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 3.2.11 Leopard: Swift Killer

Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.11

Leopard: Swift Killer

  In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the scarecrow, and the tin woodsman proceeded through the creepy forest toward the Emerald City, justifiably apprehensive about “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” (I don’t think anybody was quite prepared for the cowardly lion they met, though.) We’re confronted with ravenous beasts in scripture, too. They may be symbolic, but that doesn’t mean they’re not real—or dangerous. We often see them grouped together—mentioned (and more to the point, warned about) in the same contexts. We’ve already encountered the lion, indicative of authority, and the eagle, lord of the heavens. Now we shall meet three of their carnivorous colleagues—the leopard, the bear, and the wolf.

Several of these beasts are recruited as symbols that reveal the voracious nature of a succession of gentile world-dominating nations in a vision shown to Daniel—a revelation parallel and complementary to what he had seen previously in his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s “statue” vision. “Daniel declared, ‘I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea….” The “sea” is a common scriptural metaphor for the gentile nations, as the “land” is for Israel. Daniel is being shown the course of future world history in broad strokes, as played out among the gentile nations who would, one after the other, exercise dominion over the promised land and the Jewish people in the wake of their idolatry. Note that the “winds of heaven” are stirring up these gentile kingdoms. Yahweh Himself raised up these heathen gentile kings, but not until after Israel had turned their backs on Him.

“And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.” Each succeeding superpower would have a unique character profile, revealed by a different symbolic beast. “The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it….” The first beast was the Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar (or his regent, Belshazzar), Daniel’s “boss” (humanly speaking) when this prophecy was delivered. A lion with eagle’s wings denotes unquestioned authority—to the point that its leaders began to see themselves as gods. The strange “wing-plucking” scenario therefore describes Nebuchadnezzar’s temporary madness, designed to teach him humility before the real God—a story recorded in Daniel 4.

“And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’” We’ll discuss the bear symbol in our next section. This one represented Medo-Persia. “After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it.” (Daniel 7:2-6) The nation that supplanted Persia was Greece under Alexander the Great.

Leopards are known (and feared) for their ability to kill swiftly. Here we see that reputation bolstered by the symbolic addition of “four wings of a bird.” The word for “bird” here is the Hebrew ‘owph—the designation based on the verb meaning “to fly.” How swift a killer was Alexander? He inherited the throne of Macedonia from His father Philip in 336 BC at the age of twenty. By the time he died (at the ripe young age of thirty-two) he and his armies had conquered everything from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas, including Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, and most notably, the whole Persian Empire. That would be impressive, no matter how long it took. But to do it in twelve years? That’s fast. The observation that the leopard had four wings (not to mention four heads) is a prophetic reference to Alexander’s four top generals, Cassander, Lysimachus, Ptolemy, and Seleucus, who split up Alexander’s vast kingdom among themselves upon his death.

A fourth beast, prophetic of Rome, is also mentioned in this passage, but its dreadful character defies description—it can’t be compared to any living animal. Perhaps if the Tyrannosaurus were still around, God would have used it to illustrate Rome.

Proving himself to be a master of metaphor mingling, Habakkuk too speaks of the swiftness of the leopard, this time in reference to the deadly advance of the Babylonian hordes: “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome. their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Particularly efficient and deadly are their cavalry: “Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves. Their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar. They fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!” (Habakkuk 1:6-11) The Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar II, once empowered by Yahweh to be the rod of correction upon the backside of apostate Judah, were as swift as they were violent. Four times in this one short passage is their speed described.

The Hebrew word for leopard is namer or namar, based, interestingly enough, on a word that means limpid or flowing—i.e., transparent, fluid, serene and untroubled. A big cat in motion is one of the most graceful animals you’ll ever see, and the namer (descriptive of the leopard, panther, presumably the cheetah, and perhaps even the tiger) is the fastest land animal on earth, at least over short distances. But because the leopard can’t run all day at top speed, planning and stealth are essential components of its strategy. Yahweh says, “It was I who knew you [Israel] in the wilderness, in the land of drought. But when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up. Therefore they forgot Me. So I am to them like a lion. Like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs. I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open.” (Hosea 13:5-8; cf. Deuteronomy 23:15-22) Because of its relatively short “range,” the leopard must be patient and watchful. Timing is critical, and stealth is crucial—which explains the spots. When the conditions are right for the kill, the namer pounces into action.

