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the LORD of hosts

A Mighty Fortress is a hymn written by Martin Luther that became the anthem of the Reformation, and in the second stanza there is this powerful little phrase:

Did we in our own strength confide,

our striving would be losing,

were not the right Man on our side,

the Man of God's own choosing.

You ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is he;

Lord Sabaoth his name,

from age to age the same;

and he must win the battle.

The LORD Sabaoth is a rendering of the Hebrew: לַיהוָ֥ה צְבָאֹ֖ות, and it has been historically translated as Yahweh of Hosts. However, the translation of Yahweh of Armies has become popular and mainstream, mainly thanks to the recent CSB translation. While Yahweh of Armies is an appropriate translation at times— which we actually see here in this hymn — I want to argue in this post that it may not always be the correct or fullest interpretation.

The first appearance of Yahweh Sabaoth — 260 occurrences in the Old Testament — occurs in

1 Samuel 1:3:

וְעָלָה֩ הָאִ֨ישׁ הַה֤וּא מֵֽעִירֹו֙ מִיָּמִ֣ים׀ יָמִ֔ימָה לְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֹ֧ת וְלִזְבֹּ֛חַ לַיהוָ֥ה צְבָאֹ֖ות בְּשִׁלֹ֑ה וְשָׁ֞ם שְׁנֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־עֵלִ֗י חָפְנִי֙ וּפִ֣נְחָ֔ס כֹּהֲנִ֖ים לַיהוָֽה׃

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. (ESV)

The first occurrence of Yahweh Sabaoth is connected to the worship of Yahweh. Elakanah goes to Shiloh, where at that time the Tabernacle housed the ark of the covenant, to offer sacrifices. Again in verse 11, Elkanah’s wife, Hannah, uses the same name of God as she prays at the doorpost of the tabernacle:

וַתִּדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר וַתֹּאמַ֗ר יְהוָ֨ה צְבָאֹ֜ות אִם־רָאֹ֥ה תִרְאֶ֣ה׀ בָּעֳנִ֣י אֲמָתֶ֗ךָוּזְכַרְתַּ֙נִי֙ וְלֹֽא־תִשְׁכַּ֣ח אֶת־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְנָתַתָּ֥ה לַאֲמָתְךָ֖ זֶ֣רַע אֲנָשִׁ֑יםוּנְתַתִּ֤יו לַֽיהוָה֙ כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו וּמֹורָ֖ה לֹא־יַעֲלֶ֥ה עַל־רֹאשֹֽׁו׃

And she vowed a vow and said, “O Yahweh of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Yahweh all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (ESV)

Therefore, the first two times this name and title appear is in reference to the worship of Yahweh and not used within a military framework. So, what does Yahweh of Hosts encompass? Hosts could reference the celestial bodies as in Deuteronomy 4:19 and Psalm 148:2:

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

— Deuteronomy 4:19, ESV

Lift up your eyes on high and see:

who created these?

He who brings out their host by number,

calling them all by name;

by the greatness of his might

and because he is strong in power,

not one is missing.

—Isaiah 40:26, ESV

Or it could be a reference to myriads of angels as in Psalm 103:21 & Psalm 148:2:

Bless Yahweh, all his hosts,

his ministers, who do his will!

— Psalm 103:21, ESV

Praise him, all his angels;

praise him, all his hosts!

— Psalm 138:2, ESV

And we likewise see this in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.

— Revelation 5:1, ESV

However, to be fair, Yahweh of Armies is an accurate rendering of Yahweh Sabaoth but only in certain contexts, and those contexts do in fact have a military framework. Numbers 1:52 speaks of the Israelites pitching tents and camping in their military divisions to protect the tabernacle in the wilderness:

The Israelites are to camp by their military divisions, each man with his encampment and under his banner.

— Numbers 1:52, CSB

Likewise, in 1 Samuel 17:54, David uses the name and title of Yahweh Sabaoth and calls Yahweh the God of the armies of Israel:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּ֔י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֵלַ֔י בְּחֶ֖רֶב וּבַחֲנִ֣יתוּבְכִידֹ֑ון וְאָנֹכִ֣י בָֽא־אֵלֶ֗יךָ בְּשֵׁם֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָאֹ֔ות אֱלֹהֵ֛י מַעַרְכֹ֥ותיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר חֵרַֽפְתָּ׃

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with as word and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of Yahweh of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.

— 1 Samuel 17:45, ESV

It can also be a reference to the heavenly armies that Yahweh commands as seen in 2 Samuel 5:24:

And when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then rouse yourself, for then the Yahweh has gone out before you to strike down the army of the Philistines.”

—2 Samuel 5:24, ESV

Therefore, to say Yahweh of Armies is an accurate interpretation is true. After all, Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name (Exodus 15:3). However, the name and title of Yahweh Sabaoth is far more encompassing than just being used within a military framework. As in 1 Samuel 1:3 & 11, Yahweh of Hosts is connected to acts of worship, and within that framework worshippers of Yahweh are reminded that Yahweh is the supreme deity who is lord over all other powers in heaven and earth. Or as Revelation often repeats it: He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. There is none like him and there is none beside him. We worship a God who is Lord over all creation.

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

— Colossians 1:16-17, ESV

In conclusion, Yahweh Sabaoth is a powerful name and title that speaks to God’s vastness as being Lord over all and a title that speaks to him being a man of war, and the distinction comes based upon the context. I appreciate the military aspects of the Old Testament that the CSB pulls out, and yet I prefer the ESV’s consistent translation of Yahweh Sabaoth as Lord of hosts as it allows the reader and preacher to interpret the context and meaning depending on the situation. Therefore, while Yahweh of Armies is appropriate at times, Yahweh of hosts is the better and more encompassing translation of Yahweh Sabaoth.

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