In the writings of Moses, YHWH’s arm represents his power, usually to redeem, as he said to Moses: “I am YHWH, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will rescue you from laboring for them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be God to you.” 1
However, if we follow the way the prophet Isaiah develops the theme of YHWH’s “arm,” we will find that an intriguing transformation takes place. At first, the prophet uses the symbol in the same way it is used elsewhere, as when he describes YHWH’s arm coming against Assyria:
“YHWH will make his glorious voice heard, and will show the descending of his arm in the heat of anger, and a blaze of devouring fire, shattering and storm and hailstones.” 2
A little later, Isaiah links YHWH’s arm to salvation: “YHWH, be gracious to us. We wait for you. Be their arm every morning; yes, our salvation in a time of distress.” 3
Now, in the second half of his book, the prophet Isaiah focuses on the redemption and salvation of Zion and YHWH’s people. Here he describes YHWH’s arm with more ambiguous language that seems to suggest it is also a person.
For example, in reference to the salvation of Zion, Isaiah says: “Look! My Lord YHWH will come with power, and his arm will rule for him. Look! His reward is with him, and the wage he pays is before him. Like a shepherd, he will feed his flock. With his arm, he will gather the lambs, and carry them in his bosom, conducting the ones being nursed.” 4
Since YHWH’s arm “will rule for him,” this could be speaking of YHWH’s anointed one who would be king. This ruler would be like a shepherd, which agrees with YHWH’s words through Ezekiel: “I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them. My servant David, he is the one who will feed them, and he will be their shepherd. And I, YHWH, I will be God to them, and my servant David a prince among them.” 5
In other words, YHWH’s arm now comes in the form of a person, a shepherd, who rules. Isaiah also speaks of Cyrus as YHWH’s anointed one6, his shepherd7, and one who would be like YHWH’s arm, in bringing down Babylon and returning Israel to its soil:
“Assemble, all of you, and listen. Who among them has told of these things? YHWH loves him, and he will carry out his desire against Babylon, and his arm on the Chaldeans. I myself have spoken. Indeed, I have called him. I have brought him, and his way will succeed.” 8
A little later, Isaiah speaks of people being in expectation of YHWH’s arm. “Pay attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation. For law will go forth from me, and in just a moment, my judgment for a light of peoples. My righteousness is near. My salvation will come forth, and my arms will judge peoples. The coastlands will keep in expectation of me, and for my arm they will wait.” 9
Here, YHWH’s “arm” sounds similar to the servant Isaiah spoke of earlier, the one who “will bring forth judgment to the nations,” and who “will not fail or be bruised, until he establishes judgment in the earth; and the islands will wait for his law.” 10
And now YHWH speaks to “the people with my law in their hearts,” which in Jeremiah would become the people under a new covenant. “Listen to me, the ones knowing righteousness, the people with my law in their hearts. Do not fear the reproach of mortals, and do not be appalled at their taunts. For the moth will eat them up like the cloak, and the worm will eat them like the wool; but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation will be from generation to generations.
Awake, awake, clothe yourself with strength, arm of YHWH. Awake, as in the days before, the generations of long ago.” 11
Curiously, YHWH then seems to speak to his own “arm” as if it is a person, when he says: “I will put my words in your mouth, and I will cover you in the shadow of my hand, in order to plant a heavens and lay the foundation of an earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” 12
Elsewhere, YHWH said he would put his words into the mouth of the prophet like Moses, so is YHWH speaking to this one here? And YHWH says, “I will cover you in the shadow of my hand.” But this is also what the “one who is despised by the nation” says about himself. “In the shadow of his hand he has hidden me, and he has made me a polished arrow.” 13 The implication is that this despised one is the arm of YHWH!
But why would this one need to “plant a heavens” and “lay the foundation of an earth,” when heaven and earth are already in existence? Unless this is a reference to a new heavens and new earth, which YHWH’s servant, his “arm,” would establish. Indeed, we could say that sending his arm in the form of the despised servant, was laying the foundation for that new earth.
