The Lord of Armies: A closer look

The term LORD of Armies appears two hundred eighty-five times in the Old Testament, most frequently in Isaiah and Jeremiah. While the CSB renders it “LORD of Armies,” other Bible versions translate Yahweh Sabaoth as “LORD of Hosts” or “LORD Almighty.” Host is a word used frequently in the Hebrew Bible for a military force (e.g., 2 Sam. 3:23; Ps. 108:11).

Put simply, this title for God is meant to communicate his absolute sovereignty over all agencies in heaven and on earth. He rules over the divine council in heaven, an assembly of spirit beings – such as “sons of God,” seraphim, cherubim, and holy angels – who administer the affairs of the cosmos. He rules over Satan and demonic forces, who often present themselves as pagan gods. He rules as commander in chief of Israel’s army. And he reigns supremely over the greatest military forces mankind can muster. He is the God-King, the uncontested Lord of all powers in heaven and on earth. The phrase “Yahweh, the Almighty” is a fitting translation of Yahweh Sabaoth.

LORD of Israel’s forces

The name LORD of Armies first appears in 1 Samuel 1:3. Elkanah, the future father of the prophet Samuel, travels to Shiloh to worship and offer sacrifices to the LORD of Armies. At this time, Shiloh is home to the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolizes Yahweh’s presence, among other things. The Israelites are fully aware that the LORD sits enthroned above the cherubim, whose wings stretch across the ark’s cover, the mercy seat (1 Sam. 4:4; Ps. 99:1). 

There is a sense in which the name LORD of Armies is understood to mean Yahweh is the true leader of Israel’s military forces, as Joshua learns in his encounter with the “commander of the LORD’s army,” who is none other than the angel of the LORD (Josh. 5:13-15; cf. Num. 22:23; 1 Chron. 21:16). Before David engages Goliath in battle, he invokes “the name of the LORD of Armies, the God of the ranks of Israel” (1 Sam. 17:45). In so doing, David declares Yahweh the universal ruler over all human affairs. Later, King David celebrates the superior kingship of the LORD of Armies: 

Who is this King of glory?

The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, you gates! Rise up, ancient doors!

Then the King of glory will come in.

Who is he, this King of glory?

The LORD of Armies, he is the King of glory (Ps. 24:8-10).

Psalm 24:8-10

This glorious King of Israel one day puts down all rebellion and establishes his throne on Mount Zion (Isa. 24:21-23; 31:4-5; 34:12). He is the once and future king of the world, who descends in glory to reign in righteousness (Zech. 14:9; cf. Isa. 37:16). “The King of glory, who commands the armies of heaven and who will eventually defeat all His enemies in this world, is none other than Jesus Christ. He is the LORD of hosts (Rev. 19:11-20).”

LORD of the unseen realm

Yahweh rules not only the armies of men but the powers of the unseen realm. This is where the name LORD of Armies commands more careful attention. The LORD of Armies is king of all heaven and earth, which means he is universally sovereign over every army, whether seen or unseen.

Sometimes, the army consists of holy angels. For example, in 2 Kings 6, the king of Aram sends a massive army to surround Dothan, where the prophet Elisha is staying. Elisha’s servant rises early the next morning to see horses and chariots all around. He cries out in fear, “Oh, my master, what are we to do?” (v. 15). 

“Don’t be afraid,” Elisha replies, “for those who are with us outnumber those who are with them” (v. 16). Elisha then asks the LORD to open his servant’s spiritual eyes so he may see the mountain covered with horses and chariots of fire all around (v. 17). The battle belongs to the LORD, who unleashes angelic forces against the Arameans.

At other times, we learn of God’s sovereignty over pagan deities. Ancient Near Eastern texts from outside Israel, particularly Babylon and Ugarit, tell of a supreme god who rules over other deities, divine entities, and people, and of a warrior god who leads the heavenly hosts into battle. The biblical writers use similar terminology and imagery to describe Yahweh’s power and supremacy as creator. And then they go further. 

These gods – like the Mesopotamian storm god Marduk and the Canaanite deities Baal, Yam, and El – are relatively equal in power and duke it out for supremacy among the pantheon of gods. But Yahweh is supreme over them all. This suggests that pagan deities are not merely the stuff of primitive ignorance and superstition. Rather, they represent real spiritual beings who actively oppose God. The apostle Paul puts it succinctly in his first letter to the Corinthian church: “What am I saying then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I do say that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:19-20, emphasis added).

