In the vibrant tapestry of contemporary worship music, one recurring theme stands tall – the majestic lion imagery depicting God's authority, dominance and power.
Perhaps you, like me, have belted out anthems like Leeland's "Lion And The Lamb", Elevation Worship's "LION," or Passion's "Like A Lion" as we find ourselves singing about the 'Lion of Judah' roaring over our battles.
Now I know I'm treading on a sacrosanct shibboleth here. And perhaps your immediate reaction is to point out how 'biblical' the lion imagery is. But is there more to this imagery than meets the eye? Can we uncover a richer understanding by challenging the common portrayal of God as a powerful, roaring lion in our songs?
The lion motif often finds its roots in biblical verses that describe God's strength and majesty. The phrase "Lion of Judah" appears in Revelation 5:5, painting a powerful image of triumph and dominion. However, as our worship echoes these sentiments, it's worth pausing to reflect on whether this imagery aligns with the broader narrative of God's character, or perhaps such visions more reflect someone else...
Domitian the lion ruler
In the turbulent times of the first century, the Roman Emperor Domitian cast a long and ominous shadow over much of the world. His reign was marked by tyranny, ruthless suppression of dissent, and a disturbing penchant for deifying himself.
Domitian gave himself the title 'Dominus et Deus" (lord and god). He had 24 lictores (servants/bodyguards) attending to his needs. He had his own personal, imperial choir follow him around everywhere chanting things like: 'Hail, Victory, Lord of the earth, Worthy is he to inherit the kingdom...'.
Domitian's rule epitomised the raw exercise of power, with an iron fist that silenced opposition and demanded unwavering loyalty. In the face of such authoritarian rule, it's not surprising that many in Jesus' era might have anticipated a messiah who mirrored the dominating strength of an emperor like Domitian—a lion-like ruler who would establish a kingdom through force and subjugation.
Who can open the scroll?
Several statues were crafted portraying Domitian holding a scroll in his right hand. In Rome, the image of a scroll held significant importance, particularly for the Caesars. It symbolised the unfolding of events throughout their lifetime and reign. A scroll in the hand of a Caesar served as a powerful reminder that the Emperor supposedly wielded exclusive control over history.
All of this and more sits in the background and in the political consciousness of the reader/hearers of Revelation chapter 5:
I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
After it initially appeared that there was no one eligible to open the scrolls, we're told there is just one. We're told to look and see the conquering lion (clearly imagery from the Hebrew bible evoking a strong militaristic and nationalistic idea of the Messiah of David as conqueror of the nations, destroying the enemies of God's people).
This is a dramatic and pivotal moment as "both John and we, as readers, await the unveiling and identification of this powerful, conquering messianic Lion" (Gorman, 2011). At this point, we're all expecting to see Jesus as a powerful, Domitian-esque, victorious warrior. However:
in perhaps the most 'mind-wrenching "rebirth of images" in literature, the slot in the system reserved for the Lion has been filled by the Lamb of God.' (Boring, 1989)
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.
The preceding chapters in Revelation have built up to this astonishing reveal. When we look to see a ferocious Lion, who do we actually find there? A slaughtered lamb. This unexpected twist challenges the notion of a triumphant, roaring lion, inviting us to explore the paradox of strength in vulnerability and victory in sacrifice. One theologian (Hays, 1996) puts it like this:
The shock of this reversal discloses the central mystery of Revelation: God overcomes ... not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus, the 'faithful witness'.
It's critical that we notice the sharp contrast between what John hears in verse 5 and what he sees in verse 6. The image of the militaristic, nationalistic image of the Lion which John hears about, is reinterpreted by what John actually sees in the vision: 'the Lamb whose sacrificial death has redeemed people from all nations. By juxtaposing the two contrasting images, John has forged a new symbol of conquest by sacrificial death.' (Bauckham, 1993)
Jesus, as the self-giving, sacrificial lamb is not powerless. Rather, through this unexpected reinterpretation of imagery, power is being redefined. As we meditate on this crucial focal point of Revelation, we are invited to see the Lamb's power demonstrated not as militaristic, nationalistic, brute strength or raw power (as associated with the Lion), but rather in the 'power' of faithfulness and of self-giving love.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus is worthy of worship as the slaughtered lamb, and only as such. He's never 'upgraded' into Lion status. Jesus is not worshiped as 'a lamb who is actually a lion'.
Unexpectedly, John's revelation invites the reader to replace our notion of Jesus as the conquering lion with the image and idea of Jesus as the conquered lamb.
So, why do we often gravitate towards the lion imagery in our worship songs?
I get it... The lion, in its fierce and regal nature, represents strength, authority, and victory. It's an image that resonates deeply with our desire for a powerful and victorious God. It an incredibly comforting idea - to have a God of such power and force on 'our side' and 'fighting our battles'.
The likes of Caesar, with their formidable armies and unyielding authority, were perceived as symbols of strength and might. Many in Jesus' time might have anticipated a Messiah who mirrored the dominion of the Roman emperors—a triumphant lion, crushing opposition and establishing an earthly kingdom. However, the radical nature of Jesus' message challenged and subverted these expectations. Instead of replicating the dominance of earthly rulers, Jesus introduced a paradigm shift. He redefined power not as coercion and force but as sacrificial love—a concept embodied by the image of the Lamb of God. In doing so, Jesus offered a revolutionary vision of rulership, one that stood in stark contrast to the oppressive dominion of the Roman Empire, inviting all to embrace a kingdom characterised by selfless love and transformative grace.
Rethinking the roar
It's crucial to reflect on the implications of our lyrical expressions within our worship music. The lion imagery, deeply ingrained in our worship repertoire, may inadvertently reinforce a narrative of power synonymous with dominance and force. How might we reshape our worship songs to better align with the reinterpreted visions of power and leadership found in the gospels and Revelation?
While this proposed shift in worship lyrics may seem like a subtle alteration, its significance extends far beyond semantics. Our choice of imagery in worship shapes our perception of God. It's not merely a matter of poetic preference; it delves into the heart of our theological convictions. This nuanced change challenges our predisposition to be drawn towards the saviour we thought we wanted – the powerful, conquering deity – rather than the saviour we truly need. It serves as a litmus test for our willingness to embrace the countercultural message of sacrificial love and transforming grace.
May we encounter in our sung worship the unexpected beauty of the Lamb:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honour and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
Bauckham, R, (1993) The theology of the book of Revelation
Boring, E.M. (1989). Revelation
Gorman, M.J. (2011). Reading Revelation Responsibly. Cascade Books.
Hays, Richard, B. (1996) The moral vision of the New Testament