In the Bible, the “arm of the Lord” is a vivid image of God’s saving power. But is it more than that? In Isaiah 59:16 and 63:5, the prophet tells how God will save his people by his own arm. In context, this builds on an important theme in Isaiah 40–66. But it also amplifies the promise of the messiah. Indeed, as we study “the arm of the Lord” across the Bible, I believe we begin to see how the “arm of the Lord” leads to the Son of God, who as Hebrews 10:5 says, citing Psalm 40, has received a body prepared by God.
Indeed, by better understanding the origin, development, and goal of this phrase (“the arm of the Lord”), we will gain greater insight into God’s Word and the work he planned for Christ to accomplish—namely the salvation of a people from all nations. Even more, we learn something about how the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament are intended to direct us toward God in Christ.
So to organize our thoughts, lets consider the arm of the Lord in eight steps.
1. The Arm of the Lord is anthropomorphic language describing God.
As the word anthropomorphic (anthropos + morph) implies, there are many places in Scripture where human parts are assigned to God even though, he is a Spirit who does not have arms, hands, or a body (John 4:24). That being said, when God created the world, and especially when he made humanity in his image and likeness, he gave us bodies that could reflect in their form and function (1) aspects of his character and (2) actions of his work in forthcoming redemption.
In other words, God made mankind in such a way that we would be able to understand his strength by phrases like the Lord’s “strong arm” (Jeremiah 21:5). As Andrew Abernathy puts it, “God’s ‘arm’ is a common metaphor for conveying his powerful action in human history (cf. Ps. 98:1), particularly in the exodus event (Exod. 6:6; 15:16; Deut. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:29; 11:2; 26:8; Ps. 77:15)” (The Book of Isaiah in God’s Kingdom, 90).
2. The language of the Lord’s arm begins with his deliverance of his people from Egypt.
References to the Lord’s arm go back to the exodus, where Yahweh saved his people by defeating Egypt. Later Scripture reveals how God intended to display his power in this event (“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth,'” Romans 9:17). But in the biblical history itself we find that salvation will come to Abraham’s offspring “with an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:6).
Quickly, this historical event is encapsulated in Moses words and the technical description that God saved Israel with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (see Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 9:26, 29; 11:2; 26:8; cf. Psalm 136:12).
3. The Lord’s arm is often spoken of in conjunction with his hand, and together they speak of God’s power to save and to judge.
At the same time, the Lord’s “arm” occurs frequently in conjunction with mention of his “hand.” For instance, the first two occurrences of these respective words show up in the opening chapters of Exodus, where a “mighty hand” will be required to pry Israel out of Egypt (3:19–20) and a few chapters later, Yahweh reassures his people that he will redeem them “with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” (6:6).
Here are the respective verses in context,
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.
Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.
Interestingly, these two verses stress the two sides to God’s work in the exodus—(1) salvation for his people and (2) judgment on his unbelieving enemies. However, lest we think that God’s hand brings judgment and his arm salvation, we find two other occurences of this anthropomorphism in Exodus.
Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
Perhaps there is some measure of specificity given to each body part, where each describes something different in God’s work of redemption, but from these four original uses in Exodus it seems best to see God’s hand working in coordination with his arm, and that together they powerfully effect salvation and judgment.
4. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings all make historical reference to Yahweh’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.
Deuteronomy is the place where the power of God is most frequently designated by his mighty hand and outstretched arm. To get a feel for how the term is used here are the passages.
Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid.
Deuteronomy 9:26, 29
And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . . For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’
And consider today (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm,
And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.
At other times, only the Lord’s hand is mentioned,
then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.
it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
After the Torah, the language shows up again in 1 Kings 8:42, as Solomon dedicates the temple. Interestingly, the reference does not point to the exodus, but to the temple itself. Besides, this occurrence, every other instances relates either to the historical work in Egypt (2 Kings 17:36; 2 Chronicles 6:32). This is especially true in the Psalms, where Psalm 44:1–3, 77:14–15, 89:10, 20–21, and 136:12 all recall the way that God saved Israel “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:12).
5. The Prophets repurpose the phrase to speak of God’s future salvation.
Importantly, God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm become a word of eschatological hope in the Latter Prophets. In all three major prophets, and especially in Isaiah, the promise of God’s redemption is described by his mighty hand and outstretched arm. For instance,
5 “It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the men and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.
Jeremiah 32:17, 21
‘Ah, Lord God! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. . . . You brought your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and wonders, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great terror.
As I live, declares the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out I will be king over you. 34 I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out.
