There are two principle methods of interpreting Isa 11:6-9; a metaphoric and a literal one. The metaphoric approach essentially sees in the animals named people of different natures or different natures within a person and thus the passage is deemed to represent a time of human world harmony. The literal approach assumes that these animals which are currently in a predator/prey relationship have the physical and behavioral characteristics changed to the point where they can peacefully coexist. The aim of this paper is to give a brief overview of the arguments presented for a metaphoric interpretation followed by a more buttressed defense of a literal hermeneutic. It will be assumed that the reader has read Isa 11:6-9 prior to reading this essay.
Of the more mainstream traditional commentators the three that argue most strongly for a metaphoric interpretation are Barnes, Henry and Gill. Of the three Matthew Henry is distinctive in suggesting an immediate fulfillment of the prophecy within the individual. He considers that when the gospel enters the heart the wolfish nature that would consume the sheep of God and the serpentine nature that renders us[sic] a generation of vipers is quelled. He does not however that 'some are willing to hope' for a fuller fulfillment in an as yet future 'golden age'. Barnes and Gill are certainly subscribers of this hope.
Gill takes a different approach and views this prophecy as referring to a time yet future. However he still views that the animal kingdom is behaving similarly to before and gives a detailed exposition regarding the different types of person that are referred to by the different animals. Thus the wolf shows the vicious becoming gentle, the leopard shows in intransigent changing their nature, the lion shows the arrogant becoming humble and the little child leading them is a babe in Christ.
Barnes gives a very detailed analysis of his position which lies between the two. He sees the final fulfillment of this prophecy in a golden age that matches the one presented by Gill. However Barnes views this golden age as being induced by engulfing spread of the Gospel. Thus at any point in time from the start of the church onward the prophecy is about N% fulfilled where N is the percentage of the world currently evangelized. Barnes also takes the time to exposit why he does not believe the fulfillment of this prophecy can be literal. His points are as follows:-
I consider these arguments to be specious for the following and corresponding reasons:-
The literal position is taken by JFB, Wesley and Keil and Delitzsch although the former gives the most precise yet succinct explanation. We know that in Eden the animals worked co-operatively with man and that that was the intended order of things and that it has been promised that that will once again be the order of things. We even know when this will happen; when the sons of God are revealed.
It is Romans 8:20-22 however that shows that the changes between man and man and man and beast also extend to inter-animal relationships. Specifically we are told that the creature is currently subject to vanity or futility. How are they subject to futility? Most animals spend most of the labors and energies either in catching things to eat, avoiding being caught or fighting for the right to catch the next thing that comes along. They are also subject to decay which eventually leads to death. Yet Romans promises that the beasts of creation shall also be set free from the bondage of decay and be given the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Given that we know from non-poetic, non-figurative entirely literal biblical passages that animals are going to be restored to a state that is not 'red in tooth and claw' it seems perverse to view this passage as anything other than a description of the state to which we know they are going to be brought.
In conclusion we may note that the interpretation of this passage essentially divides upon eschatological lines. For those that see the millennium as being a picture of salvation or the outworking of the Gospel then is it necessary to use metaphor or allegory to interpret this passage as it is otherwise impossible to explain how it may happen. For those that see the Millennium as a future period that is induced by direct Divine intervention then there is certainly no problem with viewing the passage as literal and thus we should do so.