Or consider Psalm 74. Asaph declares:

God my King is from ancient times, performing saving acts on the earth. You [God] divided the sea with your strength; you smashed the heads of the sea monsters in the water; you crushed the heads of Leviathan; you fed him to the creatures of the desert. 

Psalm 74:12-14

Here, Yahweh divides the personified sea (yam), who appears parallel to the Ugaritic deity Yam. Further, the LORD smashes the heads of the sea monsters (thanninim al-hammayim), who appear parallel to the Ugaritic being Tanin. Finally, God crushes the heads of Leviathan (liwyathan), a creature in Canaanite mythology linked with chaos. The psalmist’s point is that Yahweh rules over the wicked deities of the pagan world.

This psalm continues with descriptions of Yahweh’s power to release springs and streams, dry up rivers, establish the boundaries of the earth, and create and control the cycles of summer and winter (74:15-17). If Yahweh rules over rebellious creatures in the unseen realm, he has no problem directing affairs in the natural world. 

LORD of the sons of God

Beyond even this, we see the Scriptures reveal Yahweh’s sovereignty over a special group of divine beings known as sons of God (bene elohim). For example, in 1 Kings 22:19, the prophet Micaiah depicts Yahweh as the king whose heavenly army is the divine assembly: “I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and the whole heavenly army was standing by him at his right hand and at his left hand.” And Psalm 82:1 declares, “God stands in the divine assembly; he pronounces judgment among the gods [elohim].” 

Michael Heiser has written extensively about the sons of God in works such as The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host. Heiser says there is solid evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a three-tiered divine council in which Yahweh is the supreme authority over a second tier of created beings called sons of God (bene elohim) and a third tier generally known as angels, or messengers (malakhim). “Council members do more than just run the heavenly mail room,” he writes. “They engage with God as a functioning bureaucracy, a role nuanced in three ways.”

First, according to Heiser, heavenly council members contribute to council resolutions. In 1 Kings 22:19-23, we learn Yahweh has decided King Ahab should die, but he allows his council members to participate in how the decree is carried out. One member of the council volunteers to become a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s false prophets, and Yahweh acquiesces. There is no hint that God has preprogrammed any of this. In his omniscience, he would have overruled any plan that would not succeed. Yet, the LORD involves the divine council in carrying out the verdict that Ahab must die. As Heiser notes, “The members of the heavenly host partner with God in carrying out his will. They are not autonomous.”

Second, writes Heiser, heavenly council members bear witness to God’s decrees. In Job 38:4-7, the morning stars, or sons of God, bear witness to the majesty of creation. They also testify to the delivery of the law (Deut. 33:1-4 – Septuagint; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). They serve as witnesses in “lawsuits” God takes up against the people for their covenant violations (Ps. 50:7-8, 16-17; Mal. 2:13-14). And they bear witness to the LORD’s choice of prophets (Jer. 23:16-22).

Finally, Heiser says heavenly council members assist in God’s governance of the human world. Job 1 and 2 provide a glimpse into the heavenly council room where an adversary (satan) describes his patrol of the earth. In Zechariah 1:10, we see God sending an angel to do much the same thing. And in Psalm 82, the elohim under God’s indictment are being judged because they have failed to manage the nations according to the principles of Yahweh’s justice (Ps. 82:2-4). The result is chaos on earth, and future condemnation for the rebellious sons of God.

The most dramatic instances of council members’ participation in God’s governance is associated with judgment. According to Deuteronomy 4:19-20 and 32:8-9, members of the heavenly host are assigned as administrators of the nations. We learn from Genesis 11 that humanity is divided into nations after the Tower of Babel event. After God, in essence, takes a hiatus from ruling over all people, he divides the nations and allots them to lesser divine beings (“sons of God”). Then, God selects Abraham to form a new people – his “inheritance” as described in Deuteronomy 32:9. Through this new people, God plans to bless all nations in the future (Gen. 12:3; cf. Acts 17:26). 

This is pivotal to understanding the rest of the Old Testament, according to Heiser. The sons of God, given responsibility for governing the nations according to Yahweh’s righteous principles, instead oppose God. They seduce the Israelites into idolatry (Deut. 32:17) and abuse people (Ps. 82:1-5). For this insurrection, God pronounces their destruction at the day of the LORD (Ps. 82:6-8; Isa. 24:21; 34:1-4). 

