel (Ezek 19:2-9). Proverbs 28:1 says, "The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion."
When we talk of something being "cherubic" we often think "baby-faced." Scripturally, however, it would probably better have the meaning "leonine." Ezekiel and John both picture the cherubim as having the faces of lions (Ezek 1:10; 10:14; 41:18; Rev 4:7). So next time someone calls your young child a "cherub" you might do better to slap them than thank them.
Almost as often as a lion is used to describe evil, it is used to describe God. Isaiah 31:4 says God will defend His people like a lion over his prey, facing down a mob of shepherds (or is that a flock of shepherds?). "Like as the lion and the young lion roaring on his prey, when a multitude of shepherds is called forth against him, he will not be afraid of their voice, nor abase himself for the noise of them: so shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof." Jeremiah 4:5-8 pictures God going out to destroy nations like a lion making the wild country desolate. Hosea (5:14 and 13:7-8) paints a similar picture of God's wrath on sinners.
One passage about God as a lion should possibly be the motto for every preacher, and even for every one of God's children. "The lion hath roared, who will not fear? the Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8) I am told by those with experience of it that a lion's roar in the wild can be heard a long distance. Even from a distance it strikes fear in the hearts of those who are out in the open, for they are potential prey. Amos says that such fear is a natural result. Just as natural, he goes on, it is for one who has heard and accepted the word of God to teach it to others. Just as one fears the roar of a lion, one teaches the word God has given him. One problem many of us have is that we only hear lions in zoos. We know the lion is caged, so we don't fear his roar. In the same way, perhaps, we cage God. His roar is no longer powerful; his gospel doesn't burn our hearts until it is let out. We are no longer constrained to teach.
Lions are real. In some places in this world lions are still a significant part of people's lives. We need to realize that lions are real in our spiritual lives as well. We need to avoid the lions of sin. We need to rely on the salvation of the Lion of Judah (Rev 5:5). We need to accept the protection of the lion of God. And we need to sound forth the gospel like a lion announcing his territory. There are lions in our lives. We can't afford to ignore them. Neither can we afford to use them as an excuse to do nothing.