Here is the summary of the talk I gave on Sunday, November 2, at my faith community.
This week we are looking at the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth. You will remember that the word, YHWH, often pronounced Jehovah, means the Existing One and suggests the idea of "to become" or "to become known." YHWH is translated LORD in most Bibles. The most common compound name used with YHWH is Sabaoth, occurring 261 times in the Hebrew Bible. Sabaoth means hosts or armies and can refer to angel hosts, armies of heaven, and every living thing. Therefore, YHWH Sabaoth can be said to be the military name of God. It means the all-powerful ruler of the universe, the One who commands armies of heaven and will eventually defeat all enemies. All power and authority belong to YHWH Sabaoth. We find the Sabaoth name (also used together with Elohim) frequently in the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah (84 times), Jeremiah (80 times), the short book of Haggai (14 times), Malachi (25 times), and Zechariah (50 times).
Since YHWH Sabaoth is a military name, I thought it would be appropriate to hear from a reliable source regarding what a military commander does. Lieutenant General Russel Honoré (retired commanding general of United States First Army, known for leading the military's relief efforts following hurricane Katrina) says that his role is "to provide wisdom, vision, and motivation." General Honoré indicates that a leader does not boss people around, but seeks to set them on the right path. He says, "Leadership means forming a team and working toward common objectives that are tied to time, metrics, and resources. The purpose of the commander and the staff is to do the planning and then to motivate the execution." Thanks, General.
A closer look at the English word, "host," introduces some additional, important nuances. One of the Latin roots is hospes (where we get "hospitality") which is someone who invites in and cares for others, like the host of a party. Another related Latin root is hostis (where we get the word "hostile") which refers to a stranger or enemy. Both of these meanings, a God who cares for others and a God who is the conqueror over enemies, are present in the Old Testament. A third Latin root which is relevant here is the word hostia which means "victim" (sacrifice, offering), and it is the word we use for the bread in the Eucharistic Body of Christ. [Thanks to Mark Hart for these insights.] So in YHWH Sabaoth we have the Lord of hospitality, the Lord who overcomes enemies, and the Lord of the victim. Let's take a look at biblical examples of each one of these.
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1. Lord of the victim and underdog. The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 (the first occurrence of YHWH Sabaoth) gives us a story of a woman who is childless, ridiculed by others for her barrenness. This causes her great sorrow and shame. On a visit to the temple, she decides to take her distress to God. We read in 1 Samuel (Names of God Bible): "Though she was resentful, she prayed to Yahweh while she cried. She made this vow, 'Yahweh Tsebaoth, if you will look at my misery, remember me, and give me a boy, then I will give him to you for as long as he lives.'... And Yahweh remembered her. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel [God Hears], because she said, 'I asked Yahweh for him.'" Her appeal to the LORD of Hosts indicated that she believed God would not only listen, but could and would do something to change her circumstances, to relieve her distress.
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2. Lord who overcomes enemies, opposing forces. Here we turn to the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The Philistines have declared war on Israel, and instead of mounting an all-out charge, they bring out their champion, the giant Goliath, and challenge Israel to send out their own champion to fight him. The winner of the duel would win the victory on behalf of their people. This is basically a no-win situation for Israel for no one is seen to be capable of or willing to try to defeat Goliath. David, a young shepherd boy visiting his brothers who were in Israel's army, happens to be there when Goliath marches out and issues his challenge. David immediately jumps into action, rightly discerning that this is essentially a challenge to God's power. He says to those around him, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should challenge Elohim Chay [Living God]?" David, with utmost trust in God, indicates that no one should be discouraged, and he is willing to fight Goliath. "David told the Philistine, 'You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of Yahweh Tsebaoth, the Elohim of the army of Israel, whom you have insulted. Today Yahweh will hand you over to me.'" (Names of God Bible). And we all know how the story goes: Goliath, with all his battle regalia and weapons, comes lumbering down the valley, David runs out to meet him with his slingshot, takes a stone, and with a single shot, fells the giant. The LORD of Hosts grants an impossible victory.
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3. Lord of hospitality. Our last story has to do with the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6). Though the name YHWH Sabaoth does not appear in the passage, the idea is clearly present. The king of Aram is fighting against Israel, and every time they launch an attack, Israel is always ready for them. This annoys the king greatly, and he sets about trying to find the traitor in their midst. He is soon informed that there is no traitor but there is a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who seems to know everything they say to each other in Aram. The king determines to capture Elisha and sends horses and chariots and soldiers to his location. When Elisha's servant gets up the next morning, he sees that they are surrounded by enemy soldiers! He panics and asks Elisha what they should do. Elisha replies, "Don't be afraid. We have more forces on our side than they have on theirs." The eyes of Elisha's servant are opened and he sees a heavenly host of fiery horses and chariots surrounding the enemy army. In a dramatic turn of events, the soldiers of Aram soon find themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. The king of Israel asks Elisha whether he should kill the enemy soldiers and Elisha's response is rather surprising. He says, "Give them food and water. Let them eat and drink. Then let them go back to their master." So the king prepares a feast for the enemy soldiers and sends them back to their master. And the Aramean troops stop raiding Israel's territory. In this case, the kindness and hospitality of the LORD of Hosts lead to peace (see also Psalm 23:5).
It is important to understand that the ultimate goal of any military commander is not war nor conquest over another nation, but to bring peace, to make friends out of enemies. Interestingly, we find the name YHWH Sabaoth in Isaiah 9 which outlines the reign of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Here we find that the reign of justice and righteousness is brought about by YHWH Sabaoth, the LORD of Hosts.
In summary, here are some of the ideas we can pull from the name, YHWH Sabaoth.
1. YHWH Sabaoth is the name of God we find used when someone is at the end of their rope.
2. YHWH Sabaoth is the God who is greater than any other power or force, so we do not need to be afraid or discouraged.
3. YHWH Sabaoth is the one for whom nothing is impossible, the one who hears our cries for help and is able to do something about our situation.
4. YHWH Sabaoth is the all-powerful one when we are powerless, the one for whom victory is never in question, the one who instills confidence in his people.
5. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings us out of fear and anxiety, out of feeling small and outnumbered, out of being troubled in our spirits, out of timidity and doubting and hopelessness ... to being confident that the LORD of Hosts is present and able to help us.
6. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings peace.
If you want to take a few minutes to meditate on the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth, perhaps you will find this song helpful: Be Still My Soul.