YHWH also uses the same awakening language for Zion: “Awake, awake, put on your strength, Zion. Put on your clothes of splendor, Jerusalem, the holy city.” 14
But neither Zion nor Israel is YHWH’s arm, for Israel did not redeem itself, but rather, YHWH bears his holy arm to bring about salvation. “Break out into joy and sing together, you deserted places of Jerusalem; for YHWH has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. YHWH has bared his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” 15
The redemption of Jerusalem from Babylon was done in the eyes of all the nations, and the same was true of her redemption from the Gentiles in later days.
However, there is a different type of redemption, both for Zion and the Gentiles, through the death of the despised servant. This redemption is not so obvious, which is why the question is then asked: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of YHWH revealed?” 16
The despised servant brings salvation from iniquity and transgression. But Israel would not expect or feel the need for a suffering servant who dies on behalf of others, which is why they would despise him. Indeed, some would find the reports about him hard to believe, even though he is the arm of YHWH!
A little later in Isaiah, YHWH describes a people separated from him because of their own errors. It is a people where nobody is righteous, and nobody goes to court truthfully. Their feet run to do bad, they are in a hurry to shed innocent blood, and their thoughts are harmful.
This is not a description of a people in exile, but is a poetic description of a people weighed down with sin and injustice. It is a people in need, not of repurchase from the nations, but of redemption from sin. But YHWH does not point them to the law of Moses, as might be expected. Instead, he does something remarkable:
“YHWH saw, and it was bad in his eyes. For there was no judgment. And he saw that there was no man, and was appalled that there was no one interceding; so his arm brought salvation for him, and his righteousness supported him.” 17
The description of sin sounds very much like the condition before the Flood in Noah’s day; and so does YHWH’s response to it: “It was bad in his eyes.” But instead of bringing a flood, this time YHWH provides salvation by his arm.
That there was “no man,” “no judgment” and “no one interceding” is astonishing, given that Israel was meant to be a holy nation, a nation of kings and priests. But perhaps it is because this is really a metaphor for a higher level of righteousness and salvation, which no man was able to provide or achieve; and so YHWH’s arm brings salvation for him.
But from what does YHWH need saving? He is in no need of anything; and so he must really be saving the people who are weighed down with sin and injustice. And since the previous reference to “the arm of YHWH” by Isaiah was of the despised servant, this could be a poetic description of YHWH sending his arm in the form of his despised servant, who “made intercession for the transgressors.”
Isaiah also spoke earlier of how there was “no man” when YHWH came, but then he described a man who gave his cheeks to humiliation and spit.
The prophet continues: “And he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; and he will put on garments of vengeance as clothing, and wrap himself with the robe of zeal.
He will repay according to their deeds. Fury to his foes, repayment to his enemies. To the coastlands he will repay their due. And from the sunset they will fear the name of YHWH, and from the rising of the sun his glory.
For the enemy will come like the river. The spirit of YHWH will make him flee. And the redeemer will come to Zion, and to those turning back from transgression in Jacob, says YHWH.” 18
Here YHWH’s “arm” puts on a breastplate, helmet and a robe, as if preparing for war. Where before there was “no man,” now there is one! And the name of YHWH becomes known from east to west, which would correspond with the despised servant’s mission to be YHWH’s “salvation to the end of the earth.”
Furthermore, the redeemer comes “to those turning back from transgression in Jacob,” so these must be the remnant. Yet just a few verses before, there was “no man,” that is, nobody doing good, which is why YHWH’s “arm” puts on armor in the first place. So YHWH’s “arm” must have manifested itself first, for the redeemer to be able to come to those in Jacob who are “turning back from transgression.”
YHWH goes on to say: “As for me, this is my covenant with them, says YHWH. My spirit that is on you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, will not be removed from your mouth, or from the mouth of your offspring, or from the mouth of the offspring of your offspring, says YHWH, from now on and forever.” 19
Who is YHWH speaking about here? He must first of all be speaking about the redeemer himself, the one whom YHWH spoke of earlier as “my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one, in whom my soul has approved. I have put my spirit on him. He will bring forth judgment to the nations.” 20 But he is also speaking of the remnant, “those turning back from transgression in Jacob.”
They also have YHWH’s spirit. They listen to and repeat the words of the redeemer, and their offspring continue forever, because of an everlasting covenant made with them.