One of my favourite biblical images of the future return of Jesus Christ comes from Isaiah 11:6-9.
6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 And the cow and the bear shall feed ; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am, at heart, a biblical literalist. My preference is to take prophetic statements as literally as possible, where possible. For most of my life I believed that the above statements in Isaiah referred to a time when all animals and humans live in complete peace and harmony. Dr. W.A. Criswell puts it in better words that I can here.
This is the prophetic picture of the golden age into which someday we shall come in the kingdom of God. And the picture here, of course, is one of edenic, primeval peace, and serenity. These are by nature opposites; a wolf and a lamb, a leopard and a kid, a lion and a fatling. It was not God’s intent that animals eat each other; it was not God’s purpose in creation that the tooth, and the claw, and the fang should be employed for harm and destruction. The carnivore—the carnivorous meat-eating animal—is a result of sin and of the fall. When God shall remake His creation, it will revert to that primeval, pristine peace, and beauty, and serenity, and tranquility. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. And the fearsome, carnivorous, ravenous lion will eat straw like an ox.
Every time I mentioned this in a church service, however, somebody always objects that this would be ecologically impossible. Predators are necessary to keep animal populations under control. It is hard to imagine how such a world could manage and even harder to imagine what conditions God would have to create to have universal peace among predators and prey. We die-hard literalists have a tough time answering that objection.
That is probably why many commentators throughout church history have preferred a metaphorical or allegorical reading of that passage. This usually has predators and prey describing two different human types that are finally reconciled in Jesus Christ. There is a great deal of sense to that interpretation.
Long meditation on this passage finally enabled me to see a way in which a literalist might understand the passage literally without an ensuing ecological disaster.
It begins with a close re-examination of the categories that each of the pairs of animals mentioned falls under.
We tend to think of a wolf and lamb as “predator and prey.” We also tend to use those categories for the leopard and kid, etc. Or we might think of them as “opposites,” or “carnivore and herbivore.”
Have we noticed that the wolves aren’t paired with moose or elk? Or that the lion isn’t paired with the wildebeest? Or that the leopard isn’t paired with the gazelle?
Have we ever thought of those pairs in terms of “wild predator” and “domesticated animal?”
We human beings have bred a series of animals to be our food. In that process we have tried to weed out their ability to defend themselves from either humans or wild predators. We breed the docile ones and cull the fighters from the herd – for obvious reasons. We don’t want them to hurt us or our children.
The picture we have here is a picture of wild animals no longer killing our domesticated animals. They have their food. We have ours.
The only reason we humans hunt wild predators to near-extinction is that they often find our domesticated animals to be easier prey than their own natural prey. That is particularly so when we encroach on their territories and kill off most of their prey to make room for our flocks and herds.
Far from being about a future where no animal kills another animal, the imagery of Isaiah 11:6 and Isaiah 65:25 points to a fulfilment of God’s original orders to humankind to exercise dominion over the creatures of the earth. I had always assumed that the garden of Eden had no animals killing other animals. But no concrete statement to that effect is ever made in the Scriptures.
Almost every day I find that my assumptions – whether acquired from other sources/teachers or made up from my own imagination – really do control how I understand the biblical texts. It is always good to re-examine our assumptions.
During our discussion various members of our fellowship pointed to different scriptures as biblical precedent besides Genesis 1:26-28 for accords between human beings and animals. God enters a covenant with Noah, his descendants and the animals in Genesis 9:1-17 . Job 5:23 speaks about blessings God bestows upon those who please him. Hosea 2:18 speaks of a time of restoration for Israel in peace and safety, including a covenant with wild animals. A similar time is mentioned in Joel 2:18-27, including a statement of comfort for the animals of the wilderness (verse 22), who will not need to fear starvation.
The idea of not being hurt by wild animals certainly is present in the covenant of Israel as a blessing from God. Among the curses of disobedience, of course, is depredation by wild animals, which will devour livestock and even kill people.
What seems to be pictured, as I said before, is a time of real human dominion over the creatures that, while not destroying their wild or even predatory nature, does work with them to provide both sufficient habitat for hunting their natural prey so that they need not attack humans or their livestock.
A matter of great debate, of course, is that of when this wonderful time will occur. Depending on which passages we read the timing could be millennial, pre-millennial or during the post-millennial “new heavens and new earth” pictured in Revelation 21 and 22. Statements about the depth of peace and security, not to mention universality of knowing the Lord, as well as the cue in the first few words of Isaiah 65:17-25 lead me to believe that it will be in the post millennial period.
That does not mean that my understanding of either the meaning or the timing of Isaiah 11:6-9 is necessarily the only way to see it. It certainly does not mean I have to build an unassailable doctrine about it.
As a biblical literalist, I hope to see Isaiah 11:6-9 come about as a literal reality. I hope that other literalists out there will be inspired to re-examine their own assumptions about what passages actually do and do not say in order to formulate an understanding that accounts for biblical statements as well as the realities of the world around us.
After all we will have to face skeptics sooner or later.
Whether correct or not, well thought-out answers are better than no answers at all.