What does it mean to call God the Lord of hosts? What are the hosts under his control? Angels? People? Armies? Israelites? Foreigners? How does this relate to Christ? And what is our role in relation to the Lord of hosts?
To find answers, we’ll turn to Zechariah 8. Other prophets use this name for God too (especially Jeremiah), but not 18 times in a single chapter.
Open Zechariah 8 (ESV)
Meaning of the name
Hosts (ṣā·ḇāʾ) was a Hebrew word for multitudes, a vast array. Someone in charge of hosts was a very powerful person, so NIV translates, the Lord Almighty.
Military forces were often described as hosts. You can frighten your enemies by saying you have hosts arrayed against them. Israel’s armies were described as hosts (especially in Numbers), as were their enemies (e.g. Judges 4:2-7; 8:6; 9:29; 1 Samuel 12:9; 1 Samuel 28:1). So CSB translates, the Lord of Armies.
There are hosts of stars in the sky (Genesis 2:1). The nations worshipped them as gods, so God warned his people not to worship the starry hosts (Deuteronomy 4:19; 7:3). God does have hosts of spiritual beings under his command (angels), so NLT combines this idea with the previous one, translating the Lord of heaven’s armies.
But here’s the problem. In trying to find an adequate way to express the Lord of hosts in English, we might narrow down a phrase that’s meant to be expansive. Hosts can be armies, but “armies” is too narrow. The hosts God rescued from Egypt were not armies or angels, just multitudes (Exodus 6:26; 7:4; 12:17, 41, 51).
And “heaven’s armies” is even narrower. Sure, God has the hosts of heaven at his command, but that’s only part of the story. The armies of Israel were also under his command: they were part of the Lord’s hosts too. The Lord of hosts can be a parallel expression for the God of the armies of Israel (1 Samuel 17:45).
After the exile, Israel had little by way of armies since they were dominated by foreign powers. Yet prophets like Jeremiah, Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi insist that it is YHWH who rules the multitudes: he is the Lord of hosts. Lord is in block letters because the Hebrew is YHWH, the covenant name revealed by the heavenly sovereign to his covenant people at Sinai. YHWH is the God who delivered the hosts of Israel from Pharaoh because he remembered his covenant with Abraham (Exodus 2:24). And because of his covenant faithfulness, the prophets declared that YHWH would regather the scattered hosts of his people from among the nations.
The Lord of hosts is sovereign over everything and everyone. The scattered myriads of Israel seemed powerless before the waves of foreign invaders, oppressed under empire after empire, but YHWH is not powerless to bring them home. He is the Lord of hosts! He has all authority — over the forces of heaven and the nations of earth. The Lord of hosts can and will redeem his people: he is YHWH the all-ruler.
That’s why the NET Bible translates, the Lord who rules over all.
Message in Zechariah 8
That is an outlandish claim. The prophets were saying that YHWH, the covenant God of Israel, rules over the hosts of heaven and earth — everyone and everything.
Observe what unfolds from that claim in Zechariah 8.
YHWH the all-ruler is too jealous to let the nations keep ruling his people (8:2). He will restore his city to his governance (8:3). This sounds incredible for the people who have no armies to save them from their captors, but it’s not a big deal for YHWH the all-ruler (8:6).
All it takes is his decree (8:7). And that flows out of his character: faithful to the covenant, doing right by his people (8:8). It was his decree that sent them into exile (8:14), and they will return because YHWH the all-ruler decrees it (8:15).
But what about the problem of the nations who oppose his decrees and invade his nation?
Well, the whole point of establishing Israel as his nation was so the nations could see what life on earth was meant to be under God’s reign (Exodus 19:6). As YHWH the all-ruler re-establishes his people after their exile, they can resume that task: embodying his character as a kingdom of truth, justice, genuine love, and peace (8:16-19).
When the nations see the reign of YHWH the all-ruler in his people, their people will begin to turn from their own power-schemes and begin to entreat YHWH the all-ruler for the kind of leadership they’ve heard he gives (8:20-23). This is Zechariah’s prophetic vision of how the earth returns to the reign of YHWH the all-ruler.
Does this talk of YHWH the all-ruler remind you of how the New Testament writers speak of the authority given to Christ? The NT effusively presents Christ as the anointed ruler with the authority of the All-ruler. He has all authority in heaven and on earth, over all powers visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities. He is King over all kings, Lord over all lords, over every name that is named. The authority of YHWH the all-ruler returns to earth in his Anointed.