Heiser summarizes:

While Yahweh is ultimately sovereign, He does not unilaterally govern the other nations. He leaves that to subordinates, who should rule according to His will. When they don’t, they are judged. This is precisely the point of Psa. 82, where Yahweh judges the gods of his council who are responsible for corrupt rule over the nations of the earth.

Michael Heiser

Consider the context

The context of each reference to the LORD of Armies helps us determine the specific army to which the biblical writer refers. But no matter the identity of earthly forces or heavenly hosts, Yahweh reigns as ultimate commander in chief. 

Just as the name Yahweh in the Old Testament applies both to God (the Father) and the angel of the LORD, the title LORD of Armies sometimes applies to one – or both – members of the Trinity. This is not to neglect the Spirit of the LORD, who is active throughout the Old Testament (cf. Judg. 3:9-10; 1 Sam. 16:13-14; 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 11:2) and who always acts in concert with the other members of the Godhead. 

The oneness of God in three persons is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. Even so, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share more than a divine essence unique to the one true God. They also share a sovereignty over the affairs of spirits and people, with one or more members of the Trinity often playing the lead role. 

For our purposes, we are looking for applications of the divine title LORD of Armies to the preincarnate Christ and find evidence that the angel of the LORD is also the LORD of Armies. We gain some insight into how New Testament writers see Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. For example, the prophet Isaiah reports what Yahweh has told him concerning the coming Assyrian invasion of Judah. The people’s only refuge is the LORDof Armies. The LORD says through Isaiah:

You are to regard only the LORD of Armies as holy. Only he should be feared; only he should be held in awe. He will be a sanctuary; but for the two houses of Israel, he will be a stone to stumble over and a rock to trip over, and a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Many will stumble over these; they will fall and be broken; they will be snared and captured.

Isaiah 8:13-15

Both Paul (Rom. 9:32-33) and Peter (1 Pet. 2:6-8) apply verse 14, together with Isaiah 28:16, to Jesus Christ, who is rejected as Messiah by the very people he comes to save. Some may object that the apostles’ use of these passages is not consistent with what Isaiah means when he speaks to his Judean audience seven centuries before the Incarnation. However, Isaiah is addressing Israel’s attitude toward Yahweh. So, if Jesus is the revelation of the Father and his activity (e.g., John 1:1; 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:19; Phil. 2:6), then what Isaiah says about God may be taken in a messianic sense and applied to Jesus.

Further, with respect to the sovereignty of Jesus over the divine council, the New Testament reveals this more clearly. For example, angels attend to Jesus after his temptation in the desert (Matt. 4:11). An angel gives Jesus strength in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). More than twelve legions of angels are ready to help when Jesus is betrayed, although he does not ask the Father to send them (Matt. 26:53). 

An angel rolls back the stone from Jesus’ tomb and announces Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:2, 5-6). Later, two angels witness his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:10-11). No holy angel ever receives worship, but Jesus never rebukes those who worship him (Matt. 28:9; John 20:28; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:12-14; 22:8-9). 

Jesus leads an army of angels at his second coming (Matt. 24:31; Jude 14; Rev. 19:14). They execute judgment on his behalf (2 Thess. 1:7). They separate the righteous from the wicked (Matt. 13:41, 49). And they witness Christ’s proclamation of righteousness or unrighteousness for each person (Luke 12:8). 

Last, consider Paul’s curious statement, “Don’t you know that we will judge angels …?” (1 Cor. 6:3). This likely means believers in heaven will take part in the judgment of fallen angels and exercise some authority over holy angels. This is a humbling prospect. The LORD of Armies, who commands the most powerful unseen military forces, allows the adopted children of God to help govern the world to come.

In summary, the LORD of Armies, who is none other than Jesus Christ, rules over all angelic and human armies – faithful heavenly beings like seraphim, cherubim, and holy angels; rebellious beings like Satan, certain sons of God who abuse their authority over the earth, as well as lesser evil spirits; the demons behind pagan idols; the army of the Israelites and the armies of other nations. 

Michael Heiser summarizes: 

For Christians, the second Yahweh [of the Old Testament] was Jesus. It is for this reason that the New Testament describes Jesus with all the descriptions of Yahweh’s co-regent: the name (which Jesus manifests by his presence: John 17:6, 11-12, 16), the word (John 1:1), the cloud-rider (Matt. 26:64), wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24), and the angel of Yahweh (Jude 5; Num. 14:29).

Michael Heiser

Next: The divine charioteer

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.