Take a moment to let yourself be drawn into the painting. It does not take much effort, since the work virtually summons you into its action. Some of the lions stare out directly at us, such as the one in the detail image below and the one in the center, up on the rock. Rubens uses a life-size scale (the painting is huge), details rendered from actual observations of lions, and a certain theatricality to summon us into the very reality of Daniel 6.
"Well, it's unlikely that I personally will ever end up in a lion pit," you might say. But, indeed, God's people today perhaps are in a lion pit. This pit represents the exile, confinement, and isolation of God's people. It is the place where we feel "cut off" from friends, family, and neighbors and from God and the joy of God's values and lifestyle.
Note the skull in the bottom center of this detail image (above) and the other human bones included in the painting. Daniel is in grave, imminent danger. He has remained alive thanks only to God's protective presence (Daniel 6:22). Daniel is in a grave, a pit, a place of skulls and bones. Above Daniel's head, a stone covering the pit has just been rolled away.
Such a pit is symbolic of exile of being "cut off" from life and community. Distraught at Jerusalem's destruction, Lamentations 3:53 cries, "They have silenced me in the pit. And have placed a stone on me." Verse 55 continues, "I called on your name, O Lord, Out of the lowest pit."
It does not take too much work to see the darkness of the pit around us in the here and now. With so much death in Iraq and the Middle East, we daily feel the de-humanizing chill of the pit. Like Daniel in the darkness of exile, we daily feel the pain of bungled justice in our world and we experience firsthand the ineptitude of our officials and leaders. Are those in power today much different from King Darius in Daniel 6?
The gospel message of this painting is that the stone above our heads will indeed be rolled away. The light of the season of Epiphany is indeed about to shine. More on this angle of interpreting the painting in my next post...