Lord Sabaoth: An Addendum to a Sermon
One of the marks of a good sermon is its ability to generate discussion. One of the marks of a mature campus is its ability to accommodate diverse opinions and respect variant perspectives. In that light, I would like to put an addendum on yesterday's chapel sermon given by my colleague whose personal friendship and respect I have felt deeply and received warmly. The topic at hand (handed to him), was the title of God, "Lord Sabaoth." In a masterful flurry of linguistic statistics, he pointed out just how common was this title (285x) as well is its overt military imagery: Lord of the "armies." The subtext of his sermon was that the image of Yahweh as a violent military general is at home in the pages of Scripture. This much is true but it bears substantive clarification. I would like make four points of increasing importance (if you are uninterested in linguistics, skip the first point):First, the NIV's translation of "Lord Almighty," was criticized for obfuscating the overt military imagery. But it is not just the NIV that alters the literal translation, so too does the Septuagint (LXX). Of the 285 uses of the term in the MT (Hebrew OT), the LXX (Greek OT) retains the transliterated title only 63 times (56 of those are in Isaiah). So how did these ancient scholars understand the term? 187x it was rendered "Almighty" (pantakratōr) and 17x it was "Lord of Powers" (dunameōn), both of which could fairly be rendered by the English term "Almighty". The NIV and the LXX abandon the military imagery for good reason. The denotation of Sabaoth is, in fact, "warriors." But the connotation is "power." Furthermore, the power of Yahweh, is seldom attached to earthly military action. I could find only three passages in which Sabaoth could be used as a justification for violent military action: Once in connection with Saul (1 Sam 15:2) and twice in connection with David (1 Sam 17:45 and 1 Chr 11:9; cf. Psa 24:10). Though one could add some eschatological references to Yahweh mustering troops to battle (Isa 13:4, 13; 14:22–23, 24–27; 17:3; 19:4, 17; 22:5; cf. Rev 19:17–19). Nevertheless, far and away, the dominant implication of "Yahweh Sabaoth" was his zealous protection of the poor, oppressed remnant (e.g. 2 Kgs 19:31; Isa 1:9–26; 2:12; 3:1–3, 21:10; 28:5; 31:4–5; 37:32; etc.). Isaiah 3:15 is a classic example: "'What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?' declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty." One might say, "Well, there you have it! God is going to crush Israel's Enemies!" Not so fast. The bulk of these passages threaten the wrath of "Yahweh Sabaoth" against Israel herself! She is primarily the one who elicits God's anger by her mistreatment of the poor among her (Isa 5:24–25; 9:13, 19; 10:23–33; Jer 2:19; 6:6, 9; 7:3, 21; 9:7, 15, 17, etc.).
A second important observation about "Lord Sabaoth" is where and when it is found. Only 24 of its 285 uses are prior to Isaiah. Then the title explodes: Isaiah (60x, c. 700 b.c.e.), Jeremiah (76x, c. 586 b.c.e.), Haggai (12x in 6 chapters, c. 520 b.c.e.), Zechariah (46x in 14 chapters, c. 520 b.c.e.), and Malachi (24x in 4 chapters, c. 450 b.c.e.). Hence, the title increases in frequency as Israel's military might dwindles into oblivion. It is almost never used when Israel had a standing army. One suspects, therefore, that the title served as a mechanism for eschatological hope rather than justification for military action.
Third, "Lord Sabaoth" is not merely an OT term. It is used in the NT several times. (1) Romans 9:29 recalls Isaiah 1:9 when Yahweh Almighty threatened Israel because of her unfaithfulness. Paul applies the same argument to the pompous Gentiles who believe that their position in Christ is a matter of boasting over Israel. The great Apostle warns against all such boasting because the Lord Sabaoth will reduce to a stump all those branches who are faithless to him. What, pray tell, was this faithlessness? The whole of Isaiah 1 describes it but verse 17 makes the point with special poignancy: "Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." Being a "Son of God" is not about making war, but making Shalom for the oppressed and the widow. In that sense, Mother Teresa is more Sabaoth-like than William Wallace. Would to God that I could attain her Spiritual testosterone. (2) Similarly, the second NT use of "Lord Sabaoth" is James 5:4–5 when the Lord's half-brother decried the economic injustices of the wealthy who shorted wages of day-laborers: "The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter." (3) The third NT passage, doesn't use the term "Lord Sabaoth" but rather allows his "Angelic Warriors" to speak for the first time in the Bible. What is their message? What ominous words of warfare issue forth from the Heavenly Horde?: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests'" (Luke 2:13–14). It is right, of course, for Luke to tap into the imagery of the Lord Sabaoth for the birth announcement since Isaiah had used such verbiage to predict his coming more than seven centuries earlier: "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this" (Isaiah 9:7). Furthermore, the quotation of Jesus during the cleansing of the temple, referenced a "Lord Sabaoth" text from Jeremiah 7:3–11, "This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: 'Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place…. If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers forever and ever…. Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!' declares the LORD." In summary, the NT use of the Lord Sabaoth imagery, far from presenting Yahweh as a war-lord, emphasizes the Divine demand that God's people prioritize social justice, compassion, and peace.
As a final word, Jesus will return eschatologically to mete out justice to the nations. God's violent retribution will be sure and swift. I have no qualms about God being presented as conquering king, even embodied in Jesus (Rev 19:11–14). However, the real battle of Revelation is not in chapter 19 but chapter 12. There, the weapons of choice were a cross and a martyr's testimony (Rev 12:10–11). Jesus' war-tactics were not power and violence but self-abnegation and sacrifice. His decisive victory in this galactic battle was, in fact, his death. Lord Sabaoth used his immense power to rescue those this world had crushed. His apocalyptic violence is justified precisely where ours has failed—he eradicates oppression, hunger, and abuse while our attempts have perpetuated these cycles. May it be that Lord Sabaoth brings an end to war as prophesied in Psalm 46:7–11, "The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."