The Oddest Image for God in the Bible

Bible text: Isaiah 31:4-5

In my personal Bible reading, I’ve recently been working my way through the first portion of the prophet Isaiah (Chapters 1-39). A few days ago, I encountered what struck me as the oddest image for God that I’ve ever found in the Bible.

The image is found in Isaiah 31:4. There God compares himself to a lion that has seized a lamb from the flock and now stands guard over his prey against all the threats of the shepherds that try to frighten him away. They raise a horrible ruckus of noise and shouting. But the lion does not run away or back off.

The text reads like this:

For thus the LORD said to me,

            As a lion or a young lion growls over its prey,

                        and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—

            is not terrified by their shouting

                        or daunted at their noise,

            so the LORD of hosts will come down

                        to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill.

            Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts

                        will protect Jerusalem;

            he will protect and deliver it,

                        he will spare and rescue it.

Comparing God to a lion is not odd in Scripture. In Job 10:16, Job compares God to a lion, who relentlessly hunts him down. In Hosea 5:14, God speaks as if he is a lion who will destroy the people of Ephraim. The metaphor of the lion is again applied to God in Hosea 11:10 and 13:7-8.

And in the New Testament, we have the famous image in Revelation 5:5 where Christ is called the Lion of Judah. C.S. Lewis has good Scriptural precedent for choosing the image of a lion as his image for Christ in his Narnia Chronicles.

But the thrust of most of the Old Testament passages is use of the image of a lion to refer to God coming in judgment upon his people. Like a lion, God will rend and devastate his people for their faithlessness.

What I find so odd about the Isaiah passage is its use of the image of a lion growling over its prey as an image for God’s protectiveness and commitment to his people Israel. God is so resolute that he will not be moved to abandon his people no matter how fearsome the enemies that attack him.

We are accustomed to think of God as the good shepherd (see Psalm 23), who protects his people against the lions and bears of life. But we are not accustomed to think of the shepherds as images of evil, and God as so resolute in his care for his people that he is like a lion who cannot be frightened into abandoning his prey, even if the threats and noises are frightful.

I find the imagery in Isaiah 31:4 an odd inversion of our expectations. God may be flexible in his tactics. After all, he is dealing with an ever fickle and vacillating humanity. This opens a window for prayer. God can change in his tactics in response to the cries of his people.

But God is resolutely immovable in his eternal person and purposes. And one of his unchangeable qualities is his care and commitment to the world he has created. The coming of God’s kingdom may be delayed by all the twists and turns of human history. But it will come.

Emaciated Souls

Bible text: Psalm 106

Sometimes as I read the Bible, a phrase jumps out and grabs my attention, something like a crab’s claw grabbing a finger, and will not let go. That happened recently for me when I was reciting Psalm 106 from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.

The psalm celebrates God’s liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage to Pharoah. Despite Israel’s constant unfaithfulness and grumbling, God proves faithful to his people. Nonetheless by their unfaithfulness, Israel brings unneeded judgment upon itself.

In this recitation of God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness, we come in verses 13 and 14 to a reference to the many times Israel grumbled to God about their hunger and thirst. God responds by giving them bread from heaven, the manna, and quail for meat, as well as water from the rock. Then comes verse 15:
God gave them what they asked,
but sent leanness into their soul.

What a powerful thought! It applies the law of unintended consequences to the realm of the spirit. God gives Israel the food and the drink they crave. Their material cravings are satisfied. Yet God also send leanness into the souls. Their prayers have been answered, but they also experience the unintended consequence of a leanness in their souls.

In this context, I don’t take the word “leanness” as complimentary. Rather it suggests to me a form of emaciation. The unintended consequence of having their prayers answered is emaciated souls.

Now other English translations translate the Hebrew word razon as a wasting disease. But I love these words, “leanness of soul.” They trigger the imagination as good poetry does.

The psalm suggests that leanness of soul can be a divine judgment. We can be rich, indeed fat, in material satisfactions, and still experience a sense of spiritual emaciation. It’s not what most people expect when they pursue their fortunes. Yet in pursuing wealth, power, fame, or whatever else constitutes success, we can neglect the spiritual part of our lives, with the unintended result that we end up feeling emaciated in spirit.

Is that not an apt way of describing many Americans today?