Isaiah 11:6-9 is the famous passage in which the wolf dwells with the lamb and the baby can play by hole of the cobra because these animals will no longer kill or devour.
This has long been understood figuratively. The Puritan commentator Matthew Poole (Annotations, 2:354), for instance, wrote:
But this is not to be understood literally, which is a gross and vain conceit of some Jews; but spiritually and metaphorically, as is evident. And the sense of the metaphor is this, Men of fierce, and cruel, and ungovernable dispositions, shall be so transformed by the preaching of the gospel, and by the grace of Christ, that they shall become most humble, and gentle, and tractable, and shall no more vex and persecute those meek and poor ones mentioned ver. 4, but shall become such as they; of which we have instances in Saul being made a Paul, and in the rugged jailer, Acts 16, and in innumerable others.
John Oswalt rejects this interpretation (NICOT, 1:283):
A second means of interpretation is spiritualistic. The animals represent various spiritual conditions and states within human beings (cf. Calvin). While this avoids the problems of literal fulfillment, it introduces a host of other problems, chief of which is the absence in the text of any controls upon the process. Thus, it depends solely upon the exegete’s ingenuity to find the correspondences (contra 5:1-7, where the correspondence is clearly indicated).
But he also rejects what he calls a “literalistic” interpretation (NICOT, 1:283):
While this interpretation is possible, the fact that the lion’s carnivorousness is fundamental to what a lion is and that literal fulfillment of the prophecy would require a basic alteration of the lion’s nature suggest that another interpretation is intended.
Paul House reaches a similar conclusion (MC, 331):
One problem with taking the passage in a fully literal manner is the change in the physiological makeup of the animals. How can a carnivore exist on plants, for example?
Both Oswalt and House opt for a broadly figurative approach:
The third way of interpreting this passage, and others like it, is the figurative. In this approach one concludes that an extended figure of speech is being used to make a single, overarching point, namely, that in the Messiah’s reign the fears associated with insecurity, danger, and evil will be removed, not only for the individual but for the world as well (Rom. 8:19-21).Oswalt, NICOT, 1:283.
The goal of the passage is not to give detailed information on what animals will eat in the eschaton, but rather it is to provide understandable images that offer comfort and challenge to the eighth-century B.C. audience. From this base, these images provide challenge and comfort for current readers.House, MC, 331
I don’t understand the reticence of Oswalt and House to say that this passage is prophesying a change in actual animal behavior.
- To say that a lion’s carnivorousness is fundamental to the lion’s nature is to deny the goodness of creation before the Fall, for it implies the existence of death before the Fall.
- Thus the objection that this passage would require “change in the physiological makeup of the animals” is a strange objection given that such a change happened in the move from Creation to Fall. Why not such a change in the move from Fall to New Creation. House already said the best understanding of this passage was re-creation, not mere return to Eden nor reform. Cannot re-creation involve changes in the “physiological makeup of the animals”?
- To deny that this passage envisages a transformation of the animal world is to deny that Redemption extends as far as the Fall.
- To deny that this passage envisages a transformation of the animal world is to neglect covenant promies of God. See Hosea 2:18; Eze 34:25.
- Finally, the interpretation of Oswalt and House is very general. But, granting its validity, it would need to be lived out in concrete situations. It would seem that one of these concrete situations would be no fear of being killed by wild animals or poisonous snakes in the new creation. House already indicated that he believes the new creation is the time of fulfillment for this passage and that death will be abolished at that time.
Thus the better interpretation of this passage is that of Motyer (Isaiah, 124):
So secure is this peace that a youngster can exercise the dominion originally given to human kind. Secondly, in verse 7 there is a change of nature within the beasts themselves: cow and bear eat the same food, as do lion and ox. There is also a change in the very order of things itself: the herbivoral nature of all the creatures points to Eden restored (Gn. 1:29-30). Thirdly, in verse 8 the curse removed. The enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent is gone (Gn. 3:15ab).”
See also Keil and Delitzsch, 7:184; E. J. Young, Isaiah 1:390-91; Geoffrey Grogan, Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.), 6:545; Gary Smith, NAC, 268-69; Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, NSBT, 66; Edward Adams, The Stars Will Fall from Heaven, LNTS, 34.