William Blake’s The Tyger ( 1794) is the most popular poem in the English language, anthologized more often than any other poem.
When reading the poem today the dread and awe evoked by Blake’s words in The Tiger, the tiger being one of God’s fiercest creations, seemed to provide a window into God’s creation of another, more terrifying creation. That is not a creation so much as an incarnation, the Word being made flesh in the Son of Man.
The Western church during the last 100 years at least has been so enamored of the softer side of the Christ, the lamb of God, the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of Charles Wesley’s hymn. This picture of Jesus has developed out of the liberal trends since the late 1800s, emphasizing the love of Jesus for man.
In contradistinction to this, since the late 1970s or so there has come a movement, in the conservative, evangelical and Pentecostal churches at least, to lift up the harder side of Christ, the Lion of Judah. This has been a healthy development, but the focus has relegated this side of Christ to His Second Coming, when he will come in wrath to judge the nations.
But there is an older tradition, running through the church for centuries, of Christ as Lion not just at His Second Coming, but also at his Ascension and Session at the right hand of God, in his subjecting all his enemies under his feet in history, in time and space.
So today let’s look at Blake’s Tyger and explore how we can see the Lion of Judah in its place.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
We think of the Son of Man, his beauty as a creation of God, his power and glory while on earth and after His resurrection. We focus on Jesus as 100% man, though he is at the same time 100% God. As man he is a fearful creation, really an incarnation, but a creation in a sense, the pinnacle of all creation, not just man but man in all the wonder that God intended man to be.
“In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?”
God seems distant, but in Jesus the man He came close, “emmanuel” the Lord with us.
“And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?”
It’s as if Jesus was created the babe in the manger, grew up the boy from Nazareth, suffered and died on the cross. But that was merely prelude. He then in maturity grew into the man who was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is now subjecting all his enemies under his feet (I Corinthians 15:25).
“What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!”
Psalm 2 illuminates this terrifying side of Jesus. The most basic religious instinct is of the dread and awe of the wholly and holy Other.
1 Why are the nations in an uproar
And the peoples devising a vain thing?
2 The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us tear their fetters apart
And cast away their cords from us!”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs,
The Lord scoffs at them.
5 Then He will speak to them in His anger
And terrify them in His fury, saying,
6 “But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”
7 “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
8 ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
9 ‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”
10 Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
11 Worship the Lord with reverence
And rejoice with trembling.
12 Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way,
For His wrath may soon be kindled.
How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!
“When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
We cannot help but think the power of Blake’s words are drawn from the Bible. The great literary critic Northrup Frye in The Great Code explores the prevalence of Biblical themes throughout English literature. Blake must have drawn his imagery here from the likes of Revelation 5.
Revelation 5 – The Lion Is a Lamb
1-2 I saw a scroll in the right hand of the One Seated on the Throne. It was written on both sides, fastened with seven seals. I also saw a powerful Angel, calling out in a voice like thunder, “Is there anyone who can open the scroll, who can break its seals?”
3 There was no one—no one in Heaven, no one on earth, no one from the underworld—able to break open the scroll and read it.
4-5 I wept and wept and wept that no one was found able to open the scroll, able to read it. One of the Elders said, “Don’t weep. Look—the Lion from Tribe Judah, the Root of David’s Tree, has conquered. He can open the scroll, can rip through the seven seals.”
6-10 So I looked, and there, surrounded by Throne, Animals, and Elders, was a Lamb, slaughtered but standing tall. Seven horns he had, and seven eyes, the Seven Spirits of God sent into all the earth. He came to the One Seated on the Throne and took the scroll from his right hand. The moment he took the scroll, the Four Animals and Twenty-four Elders fell down and worshiped the Lamb. Each had a harp and each had a bowl, a gold bowl filled with incense, the prayers of God’s holy people. And they sang a new song:
Worthy! Take the scroll, open its seals.
Slain! Paying in blood, you bought men and women,
Bought them back from all over the earth,
Bought them back for God.
Then you made them a Kingdom, Priests for our God,
Priest-kings to rule over the earth.
11-14 I looked again. I heard a company of Angels around the Throne, the Animals, and the Elders—ten thousand times ten thousand their number, thousand after thousand after thousand in full song:
The slain Lamb is worthy!
Take the power, the wealth, the wisdom, the strength!
Take the honor, the glory, the blessing!
Then I heard every creature in Heaven and earth, in underworld and sea, join in, all voices in all places, singing:
To the One on the Throne! To the Lamb!
The blessing, the honor, the glory, the strength,
For age after age after age.
The Four Animals called out, “Oh, Yes!” The Elders fell to their knees and worshiped.
“Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”