The Old Testament uses several metaphors to describe God. These metaphors are taken from the world that was familiar to Israel. Most of the biblical metaphors for God compare God to humans: God as a father (Hosea 11:1) or God as a shepherd (Psalm 23:1). Other metaphors are taken from the natural world: God as an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11). A common metaphor used in the Old Testament to describe God is God as a lion.
When the prophet Amos received his call to minister to the Northern Kingdom, he received his message from God as the roar of a lion. Amos wrote, “The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem” (Amos 1:2). Or as another translation puts it, “The Lord will give a lion’s cry from Zion, his voice will be sounding from Jerusalem” (Amos 1:2 BBE). As a result of hearing the roar of the lion, Amos was compelled to proclaim the message he heard: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8).
In Amos 1:2 and 3:8 God speaks with the roar of a lion in order to warn Israel of the impending judgment that was coming upon the nation. The roar of the lion is the angry message that the prophet proclaims to Israel. Amos was saying that the words he heard were like the roar of a lion. The lion’s roar was the voice of an angry God who was hurt because of the apostasy of Israel. “When Israel is telling God that Israel does not love God even as God continues to love Israel, God can respond with anger, even with dangerous punishment that so many people think of as typical of God in the Bible” [Smith 2013:93].
The metaphor of the lion is used to produce fear in the listeners. At times, the roar of the lion may express assurance of protection to God’s people (Hosea 11:10). More often, though, the roar of the lion is designed to send the fear of God to the people because of their sins and rebellion: “The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (Joel 3:16). The roar of a lion is a warning that judgment is coming and also serves as an invitation to the people to return to God.
Although the Bible says that God is the one who roars against his people, the book of Jeremiah says that there is another lion who is roaring against God. Yahweh tells Jeremiah about the attitude of the people of Judah:
“My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest; she has lifted up her voice against me” (Jeremiah 12:8).
Yahweh tells Jeremiah that his heritage, his people, has become like a lion in the forest; that is, they have not only rejected him, but they have aggressively dared to attack him, like a lion who roars against people in the forest. The people of Judah are like a lion, enraged against Yahweh; they roar like a lion against their God. “Israel has turned on God like a roaring lion, making God its prey. This self-identification of God as prey is remarkable” [Fretheim 2002:195].
Israel acts like a lion threatening God. “Israel is the lion, in short, the animalistic aggressor that has acted against God” [Melvin 2011:100]. Israel has acted as a lion in the forest, roaring against Yahweh. This roaring lion is ready to attack. Because of the aggressive attitude of Israel, Yahweh hates what they have done: Israel has defiantly raised its voice against Yahweh. By roaring against God, Israel is telling God it does not love him even though God has remained faithful to the relationship he established with Israel on Mount Sinai.
God’s words to Jeremiah came at the time Jeremiah complained to Yahweh about the way the people of Judah had reacted to his ministry. Jeremiah’s first confession reveals Jeremiah’s struggle with the meaning of his vocation. Jeremiah’s struggle with his vocation came as a result of the implications of the divine call and the response he received from the people of Judah as he proclaimed the message he had received from God. Jeremiah accepted God’s call because Yahweh promised him his protection (Jeremiah 1:8, 17-19). Thus, when opposition came and Jeremiah saw no evidence of Yahweh’s protection, he became convinced that Yahweh had violated his promise.
Jeremiah’s family and friends opposed him and tried to kill him. Thus, when Jeremiah’s enemies sought to kill him, Jeremiah appealed to Yahweh for an explanation and for meaning in the midst of his pain, his suffering, and the rejection of his message. Yahweh’s response to Jeremiah’s complaint was not what Jeremiah was expecting.
Yahweh told Jeremiah that things would continue to get worse: “If you have raced on foot against men and they have worn you out, how will you be able to compete with horses? And if you feel secure only in safe and open country, how will you manage in the thick undergrowth along the Jordan River?” (Jeremiah 12:5 NET).
What Yahweh revealed to Jeremiah was that the problems he had faced so far in his ministry were nothing compared to the problems he would face in the future. Then Yahweh described “his own personal sorrow at the condition of his people. So hardened are they toward him that he has no choice but to destroy them. But while Yahweh is enraged toward his inheritance, which has turned on him, he is heartbroken at the fact that he must now forsake the love of his life” [Melvin 2011:100].
Jeremiah suffers because he has been rejected by his family and by his people. Jeremiah also suffers because the people of Judah are suffering, however, “this same suffering will be felt by Yahweh, whose pain is even greater due to the heart-wrenching fact that he himself must inflict the blows to his beloved children” [Melvin 2011:100].
Israel’s rejection provoked God to anger: “My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest; she has lifted up her voice against me – therefore I hate her” (Jeremiah 12:8).
The expression “I hate her” does not mean the intense and resentful human dislike for someone. These are the words of a wounded lover who has decided to treat his beloved people as an enemy: “I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies” (Jeremiah 12:7).
Throughout Jeremiah Chapter 12, Yahweh expresses his love for Israel. Israel is my house, my heritage, the beloved of my heart, my vineyard, my portion, my pleasant portion (Jeremiah 12:7-8, 10). By emphasizing that Israel is his special heritage, Yahweh is declaring his affection for Israel.
Yahweh will punish the people, because they have become ‘like a lion in the forest’ roaring against him. Yahweh will bring judgment upon the people of Judah but not without a cost; Yahweh himself will suffer in punishing the people. Yahweh shows his pain: “I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies” (Jeremiah 12:7). The pain that Yahweh will incur as he delivers over his beloved people to their enemies is strongly expressed here. The reason for his suffering is because he will call on Babylon to inflict the punishment upon the people he loves. The judgment will bring unimaginable suffering to Yahweh because Israel is his special people, the son whom he loves.
In the book of Jeremiah, the lion metaphor is used to describe the nation which will devour Israel (Jeremiah 2:15; 4:7; 5:6). In response to Israel’s hostility, God will treat Israel as an enemy and will send in the lions and other wild animals against it: “The people have become lions to God, and hence the lions will attack them. They have made God their prey and hence they will become prey” [Fretheim 2002:200].
For Yahweh to treat Israel as an enemy does not mean that Yahweh stops loving Israel. Yahweh is the spurned lover who endures all the pain, the anger, and the anguish of Israel’s betrayal and rejection. Yahweh has forsaken Israel because Israel has forsaken Yahweh. Yahweh has abandoned Israel because Israel has abandoned Yahweh. Yahweh has given Israel over to their enemies because of their rebellion and apostasy.
But the judgment of Israel is not the end of God’s relationship with his people. “There is still more to the story of divine anger in the Bible. Even if God is rejected by Israel. God’s anger is not entirely like human anger. God’s anger can be swayed by divine mercy” [Smith 2013:93].
In due time God’s anger will give place to God’s mercy. In a not-so-distant future, a voice of hope will proclaim, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Fretheim, Terence E. Jeremiah. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002.
Smith, Mark S. “Why Is a Loving God So Angry in the Bible?’ In Pastoral Essays in Honor of Lawrence Boadt, CSP. Edited by Corrine L. Carvalho (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013), 85-95.
Melvin, David P. “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Human and divine suffering in Jeremiah 11:18-12:13 and the problem of evil,” Evangelical Quarterly 83.2 (2011), 99–106.