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Elisha’s Bears vs. Judah’s Lion


Most people seem fascinated by contests, whether they be athletic games, car races, or spelling bees.
TV programming has brought us fight-to-the-death encounters between mongooses and cobras, alligators and Burmese pythons. They once even showed a fight between a bear and bull. The poor bull didn’t last long. Holy Scripture also references many animals, including bears and lions. Who would win in a contest between these two opponents?
In one corner are Elisha’s bears. As the prophet was traveling up from Jericho to Bethel (2 Kings 2:23-25), he was met by a gang of young men. They mocked Elisha saying, “Go on up, baldy!” Their mockery was not based on Elisha’s uphill walk, but rather was a reference to Elijah’s recent ascension. Thus, they were challenging God’s prophet to follow suit, as if the ascension were a joke.
Such scoffing is not unusual; even Jesus was mocked. But this time something dramatic happened. Elisha “pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord” (v. 24), after which two female bears appeared out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the mockers.
Some today might say this was overkill, but surely the gang of young men had sinned against God and His Law. And the wages of sin brings the curse of the Law, which is death. In this case, the bears were instruments of God’s judgment. Elisha’s bears: formidable foes indeed—representing God’s Law-curse on sinful mankind.
In the other corner we find Judah’s lion. In Genesis 49:9, we read of Jacob blessing his son Judah and calling him a “lion’s cub.” God’s covenant blessing would be carried forward by Judah and his tribe. As a lion, the tribe would be strong and not to be messed with. From this tribe the great King David would be born, and later David’s much greater Son—Jesus of Nazareth.
Fast-forward to the Book of Revelation. In his second vision of heaven, St. John saw God on His throne with a rolled-up scroll in His hand. John wept because he thought there was no one in all creation who could open this scroll representing the future. But then John was comforted, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has prevailed.” (Revelation 5:5) And then John saw One as a Lamb open the seals. The very One promised, mocked, crucified, and arisen is now reigning triumphantly with all authority and control over the future. Elisha’s bears vs. Judah’s Lion: this promises to be quite a contest.
But it turns out to be no contest at all—quite literally. For the Gospel-Lion testified, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law. . . . I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matthew. 5:17) The Lion Who is the Root perfectly kept God’s Law for us, and now offers the world His righteousness. The Lion Who is the Lamb atoned for all sin and now offers His forgiveness to all. Elisha’s bears and Judah’s Lion were never in competition, but are always complementary. The Law-bears show us our sin and need of a Savior; the Gospel-Lion is that redeeming, triumphant Savior.
Speaking of contests, there was one that was to the death. St. John explained, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”
(1 John 3:8) So it was Judah’s Lion against the roaring lion, with both opponents using the same weapon: the cross. When Jesus died there, the devil thought he had won. But with His death, the Redeemer crushed Satan’s power, delivering us from the curse of sin, death, and the Law. How can we not roar with the thousands in heaven: “Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb,—the great Lion of Judah—forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13)
David Fuerstenau is pastor of Holy Truth Lutheran Church in Ketchikan, Alaska.