Adonai Tzavaot, the “Lord of Hosts” is one of the names of God, used 235 times in the Bible. The first time it appears is in the story of Hannah and her husband Elkanah, in Hannah’s struggle with barrenness. Hannah is the first person to call God by this name. The literal meaning in Hebrew is “Lord of armies”: Tza-va (צבא) is the word for army – and what today refers to the Israeli Defence Force. Tza-va-ot (צבאות) is the plural. Multiple armies. But is it necessarily a military word? What does it mean, when we call God “Lord of Armies”?
Meaning in the word “army”
First of all, what is an army, exactly? We might speak of an army of ants, for example. We could say that such an army is a collective group ready to work together towards a common purpose. The meaning is flexible in English, as we shall explore below, and it’s the same way in Hebrew as well. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary gives us a lot of help with the concept. Here we find a range of different but related ideas:
- a large organized body of armed personnel trained for war especially on land
- a great multitude (for example an army of birds)
- a body of persons organized to advance a cause
And here are some examples from Mirriam-Webster of how the word can be used in English:
- …the armies of Alexander the Great
- …He left home and joined the army after he graduated from high school.
- …The company employs an army of lawyers to handle its legal affairs
- …They sent in a whole army of trained technicians.
- …The organization was founded by a dedicated army of volunteers.
Armies of Angels
Eugene Peterson’s Message version translates the phrase as “Lord of the Angel Armies”. One of the passages of scripture that so well paints this picture of the unseen reality for us is found in 2 Kings chapter 6. The prophet Elisha knows very well that they are surrounded by unseen warriors, but his servant was more focused on the vast Syrian army right in front of them…
When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city.
“Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria. After they entered the city, Elisha said, “LORD, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the LORD opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.
When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”
“Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.”
So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.
In this passage we can see a few important points.
One, of course, is the numerical multitude of the resources at God’s disposal. The key verse being “Those who are with us are MORE than those who are with them”. When we are in spiritual battle, this is ALWAYS going to be a true fact.
Sight and blindness, faith and doubt are paralleled here. Elisha knew without seeing, his servant doubted and had to be shown. The Syrian army seemed to be holding all the cards initially, but the cells in their body had to obey the command of their Creator, and they suddenly lost their God-given capacity of sight.
And lastly the idea of true strength and what it means to conquer. It’s almost comical how the king of Israel asks, “Can I kill em? Can I kill em? Can I? Can I? Huh?” The answer? No. Instead, remarkably, they prepared a great feast for them and sent them on their way. And the trouble stopped.
Whose Side Is He On?
How quick we are to desire harsh judgement on those who come against us. How slow we are to believe that there is no real threat when we are safe in God’s hands. How confused and uncompassionate we become, when we forget that the battle belongs to the Lord.
Not only does the battle belong to him, but our enemies also belong to him, and he loves them very much.
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.”
Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)
Yeshua commanded us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We can do this when we know that they are up against God, not us. We can do this when we know we are protected by an invinsible power, and that we have eternal life.
Just look at how God refers to Egypt – a nation that has oppressed, opposed, and attempted to annhilate Israel… and to Assyria, another fiece enemy of Israel:
“In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The LORD Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” Isaiah 19:23-25
The Commander of the Angel Armies is not exclusively “pro-Israel” and “anti-Arab”. He is Creator and Father of all, and seeks to bless, to save and to redeem. He has more than enough love to go round. He refuses to be drawn into choosing sides. He insists, rather, that we join his side and his purposes.
Who is the Lord of Hosts?
The word צבא is frequently translated as “host” rather than army, in most of our Bibles. “Host” could refer to either an army or a great number or multitude. The first time it appears in the Bible is right at the beginning, in the creation account: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the HOST of them.” Genesis 2:1.
I learned from a rabbi that this could mean that all of the atoms, all of the molecules, the vast array of them, were working together… all assembled and acting towards a purpose. Like an army. Not like a machine, but like an army. That was an amazing thought to me.
So it is no suprise then, that it is Hannah, a barren woman, who calls upon this aspect of God’s personhood. She cries out to the one who is able to create ex-nihilo, from nothing, to whom every cell and atom are called to attention. She knows that her hope lies only with the one whose voice the whole host of heavens and earth must obey. She understands that the command of the Lord of Armies will and must be executed. And it was.
When we call our Heavenly Father the “Lord of Hosts”, there is so much in that name. Yes, there are the myriad armies of angels at his disposal, and yes, he is a warrior, mighty in battle, but he is also the conductor of the beautiful orchestra that is the entirety of all creation. Every atom, every molecule, moves in accordance with his purposes and at his command. He sustains everything by his powerful word.