Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. One of my son’s favorite movies right now is Disney’s Zootopia (2016), which came earlier this year. As the title suggests, Zootopia envisions a kind of animal utopia, a world in which predator and prey coexist and live together in harmony. Without revealing too many details of how it happened, one day the mammals of the world decided to retract their claws and stop their bleating. According to the opening sequence, “back then the world was divided between vicious predators and meek prey.”
But over time the animals supposedly “evolved” and “moved beyond [their] primitive, savage ways.” As the little lamb says in her school play during the opening sequence, “I don’t have to cower in a herd anymore. Instead, I can be an astronaut.” And as the snow leopard cub declares, “I don’t have to be a lonely hunter anymore. Today I can hunt for tax exemptions! I’m going to be an actuary.”
But not everything in Zootopia is a dream come true. There is crime, including theft and kidnapping. Obvious prejudice still exists between mammals of different species, particularly between predator and prey. As one fox remarks about the main character, a rabbit who longs to become a police officer, “Whoever heard of a bunny cop?!”
Zootopia is full of anthropomorphic creatures with human-like personalities, clothing, and careers. But not a single human being ever sets foot on screen. Zootopia is a world that has gone to the dogs.
That is certainly not the case in another idyllic portrayal of the animal kingdom, Edward Hicks’s painting, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826). If you take out your announcement insert from the bulletin, you can see an image of this wonderful painting, courtesy of Wikipedia…
The painting is a not only an excellent example of early American folk art, but also a beautiful illustration of the famous passage from our Old Testament lesson:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (Isa. 11:6-8, ESV).
Take another look at Hicks’s painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. Every single animal mentioned by Isaiah is in the painting: the wolf, lion, leopard, and bear all relaxing peacefully on the grass with the little lamb, kid goat, calf, cow, and ox. There are even babies petting the leopard and a lioness. After all, “a little child shall lead them” (v. 6). All the elements of Isaiah’s prophecy are in place—and at peace—in The Peaceable Kingdom. Just as man and beast lived in perfect harmony in the Garden of Eden—Adam named all the animals (Gen. 2:19)—so also the children in the painting are perfectly safe and at ease with a fluffy sheep and the king of beasts.
But the painting is also a work of religious propaganda. Edward Hicks was a Quaker preacher and housepainter who quickly figured out that he could make more money by painting than by preaching. I don’t know if anyone alive today remembers a single word that Edward Hicks ever uttered from the pulpit, but his paintings are on display in galleries all across the country. Clearly, his painting made a bigger impact than his preaching.
Hicks did not understand the prophecy of Isaiah in a literalistic way, in which lions would one day actually learn how to chew the cud and kids would really play with cobras. He saw these animals as symbols of the lasting peace that Christianity could and should bring to the world. That is why, in the background of the painting, you see a strange scene depicting a group of Native Americans meeting with a group of Quakers (the fat men in the funny hats!). Quakers are pacifists, and The Peaceable Kingdom glorifies the peace treaty made between William Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony, and the Lenape tribe, who sold him the land underneath an oak tree. It is a remarkable, pastoral scene full of hope for the future.
But where are the Lenape Indians now—or any of the many tribes wiped out or forcibly removed by European and American settlers? And the last I heard, ranchers in Wyoming and Montana are still petitioning the federal government for the right to shoot grey wolves on sight, which they deem a threat to their livestock. The Quaker dream of world peace never came to fruition, and now they are more famous for a brand of oatmeal than they are for their religious convictions.
The world envisioned by William Penn and depicted by Edward Hicks is just a dream. Perhaps even Hicks himself recognized that. The painting you see this morning is just one of more than sixty versions of this painting, with varying compositions and the animals in different poses. It’s almost as if Hicks could never quite get the painting right, just as we sinners never got peace right, just like the bunny cop Judy Hopps never quite got it right either. We are a long way away from the lion lying down with the lamb.
Yet Isaiah’s prophecy still captures my imagination and stirs my heart, especially this phrase: “And a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6). But which child? Any child? Or one particular child?
There are lots of babies in the early chapters of Isaiah’s book. There is the prophecy of a baby boy named Immanuel born to a virgin in Isaiah 7:14. There is the prophet Isaiah’s own son, named Maher-shalal-hash-baz and born in chapter 8. And, of course, there are the famous tidings of Christmas from Isaiah 9: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” (Isa. 9:6, KJV). Then in chapter 11, Isaiah writes, “A little child shall lead them.” So is the child the same as one of these earlier babies, or another one entirely?
The key to identifying this child is given in verse 8: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (Isa. 11:8). This side of heaven, this Bible verse seems to be encouraging one of the most foolish and dangerous games imaginable: a baby playing with snakes—and poisonous snakes at that! But Isaiah envisions a new world in which vipers are no longer vilified and serpents are no longer creatures to be feared.
How can this be? Because the curse of Eden is undone. That is the whole point of Isaiah’s prophecy of predator and prey lying down together in peace. Remember that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit, God cursed devil, who had deceived them:
“The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Gen. 3:14-15).
But tacked onto the tail of this curse (pun intended!) is a blessing. One of Eve’s offspring—or seed—would crush the head of the serpent. And even though his heel would be injured, Eve’s offspring would, nevertheless, prevail. The seed, of course, is Jesus, who came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8; cf. Heb. 2:14).
The little Child in Isaiah 11 is none other than the babe of Bethlehem, our Lord Jesus. The root and shoot of Jesse is also the seed of Eve (Isa. 11:1, 10; Gen. 3:15). New life from an old stump! The virgin’s son and the child born for us is also the little child who grew to become Israel’s Messiah and the Lord’s Servant, a King who was born to die on a tree and rise again on the third day at the dawn of grace for a new creation.
On the Last Day, when Christ returns, he will create a new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22). He will usher in a new era of peace in a world without end. Old enemies will live together in safety, reconciled in Christ. Former predator and prey will lie down together in safety—not because they will be more highly evolved, but because creation will be restored to the way God originally made it in the Garden of Eden, when everything was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Because the Child who crushed the head of the serpent will make the world safe for every child to play with a cobra like a little pet. A peaceable kingdom, indeed!
Don’t be too surprised. After all, the root and shoot of Jesse is also called the Lion and the Lamb. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” which means that he takes away your sins and mine (John 1:29). And he is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has conquered death and the devil for you and me. Someday he shall come again to judge the living and the dead. And I can hardly wait! Of course, waiting is the whole point of Advent—and the Christian life. So we hasten the day of Christ’s return as together we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (2 Pet. 3:12; Rev. 22:20). Amen.