As many have observed, the Latter Prophets call the people of Israel back to the Sinai covenant with Yahweh. When this fails, they begin looking forward to a new exodus. And fittingly, they engender hope in the people of God by recalling God’s previous strength to defeat his enemies and to save his people. No imagery is better equipped to express that then the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God.
In fact, Ezekiel 30:20–26 gives a window into the way in which we should think about the way “hands” and “arms” function in the Old Testament. In this passage, Ezekiel describes how God will shatter the arms of Pharaoh and strengthen the arms of Babylon. Because God directs the affairs of nations (Psalm 33:10–11; Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 40:15–17), he has power and authority to rise up one king and strike down another (Psalm 75:6–7). Only in this instance, the strengthening and shattering of arms indicates how he will do it. In language that sounds very similar to God’s judgment on Israel (“disperse them through the countries”), God says he will make himself known by the way he breaks and binds up kings. In other words, the Lord’s power is made known through the way he gives or takes away power on the earth. And this power is often spoken of in terms of strong or shattered arms.
6. In Isaiah salvation comes from the arm of the Lord.
All of this ‘arm’ imagery fits with God’s larger purposes in redemptive history, but it also helps explain what Isaiah is doing in his book, where the arm of the Lord repeats throughout. Depending on how you count, there are at least twelve instances where the arm of the Lord is mentioned in Isaiah (30:30, 32; 33:2; 40:10, 11; 48:14; 51:5, 9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:16; 63:5; 63:12). Beginning in Isaiah 30, God’s promise of redemption is effected by his strong arm. This is not the only way that redemption is referenced, but it becomes a dominant image.
- In Isaiah 33:2, the people cry for God to “be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.”
- In Isaiah 40, where the Lord promises to comfort his people, verses 10–11 speaks of the Yahweh Elohim coming with might, “and his arm rules for him.”
- Isaiah 48:14 promises that “his arm shall be against the Chaldeans.”
- Likewise, Isaiah 51:5 offers a word of judgment: “My righteousness draws near, my salvation has done out, and my arms will judge the peoples.”
- Again, the people cry out for the “arm of the Lord” to “awake, awake” and “put on strength.” Recalling the days long ago, they ask Yahweh to rise up and deliver them again.
- In answer to that plea, Isaiah 52:10 says, “Yahweh has bared his holy arm before the eyes of the all the nations.” This verse leads into the climactic Suffering Servant passage (Isaiah 52:13–53:12), where again the arm is mentioned in 53:1: “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
- Finally, the arm of the Lord is means of salvation in Isaiah 59:16 and 63:5. As these passages are coordinated by a chiastic structure, they should be read together, and they teach that salvation comes by the arm of the Lord.
Clearly, the arm of the Lord is a predominant way in which Isaiah understands the coming salvation. But this leads to the question: What is the arm of the Lord? Is it just another bodily metaphor, or is it something more?
7. The Arm of the Lord becomes more than a metaphor.
By the time we get to Isaiah, the arm of the Lord has become a fixture in Israel’s hope of redemption. Weened on the words of Moses and reinforced by the songs of David, the Lord’s strong arm and mighty hand would have been the routine way Israel petitioned Yahweh for salvation (cf. Exodus 32:11). But there are a couple instances where the anthropomorphism seems to take on greater shape than just a vivid picture of God’s power.
First, in Isaiah 40:10, the language almost seems as if the “arm of the Lord” has its own personhood. It reads, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” This verse seems to distinguish the Lord from his arm, for “his arm” rules, but the prepositional phrase “for him” distinguishes God from his arm. This curious phrasing seems to create personal space between the arm and God. Could it be a reference to a person or a people the way that Assyria is called “the rod of my anger” in Isaiah 10:5? Possibly, and the possibility increases when this first instance of Yahweh’s arm in Isaiah 40–66 is compared with the last instance.
Second, in Isaiah 63:11b–12a, we find the last use of the Lord’s arm in Isaiah. It reads, “Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, . . .?” In this instance, God’s glorious arm is treated in a personal way, just as the Holy Spirit also treated in a personal way. In fact, many theologians point to this verse as Old Testament evidence for the personhood of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, there is something personal going on with the arm of the Lord. More than just being a metaphor for God’s strength, the arm “appears as a type of hypostasis” (Jenni & Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 393). That’s theologian-speak for personhood. Here, the arm of the Lord is going with Moses to accomplish God’s work of salvation. The personal presence of the Lord mediated by the Holy Spirit and the arm, certainly match our understanding of the trinity. But before making connection between the arm of the Lord and the Incarnation, let’s go back to Exodus.