Time and again we see the leopard (or some other ravenous beast) being sent to stalk Judah in the wake of her idolatry and apostasy. Jeremiah’s admonition echoes those of Habakkuk and Hosea, warning his people of the danger lurking in the tall grass. He warned them for forty years, but nobody listened—until the Chaldeans pounced. First he tried reaching the common man, but they didn’t seem to understand. “Then I said, ‘These are only the poor. They have no sense, for they do not know the way of Yahweh, the justice of their God.” Then, he tried warning the princes, elders, and priests, but they were leading the rebellion. “I will go to the great and will speak to them, for they know the way of Yahweh, the justice of their God.’ But they all alike had broken the yoke. They had burst the bonds. Therefore a lion from the forest shall strike them down. A wolf from the desert shall devastate them. A leopard is watching their cities. Everyone who goes out of them shall be torn in pieces, because their transgressions are many; their apostasies are great.” (Jeremiah 5:4-6)  

Note that both Jeremiah and Hosea list three predators in succession—in Jeremiah’s case, the lion, then the wolf, and then the leopard. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to learn that Judah suffered not one but three deportations at the hands (or should I say, claws) of Babylon. The first, demonstrating the lion’s authority, came in 605 BC in the wake of Nebuchadnezzar’s defeat of Judah’s ally the Egyptians at Carchemish. It was at this time many Israelite nobles such as Daniel were hauled off to Babylon in chains. The second deportation—that of the ravenous wolf—took place as a result of Jehoiachin’s disastrously rebellious three-month reign in 597. His replacement was the puppet king Zedekiah, who, a decade later, attempted to ally Judah with Egypt against Babylon (again), precipitating the horrors of the siege of Jerusalem—including the destruction Solomon’s temple—in 586 BC. The leopard had pounced and devoured his prey.

I find it significant that the Hebrew word translated “swift” (qalal, as in Habakkuk 1:8, above) is closely related to the idea of lightness, that is, esteeming something lightly or considering it trivial or insignificant, hence despising or cursing it. The swiftness of leopards in scripture, therefore, is always seen in a negative sense, as if to say, “Because you have treated God with contempt, because you have considered His word trivial or insignificant, your recompense, when it comes, will come upon you swiftly and suddenly. One good curse deserves another, so to speak.” A case in point: “Behold, he [in context, Nebuchadnezzar] comes up like clouds. His chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles—woe to us, for we are ruined!” The Babylonian onslaught could have been prevented, of course: “O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil, that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you?” (Jeremiah 4:13-14)

Job too saw the swiftness of his days as a curse: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope…. My days are swifter than a runner; they flee away; they see no good.” (Job 7:6, 9:25) Well, that’s what it felt like at the time, anyway. Yahweh in His wisdom allowed Job to be oppressed for a season in order that we might benefit from his insight, faithfulness in the face of trial, and willingness to wait on God. We must remember, though, that in the end, Yahweh restored—actually, He doubled—what Job possessions had lost, and replaced (in a fashion) his seven sons and three daughters. And he lived to the ripe old age of 140: “So Job died, old and full of days.” (Job 42:17) So much for Job’s days swiftly fleeing away from him. His troubles, as bad as they were, weren’t quite the “leopard” they seemed to be.

One “miscellaneous” reference to leopards is worthy of mention: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23) The prophet’s point is roughly the same as the one Yahshua made: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-18)

This “bad fruit,” I’m delighted to report, will not follow mankind into Christ’s Millennial kingdom. The leopard’s spots, so to speak, will be changed. “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.” (Isaiah 11:6-7) In this present world, the most dangerous things we dare entrust to our little children are puppy dogs and pussy cats. But in Yahshua’s kingdom, our biosphere will undergo a radical, fundamental change. The swift death of this world’s “leopards” will give way to a universal reign of perfect peace. Nice kitty!  

(First published 2014)