Despite its occasional pussy-cat appearance the lion is the king of beasts.

When we lived in South Africa we visited a lion park near Johannesburg. We learned that, not long before, a group of Japanese tourists had been driving through. The pride of lions they saw sunning themselves lazily right next to the road had looked so harmless that one young man had got out of the car and posed next to them for his photo to be taken. They had killed and eaten him.

You don’t mess with lions. People in ancient Israel knew that, for lions were still common, especially in the dense jungles alongside parts of the River Jordan, from where they would make sorties into the hill country looking for sheep. Many Israelites who had never seen a lion had heard one, and they knew what the prophet Amos meant when he said, ‘The lion has roared—who will not fear?’[1]

Amos was a poor farmer who lived in Judah in the eighth century BC. His home was Tekoa, twelve miles south of Jerusalem on the edge of a desert area, and he made his living as a shepherd and grower of sycamore figs—the food of the poor.[2] He was also a prophet of God. He travelled north across the border from Judah into Israel to prophesy there, especially in the city of Bethel.

As a country dweller and traveller Amos was familiar with lions, and he mentions them half a dozen times in his book. Indeed, his opening words on God’s behalf are: ‘The LORD roars from Zion…’ Here he presents God as a lion[3] whose very roar was withering in its effect.[4]

Most of the Israelites of his day, however, didn’t see why God should want to roar at them. They were, after all, enjoying a time of prolonged peace and booming prosperity in the latter part of King Jeroboam II’s reign, a reign marked by material and military success. His was a long reign, too. The average for the nation’s kings had been just three years; Jeroboam II managed 41 years. In that time he had completely defeated Israel’s inveterate enemies, the Syrians, and recovered territory lost by his predecessors. To cap it all he had presided over an economic boom. All of this made the Israelites feel pretty self-satisfied. Life was good.

It’s interesting, though, that the Old Testament record summarises his reign in a mere seven verses,[5] because he was an ungodly king. Material and military success are not necessarily a sign of God’s favour.

Jeroboam’s subjects were as ungodly as their monarch. Many lived in incredible luxury, buying the latest must-have items from traders who plied the nearby trade route from Europe to Arabia. Amos didn’t think much of this; he addressed the rich and idle women of Israel as ‘you cows of Bashan’![6] Some even flaunted that status symbol of the rich, a second home, even though many of the poor in Israel had no real homes at all. Corruption and financial scandal were rampant. The rich ripped off the poor, then bribed the judiciary to escape prosecution and celebrated by ‘drinking wine by the bowlful’.[7] Sexual promiscuity was common, too, much of it linked to the practices of pagan religion.

That religion was the Canaanite religion indigenous to the area. It involved the worship of nature and the practice of cult prostitution as a means of encouraging fertility. The ‘old ways’ had reasserted themselves, pushing out of the way any remaining allegiance to the LORD and the lifestyle based on his commandments. Western Europe today is seeing a similar trend, with a revival of pre-Christian paganism pushing Christianity out of the picture on the basis that ‘the old and original is better’. But it isn’t!

At Bethel—Israel’s centre of worship and the king’s residence—there was even a golden calf. People were encouraged to worship it so that they wouldn’t have to bother crossing the border to worship in Jerusalem. It didn’t seem to occur to them that a previous ‘golden calf’ episode had been one of the major low-points of their history.[8]

Clearly God was not going to stand by and do nothing. Faithful to his covenant with the nation, he had begun to bring upon them the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28: failed harvests (proving that the fertility rites didn’t work), drought, crops destroyed by mildew and locusts, enemy raiders stealing livestock, and natural disasters like earthquakes[9] and lightning strikes that caused fires. Still the people refused to repent, so God was poised to apply the ultimate sanction: exile—to Assyria.

Since ‘the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets’,[10] he put Amos in the picture and dispatched him to express the divine displeasure against Israel. And Amos didn’t mince his words. ‘The Lord roars from Zion’, he warned them,[11] making it clear that a stirred-up lion, not a purring pussy-cat, was on their case.