Third, in Exodus the arm of the Lord (figuratively speaking) operates through the arm of Moses (physically speaking). From the beginning of Exodus, the staff of Moses plays an important part in his leadership. In Exodus 4:20, Moses staff is referred to as the “staff of God.” This is the staff that Moses threw down and it became a serpent (4:2–3). And this is the staff that became the visible sign of Moses power, given to him by God. Of this staff, God said, “Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs” (4:17). Moreover, this staff played an instrumental role in many signs: it became a serpent before Pharoah (7:9); it caused the water to turn to blood (7:15, 17, 19–20), the canals to fill with frogs (8:5), the dust to become gnats (8:16–17), hail to fall from heaven (9:19), locusts to ransack Egypt (10:13); and finally it was used to part the Red Sea (14:16).
Recording Yahweh’s command to Moses, Exodus 14:16 reads, “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground.” The language is striking: Moses is commanded by God to divide the sea. Later Scripture always gives credit to God for parting the sea (see e.g., Psalm 77:16), just as Exodus 14:21 says, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Clearly, no man can part the waters; only God can. But from a careful reading of Exodus, we learn that Yahweh parted the sea and saved the people through the man Moses and by the raising of his arms (see also, Exodus 17:12). Or more exactly, God parted the sea through his staff, the “staff of God” (Exodus 4:20), which Moses lifted to the heavens.
Now, lets return to Isaiah 63, where we can begin to understand how the arm of the Lord went at Moses’ right hand of Moses. In the staff, we find a physical object that embodied the presence and power of God, a physical object which accomplished the work of God—only this object was a staff, not an arm.
The arm, in this case, was Moses’. In every instance that God’s staff brought about God’s power, it was held up by Moses. Truly, so closely connected were God and Moses, that Numbers 12:8 could say that they spoke “mouth to mouth.” And Numbers 20:10 records how with the staff Moses sinned against God by striking the rock and saying “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Tragically, in his outburst of anger, Moses proved that he was not co-equal to God, although great miracles had come through his arm. Rather, he was co-equal with his fellow Israelites, a sinner who must also die because of his rebellion.
Still, in all of this, we learn a powerful lesson: the arm of the Lord worked itself through the arm of Moses. And though God’s arm and man’s arm were not co-terminus, soon they would be—as the Son of God himself would take on human form in order to bring the salvation promised in Isaiah.
8. Christ is the Arm of the Lord
This is the payoff of this longitudinal study of Scripture: that all the promises of the Lord’s arm saving his people, which stood on the background of God’s salvation of Israel in Egypt is meant to bring us to God’s messiah—the eternal Son who took on human form, including two arms that would be nailed to a tree. Truly, as Scripture tells (Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:10; 1 Peter 1:10–12), God was preparing the way for his Son to come and save his people and defeat his enemies.
The exodus as a whole foreshadowed this reality (cf. Luke 9:31), but also individual elements of Israel’s deliverance also foreshadowed the coming of Christ (e.g., the Passover, the Red Sea, and the leader Moses). With the repeated emphasis on the arm of the Lord, we find the Old Testament a growing body of evidence that what God did in the Exodus, he would do in a far greater way in the future.
In the Prophets, we hear promises that the Lord would again save his people by his arm. And in Isaiah, in particular, the revealing of the arm in Isaiah 52:10 leads us in that section to see how God would save. Isaiah 53 foretells of the Servant whose body would offered as a sacrifice to pay the penalty of sin for his people. Moreover, Isaiah 59 informs us that no man was there to intercede and bring justice to the nations (v. 15). Therefore, God himself would bring salvation by his arm. Only now, in the fullness of this passage and in the fullness of time, we know that God did not send an arm. Rather, his arm is his Son.
Just as God’s arm was seen in the working of Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, so now Christ has come to be a greater Moses and a greater Savior. He is the arm of the Lord, and with the body prepared for him (Hebrews 10:5), his nailed pierced hands have redeemed his people. In this way, the Word of God is both fulfilled and the salvation that God brings is even better than could be imagined by the saints of old.
For us, reading all of this, we should marvel at what God has done and see the precision, the power, and the passion God has to bring salvation to his people. In the Old Testament, we see it in shadows. We hear it in promises. But now in Christ, we see the whole story, and we see that God’s arm is more than a metaphor—he is a person, who has come to bring salvation to all the earth.
At Christmas time, we do well to consider how God has done this and to join with Mary in praising God for the strength of God’s arm:
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
Soli Deo Gloria, ds