15 And I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent after the blessing which they shall receive, after they have scattered my people—
16 Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob, go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.
17 Thy hand shall be lifted up upon thine adversaries, and all thine enemies shall be cut off.
18 And I will gather my people together as a man gathereth his sheaves into the floor.
19 For I will make my people with whom the Father hath covenanted, yea, I will make thy horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass. And thou shalt beat in pieces many people; and I will consecrate their gain unto the Lord, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth. And behold, I am he who doeth it.
20 And it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that the sword of my justice shall hang over them at that day; and except they repent it shall fall upon them, saith the Father, yea, even upon all the nations of the Gentiles.
21 And it shall come to pass that I will establish my people, O house of Israel. (3 Nephi 20:15-21)
I’ve puzzled over these verses a long time and I feel like I’m beginning to understand it better, so I want to share what I’ve learned. But I recognize that I still have a lot to learn, so my understanding may change over time.
There are two different images used here to represent remnants of the house of Israel. One is of a lion that tears beasts of the forest and flocks of sheep in pieces. The other is of a raging bull with iron horns and brass hooves that beats many people in pieces.
I previously thought that they were meant to represent the same group of people, but I have recently started to realize that they actually represent two different groups, which is a bit of a relief to me.
The first key for understanding is in the nature of the creatures represented. We have a lion and we have a bull. The lion is a wild predatory animal. But the bull is a domesticated animal. The bull is still dangerous, but he has an owner who has given him iron horns and has fitted him with brass hooves.
This suggests to me that we have two different remnants of Israel. There is a wild remnant and the tame remnant.
Evidently the wild remnant does not even know it is a remnant of Israel. Among all the beasts of the forest (who are also wild) this “lion” remnant is the scariest of the scary. It fascinates me that the Lord doesn’t disavow this remnant. Even though it is wild and violent, it is still part of Jacob.
The domesticated remnant is referred to as “my people with whom the Father hath covenanted,” which suggests members of the church. But we have all this violent imagery of trampling (and probably goring too) with iron horns and brass hooves. What are we to make of that?
I suspect that the iron horn and brass hooves are to represent the spiritual power that the Lord gives His covenant people. Horns are many times representative of power. They are everywhere used in the Old Testament to symbolize and suggest power.
What about the trampling and beating in pieces? I think this is supposed to be connected with wheat harvest imagery, since the verse before it (v18) says the Lord would gather his people like sheaves into the floor. Once the sheaves are gathered, the grain has to be separated from the chaff, and the trampling is part of that. To me, this suggests the processes of missionary work, calls to repentance, spiritual refinement, and the making of choices that will either prove the salvation or damnation of those who make them. The preaching of the Word has a tendency to divide people on one side or the other. Either people accept it, or they reject it and fight it. This might be said to “beat many people in pieces.”
Let’s go back to the lion imagery of the other remnant. The lion goes among the beasts of the forest and tears them in pieces. These forest beasts might be interpreted as people who are not spiritually domesticated, yet less wild than the lions. The forest beasts have no protection, and they also don’t seek it. So they simply suffer, which is sad. The lion also is among flocks of sheep, which are domesticated.. but we have to ask ourselves, “Where is these flocks’ shepherd?” Based on their destruction, we have to conclude that they either have no shepherd, or their shepherd does not protect them (which means they have the wrong shepherd).
So in these verses, the Lord is trying to tell us that he will use His covenant people to preach the gospel, but He will also use fierce, spiritually ignorant remnants of his people to 1) try to bring the Gentiles to repentance, and to 2) destroy the wicked.
So we members are not meant to be lions. We never were. (Thank goodness!) We supposed to be the servant bull--doing the harvest and threshing tasks of missionary work (which some people disapprove of and consider mean and violent, but that’s their problem, not ours.)
I personally think the lions sound a lot like terrorists and their attacks, but time may suggest additional interpretations that fit better.
If we’re told there will be lions that tear people in pieces, do we just stand by and watch? No, the lions must be destroyed when they appear because after all, they are the worst. They can’t be allowed to run amok when they emerge. But I think the Lord means their periodic appearance to be a reminder that life can be ended unexpectedly and immediate repentance is necessary.
These scriptures demonstrate the Lord’s foreknowledge of these things. Some might argue, “If the Lord knew these things ahead of time, why doesn’t He stop them?” He can do that, but that’s not the only way He can save. He can also allow the evil to happen (letting evil people have their choice) and then He can make good come out it anyway. He can take evil and turn it into a victory for good, and save people from the evil that has happened to them. He can do that because He suffered for all those who are killed or torn in pieces by the lions.