This is the language of God’s severity against sin. Unrepentant sinners are liable to be eaten! Luckily for us, there is more to God’s character than this. Scripture shows us both his sternness and his kindness, and which we emphasise will reflect the needs of particular situations. Hosea had stressed God’s love and kindness to Israel, whereas Amos was giving most weight to his righteousness and severity, expressed in the threat of serious judgment. In fact virtually the whole of the book of Amos is about judgment; just five verses at the very end speak of hope for the future.

There’s a lesson here for the current Christian scene in much of the Western world. Too many Christians are focusing on God’s love and provision to the neglect of his holiness and severity. For many, God is little more than a celestial sugar-daddy whose sole job is to provide them with lots of goodies. This is the ‘health and wealth’ or ‘prosperity’ message. Want a luxury car? Just ‘name it and claim it’, brother. The Lord will smile and press the delivery button.

God’s righteousness and just requirements don’t get much of an airing in these circles. If you step out of line God is so loving that he’ll pretend he hasn’t noticed. He’s far too kind to speak a reproving word, let alone to administer punishment. Certainly he wouldn’t want to upset anybody. He encourages ‘hot tub religion’. This telling phrase was coined by Jim Packer, who wrote:

‘Symptoms of hot tub religion today include a skyrocketing divorce-and-remarriage rate among Christians; widespread indulgence of sexual aberrations; an overheated supernaturalism that seeks signs, wonders, visions, prophecies and miracles; constant soothing Syrup from electronic preachers and the liberal pulpit; anti-intellectual sentimentalism and emotional “'highs” deliberately cultivated, the Christian equivalent of cannabis and coca; and an easy, thoughtless acceptance of luxury in everyday living. These are not healthy trends. They make the church look like the world, driven by the same unreasoning desire for pleasure seasoned with magic.’[12]

Lions don’t like hot tubs, and God is a lion. The symbolism is of majesty and power. King Solomon’s throne had lions incorporated into its design,[13] signalling that the throne’s occupant was not to be trifled with, and its six steps prompted the supplicant to remember ‘He’s up there and I’m down here’. That’s a timely reminder to us that, while God is our Father whose throne we may, through Christ, approach with boldness, he is still enthroned; he is ‘up there’ and we are ‘down here’. Immanent God may be, but he remains transcendent. He is God Almighty, not God all-matey, and we are to fear him in the best sense of that word.[14]

The lion also symbolises an authoritative voice: ‘The Lord roars…’ and his voice demands attention. He speaks today chiefly through his written Word and we do well to heed what he says there on issues where modern society takes liberal views, like sexuality, family life and abortion. The world will mock us as intolerant and outdated. It will fail to understand our position. I recently told someone that a young couple we know were soon to be married. ‘How long have they been living together?’ they asked. ‘They haven’t’ was my reply, to which in astonishment they retorted, ‘Ooh, that’s dangerous, isn’t it?’ Two views, poles apart. But the lion isn’t fazed by the world’s opposition: ‘This is what the LORD says to me: “A lion growls, a great lion over his prey—and though a whole band of shepherds is called together against him, he is not frightened by their shouts or disturbed by their clamour…’[15]

And neither should you be fazed. Spurgeon, when once asked to defend the Bible against various charges, replied, ‘Defend the Bible? I’d rather defend a lion!’ The Bible doesn’t need defending; it can defend itself—it is the very word of God. Take your stand upon it in confidence.

Lion symbolism includes anger and ferocity. Even through gentle Hosea God said to Israel, ‘Like a lion I will devour them.’[16] As that Japanese tourist found out, there’s nothing pleasant about being devoured. When God’s people persist in sinful ways his righteous indignation is fearsome. This is not a playful pat with velvet paws but the full ferocity of the carnivore.