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), they translated Lord of hosts as Pantocrator — literally “all-ruler.” It was the Pantocrator who decreed that David would represent his kingship on earth (2 Samuel 7:8, 14). Paul draws from those two verses to say that the Pantocrator’s power is now present in Christ and the regathered kingdom that exists in him (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Revelation uses Pantocrator nine times. Caesar may imagine he runs the world, but he was a mere mortal. The All-Ruler is the king who has overcome death (Revelation 1:8; 4:8), whose reign has begun (11:17), the just and true king of the nations (15:3), the judge of the whole world (16:7, 14; 19:15) the sovereign who lives among his people (21:22).
It’s not clear whether Revelation is saying that Jesus is the Pantocrator (YHWH of hosts), or whether the Pantocrator has given his power to his anointed (the Christ). What is clear is that this is the gospel, God’s good news for the earth: Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Pantocrator reigns (Revelation 19:6).
The early church certainly applied the Pantocrator title to Christ. In the second century, Justin Martyr noticed that the King of glory was a parallel expression for the Lord of hosts in Psalm 24. He said these words could not have applied to earlier kings such as Hezekiah or Solomon:
They were spoken … only of our Christ, who appeared without beauty or honor (as Isaias, David, and all the Scriptures testify); who is Lord of hosts by the will of the Father who bestowed that honor upon Him; who arose again from the dead and ascended into Heaven (as is stated in the Psalm and other Scriptural passages which also declared Him to be Lord of hosts).
— Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 85.
During the Middle Ages, almost every Greek church had an image of the Pantocrator. The Greek-speakers understood the Christ to mean the divinely appointed ruler of all the earth.
Zechariah proclaimed the good news that YHWH the All-Ruler reigns. He understood that a Branch from David’s line would embody the reign of the Lord of hosts on earth (Zechariah 3:8; 4:6-14; 9:9-13). He understood the community restored into God’s reign would embody his character, so the nations would seek YHWH the All-ruler and entreat him to solve their problems (8:20-23).
This is precisely what the Messiah expects of the community that embodies his reign (Matthew 5:13-16). He calls us to be the embodiment of our Father’s character because that’s how the nations can see the perfect Father of all (5:43-48).
It won’t do to think of our mission as getting individuals to make personal decisions. That message puts the power in our hands, so it can never be the gospel. Our calling is to embody the reign of the Pantocrator, for the benefit of the world.
The Lord of hosts is the All-Ruler. His reign is embodied in Christ, embodied in the kingdom he rules. This is the gospel of the Lord.
What others are saying
Tony S. L. Michael, “Lord of Hosts” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 820–821:
The most frequently used compound title for the Israelite deity in the OT (Heb. YHWH ṣĕḇāʾôṯ). A similar title is “Yahweh, God of hosts.” These epithets describe Yahweh as both divine Warrior and divine King, with “hosts” referring to both earthly (e.g., the Israelites or their armies) and cosmic forces (celestial bodies or angels). It appears most often in the Prophets (esp. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Malachi) and not at all in the Pentateuch.
Francesco Pieri, “Pantocrator” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 46:
The novelty of Revelation is that some of these texts place this title traditionally reserved for God in a christological backdrop, which serves as a prelude to the direct attribution of Pantocrator to Jesus Christ himself … Already Clement of Alex. (e.g., Paed. 1,9, 84,1; 3,7,39,4), then, above all, Origen … use the title Pantocrator in this christological sense and defend its relevance. Among the most ancient attestations of this usage, moreover, are Theophilus of Antioch (Ad Autol. 1,4 et passim) and Hippolytus (Adv. Noetum 6,18). Among the Latin Fathers, realizing that the current translation of Pantocrator with omnipotens was not completely satisfying, Augustine (Tr. in Io. 106,5) proposes as an alternative omnitenens.
Andrew E. Hill, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, TOTC (Nottingham, UK: IVP, 2012), 200:
This segment of Zechariah’s message is the nearest thing ‘to an active missionary concept of the mission of the Jews that occurs in the Old Testament, outside the book of Jonah’. Yet the difference between Jonah and Zechariah is striking, in that Jonah was commissioned to proclaim judgment for repentance to the Assyrians (Jon. 1:2). Here it appears that the reality of God’s transforming presence among his people prompts the nations (to almost beg!) to join Israel in the worship of the Lord (v. 23).