Perhaps the most well-known verse in Psalm 46 comes in the tenth verse – the oft-quoted imperative to “Be still and know”. There is a refrain, however, that is repeated twice in Psalm 46 that is often overlooked, our attention instead given to the more famous v.10. That refrain is “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” We find it in v.7 and repeated in v.11. In this refrain, we find two monikers given to God by the psalmist: “the God of Jacob” and “the LORD of hosts”. The “God of Jacob”, of course, points to the national relationship of Israel with their covenant God. Jacob, whose name would later be changed to “Israel” (Gen. 32:28), was the father of the twelve tribes. Our particular concern in this brief article, though, is “the LORD of hosts.” What is meant by this appellation? Why was it used instead of another of the names often used for God?
“The LORD of hosts” is used in much of the Old Testament (with the exception of the Pentateuch), but its overwhelming usage (approximately 1/3) is found in the books of the post-exilic prophets: Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi. Of these three, Malachi uses it most. The question that should arise in our minds is “Why do the post-exilic prophets use this term more than the other writers of Scripture?” When Judah returned from exile in Babylon under the edict of the Persian king, Cyrus, the so-called “glory days” of Israel had long past. Imagine the dismay of the returning exiles – the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down, the Temple of Solomon had been burned and left a ruin, the land had, essentially, been laid waste by the great hosts of Babylon. There were only a few who might remember the former glory of Jerusalem and her Temple (Hag. 2:3), but all would have looked upon the present dilapidation with grief, even if all they had heard about this land of their fathers were stories told them by their parents and grandparents. Not only was Jerusalem a ruin, but the returning exiles were returning to a land that was surrounded by enemies (e.g., Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, etc.; see Neh. 2:17-20).
Had God lost to the Babylonians? Were the promises made during the times of Moses and David now defunct? What of the promises made through the major prophets of God’s blessing upon the returned remnant? No doubt, questions like these would have entered the minds of the returning exiles. Even after the wall of Jerusalem had been rebuilt under the governance of Nehemiah, and the Temple finished and dedicated under the eye of Ezra the priest, the minimized state of Judah – now a provincial state, as it were, of the Persian Empire – would have been disheartening to a once great people. As a provincial state, also, Judah had no army of its own. Seemingly, they were defenseless against the world.
But, the postexilic prophets remind them that the God of Jacob, their covenant God, is the LORD of hosts. The God of their fathers is the God Who leads scores of heavenly armies and Whose hand sovereignly directs the armies of the earth. Indeed, the reason they were exiled to begin with was that God had disciplined them for their covenant unfaithfulness, and to do this He had used the means of the armies of Babylon. God had not lost to the Babylonians; He had wielded them as a weapon of judgment against His sinful people (Jer. 25:8-11). Not only this, but it was He Who later brought judgment upon Babylon by means of the Persians (Jer. 25:12-14; Is. 45:1-7). By referring to God as the LORD of hosts, the postexilic prophets were reminding the returned exiles that, even in the midst of world powers that dwarfed Judah, the covenant God of Israel was still sovereign. Though their position had been diminished, their sovereign God had not changed. “For I the LORD does not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6). Far from being subject to world powers, the covenant people were called to be subject to the LORD of hosts, to take refuge in the God of Jacob. By using the moniker, the LORD of hosts, the postexilic prophets were calling the people to look beyond what their mortal eyes could see.
In this, the postexilic prophets were recalling by their own words and actions an earlier prophet, Elisha. A narrative is related in 2 Kings 6:8-23 of a time when Syria was warring against the nation of Israel. Elisha, the successor of Elijah, warned the king of Israel concerning the tactics of the king of Syria. In a rather humorous account, the king of Syria turns upon his own servants, concerned that one of them had leaked Syrian battle plans. One of his servants speaks up and assures him that it hadn’t been any of them, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel” who “tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” (2 Kings 6:12). In response, the king of Syria sent a great army to the city of Dothan, where Elisha was staying. Elisha’s servant awakes early in the morning only to see the city surrounded by the army of Syria; his first reaction seems to be one of panic. But the prophet assures him, saying, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16). After Elisha prays that the LORD would open the eyes of his servant, the servant looks again, “and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots or fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17). The heavenly hosts of the LORD of hosts were far mightier than the armies of the nations arrayed against God’s prophet.
In the New Testament, the understanding of God as the LORD of hosts is continued. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.” (Matt. 26:51). Immediately, Jesus reprimands him and commands him to put his sword away. Why? Jesus answers rhetorically, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:52). In other words, “My Father is the LORD of hosts. I don’t need you to defend Me.” The phrase, the Lord of hosts, is used only once in the New Testament, however, in the epistle of James, in which he warns the wealthy that the cries of those whom they are oppressing “have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:4). Again, we see that the LORD of hosts is He Who takes the part of His powerless people. This is a terror to those who array themselves against God’s people, but it is a great comfort to those who are His.
This recognition brings us back around to the refrain in Psalm 46:7 and 11. “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” What is being conveyed in this repeated line of Hebrew poetry? For the covenant people of God, assurance and security is never to be found in earthly power; they are not to seek these things. Instead, they are to seek to make the LORD of hosts, the covenant-keeping God, their refuge. They are to put their trust in His power which is always exercised according to His nature. If this is true for the Old Testament saints, it is true likewise for Christians presently. We do not fear the world because we know that the LORD of hosts is our covenant God; He is our refuge and strength. It is not in the exertion of worldly power that Christians are to witness to their Lord; rather, it is in our weakness that His strength is made manifest in and for His people.