The Wolf and the Lamb
In the eighth century B.C., Isaiah was serving as God’s prophet to His people. At that moment in history, he was writing prophetically of times to come, even to the very end of the world—and beyond. And the writings of Isaiah are well known for their prophecies of a coming messiah, something that the Hebrew people were looking forward to from as far back as the earliest of the patriarchal epoch.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,” Isaiah prophesied (11:1, NRSV),1 bringing with it an idyllic time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (vs. 6).
Interestingly, the Greek storyteller Aesop, who lived at least a century later, producing the fables for which he has since been remembered, described in one of them a scenario remarkably similar to that of Isaiah. Though he left no writing that may be traced back to his own hand, his tradition includes an account that sounds almost like plagiarism of a time when a great lion ruled over the animal kingdom with justice and benevolence: “The wolf and the lamb, the tiger and the stag, the leopard and the kid, the dog and the hare, all should dwell side by side in unbroken peace and friendship.”2
Aesop’s telling, of course, was not intended as prophecy. There is no evidence that his hearers made any connection between his fable and Isaiah’s foretelling.
But it’s also apparent that, as prophecy, through the centuries since, there has been some disparity of thought as to its interpretation. Though there is no evidence that Aesop based his allusion to the wolf and the lamb on his reading of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy, he did interpret his own use of it to express the hope of some kind of ideal future. At his description of a world of “unbroken peace and friendship” among the creatures, according to his telling of it, “The hare said, ‘Oh! How I have longed for this day when the weak take their place without fear by the side of the strong!’”3
And even among later readers of Scripture, the future world of the wolf and the lamb has suggested different understandings. Some, even today, see its fulfillment in the first coming of the Messiah. From one Sunday school lesson: “The changes wrought in people’s lives through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the once-impregnable barriers that have crumbled by the power of His love have produced friends and comrades among people whose animosity at one time seemed permanent.”4 Consider, for one initial example, the unity ultimately achieved among most of the original 12 disciples—Matthew, an enemy collaborator with the Romans; and Simon, the equivalent of today’s domestic terrorist. Some scholarship and commentary have thus seen its fulfillment in Jesus’ first coming, prompting in its unique way an “unbroken peace and friendship” among those who accept Christianity’s union of faith and fellowship. This truly is a celebration of the ideal.
Others, though, have observed in Isaiah’s depiction of the wolf and the lamb a fulfillment in the second coming of the Messiah. Again, from a Sunday school lesson: “Isaiah describes a time of peace where everything seems unnatural: lions eating grass; cows and bears grazing together; leopards and goats, wolves and sheep, babies and snakes—all getting along. Such peace will characterize humanity when Jesus returns in all fulness. This peace will not just be a state of harmony between people, but also between people and God.”5
This pacific scene has also appeared in the vivid imagination of the visual arts as well. Most notably, Isaiah 11:6 to 8 served as an image repeated in more than 60 of 19th-century Quaker artist Edward Hicks’s paintings. Known since as The Peaceable Kingdom series, most often these canvases depict the very animals described in Isaiah’s prophecy: lions, bears, oxen, leopards—and always, centrally, the wolf and the lamb. Many of these creatures are portrayed with wide-eyed faces, like those in Disney animation of the next century, in an apparent effort to show innocence in even the predators.
Critics have posited that, in this series of paintings, Hicks was attempting to express one of his central theological beliefs: the quest for the redemption of one’s soul. But there is also, clearly, frequent evidence of exploring the concept of the unity that comes among those who are brought together in peace through their Christian belief.
Hicks fervently hoped that such belief could bring peace to the society of his day. In many of his paintings in this series, though the animals may be depicted in tranquil harmony in the foreground, somewhere in the background is also, for example, a representation of the Quaker peoples of his home state, Pennsylvania, associating closely and in harmony with the native peoples. Though Isaiah 11:6 to 8 may have suggested for Hicks the hope of the hereafter, for him it also held great promise for harmony in the here and now.
And, central to his interpretation was the ever-present iteration that “a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Invariably, there are among these animals—the hunters and the hunted—playful and innocent children.
Ellen G. White appeared in her writings to have taken the description of Isaiah’s prophecy quite literally. From her vision, in which she described her experience—in which it need not to have been literal—of the peaceable kingdom, she observed: “The lion, we should much dread and fear here, will then lie down with the lamb, and everything in the New Earth will be peace and harmony.”6
It is true that her observations of heaven may have even reached a kind of human limitation, something possibly beyond: “Human language,” she admitted, “is inadequate to describe the reward of the righteous. It will be known only to those who behold it.”7
But her description of what she had been allowed to observe of the New Earth has a literal quality about it: “We [—one may wonder who else she may be referring to in the party—] entered a field full of all kinds of beasts—the lion, the lamb, the leopard, and the wolf, all together in perfect union. We passed through the midst of them, and they followed on peaceably after.”8
She summarized the eternally cosmic change that heaven promises when Jesus returns. “The dead believers shall rise first. . . . This is what we Christians call the first resurrection.”9 And then, repeating the literal promise of this eternal hope, she added, “Then the animal kingdom shall change its nature, . . . and be subdued unto Jesus.”10
Truly, the wolf and the lamb, reflecting the full restoration to their origins, will be every bit as complete as that to which we—you and I—may embrace our hope.