Jesus, who came to show us God’s character, was like that sometimes. As a boy I was taught the children’s prayer that begins, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild…’ Ha! Sure he could be tender towards children, the poor, the defenceless and repentant sinners. But to those who sinfully withstood him he was a true lion. There was nothing meek and mild about his cleansing of the Temple. I can also hear his roar at the religiosity of the Jewish leaders who didn’t want him to heal the man with the shrivelled hand: ‘He looked round at them in anger.’[17] And I wince at his devastating verbal mangling of those leaders when he publicly lambasted them as snakes and whitewashed tombs full of stench and rot.[18]

Yes, Jesus is ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’.[19] He is no softie, but will savage any who resist him: ‘I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces…’[20] The title ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ refers most likely to his kingship, which should inspire due fear, for ‘a king’s rage is like the roar of a lion’.[21] So don’t get too familiar. Christian though you may be, respect him, reverence him, fear him.

There is, of course, another lion around. Since Satan has always tried to usurp God’s place it is no surprise that he acts ‘like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’.[22] Sure, he can scratch and hurt, but he is no match for Almighty God. Keep reminding yourself that God the lion is not against you but for you, and that Satan, who is against you, has no chance against such opposition. After Paul had been in a tight spot he reported to Timothy: ‘I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.’[23] You, too, have the mega-lion on your side! No need to fear the devil, as long as you fear the Lord.

Now here’s a challenge as we wind up. People outside see the Lord for what he is only through the church, his visible body. Do they see his lion-like qualities there? Not a bit of it. TV illustrates what they see: goofy-toothed, wimpish vicars like the one in Dad’s Army; church leaders full of waffle and compromise; a church falling over backwards to show that it is pally with a God-hating world; a church soft on standards and discipline; professing Christians like The Vicar of Dibley living by standards no different from those in non-Christian society.

Things have got to change. The church must no longer come over as God’s pussy-cat but must represent him in his lion-like qualities. ‘The LORD roars from Zion’, declared Amos, ‘and thunders from Jerusalem.’ Interestingly, one of the alternative names for Zion or Jerusalem is Ariel,[24] which means ‘lion of God’. As the New Jerusalem, the church is God’s lion today. If we are to live up to that calling by reflecting his leonine nature we will need to be uncompromising in upholding righteous standards, in openly opposing whatever God opposes, in being ready to ‘roar’ outspokenly in our righteous indignation, and in robustly upholding the cause of integrity and justice in every department of life and society. Grrrrrrrr!

In the age to come the lion and the lamb will lie down together. Of course they already do that in Christ, who expresses both God’s severity and his kindness. That situation will never change. When, in his end-time apocalyptic vision, John saw ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah’ he also saw ‘a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain’. The two were, and are, one and the same, and as the church we need to express both aspects to the world. But as in Amos’s day, it is probably the ‘lion’ side that today needs more attention.

Let us roar with the roar of God himself, so that people will take notice and fear his wrath. Then, as they look round, healthily startled, let them see the Lamb and find in him—the God-man, the Lion-lamb—their salvation.

Copyright © David Matthew 2010

 

[I wrote a children’s song about Amos. It’s here, with both words and music.]

AMOS

The Lion Roars

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Amos

The gist of this article

God is good and kind, yes. But he is also savagely opposed to sin, and in this respect he is like a lion - which is how Amos portrays him. Does your own view of God need balancing up? And does today’s church present him fairly to the world?

 

1. Amos 3:8

2. Amos 7:14

3. Was it from this, I wonder, that C.S. Lewis drew his famous character Aslan?

4. Amos 1:2

5. 2 Kings 14:23-29

6. Amos 4:1

7. Amos 6:6

8. The golden calf erected by Aaron for the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses was up there receiving the Decalogue. See Exodus 32.

10. Amos 3:7

9. Amos 1:1

11. Amos 1:2

12. Packer J.I, Laid-back Religion?, IVP, 1987, p58

13. 1 Kings 10:19-20

14. 1 Samuel 12:24; Matthew 10:28; Nehemiah 5:15

15. Isaiah 31:4

16. Hosea 13:8

17. Mark 3:5

18. Matthew 23:27-29, 33

19. Revelation 5:5

20. Hosea 5:14

21. Proverbs 19:12

22. 1 Peter 5:8

23. 2 Timothy 4:16-18

24. E.g. Isaiah 29:1