“Yahweh of Armies.” 1 Samuel 1:3 is the first time in the Bible that the name of God, “Yahweh of Armies” is used. The Hebrew is translated “LORD of hosts” in many English versions, but very few people today think of a “host” in reference to an army, making that translation unclear at best. The English word “host” in the phrase “Lord of hosts” is derived from the Late Latin hostis “stranger; enemy” (same basic root as in “hostile”), and referred to an army or an orderly multitude. Thus, the “heavenly host” is the orderly army of spirit beings, and also the orderly “army” of stars in the sky, while “Yahweh of hosts” refers to God’s army of spirit beings and, in the Old Testament, Israel.
The word “host” is confusing because the English word “host” also means a person who entertains guests, but the Latin root of the entertainment type “host” is hospes, not hostis. It is too bad that both hospes and hostis developed into the English word “host,” but that is the situation. To properly understand the Bible, the student of Scripture must know that “Lord of hosts” does not refer to God’s entertainment of guests, but rather to His being the God of His “armies.”
Andrew Steinmann (Concordia Commentary: 1 Samuel) writes: “In military contexts, ‘armies’ in ‘Yahweh of armies’ can refer to Israel’s army (1 Sam. 17:45). The noun צָבָא [tsaba', “army”] is often used for the army of Israel or for an enemy army (e.g. 1 Sam. 12:9; 14:50; 17:55). In this phrase with יְהֹוָה [Yahweh], the noun is always used in the plural צְבָא֖וֹת. The plural is never clearly explained in the OT, but 1 Sam. 17:45 indicates its military significance by using another plural in parallel to it: David refers to “Yahweh of armies, the God of the battle lines of Israel”….The plural may denote that Yahweh commands a heavenly army (the angles; see BDB, s. v. צָבָא, 1 b; cf. 2 Kings 6:17) as well as an earthly one (Israel’s army). The stars and other heavenly bodies can also be called an ‘army’ (Gen. 2:1; Isa. 40:26; 45:12; BDB, 1 c). In that case, it probably refers to the apparent regimented alignment of the stars like the alignment of soldiers in the army’s ranks (i.e., the stars are grouped in constellations where each has its specific place and each appears in the sky in the proper season; see Gen. 1:14).”
Although the meaning of the name “Yahweh of armies” is not specifically stated in the Bible, that should not surprise us because we are not told the specific meaning of any of the names of Yahweh in the Bible, we learn their meaning from the vocabulary itself and the contexts in which the name is used. In this case, “armies” is a well-known word, and there is plenty of biblical context to understand that God has enemies and that He commands armies who fight for Him and with Him. For example, when the Israelites left Egypt, God referred to them as “my armies” (Exod. 7:4), and Exodus also says, “Yahweh is a man of war” (Exod. 15:3). When God came to help Israel leave Egypt’s control, He came with thousands of angels (Deut. 33:2). Also, the warfare between enemy angels, while not a major subject in the Bible, is nevertheless certainly present (Dan. 10:13; Jude 1:9), as is the warfare between God’s angels and God’s enemies on earth (Gen. 19:12-13; Josh. 5:13-14; 2 Kings 19:35). In fact, the angel that appeared to Joshua introduced himself as the commander of Yahweh’s army (Josh. 5:14). Furthermore, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, will lead armies and destroy God’s enemies (Ps. 2:6-9; Isa. 11:4; 63:1-5; Rev. 19:19-21).
The fact that 1 Samuel 1:3 says that Elkanah went yearly to Shiloh to worship “Yahweh of Armies” tells us that although this is the first time we see that name for God in the Bible, it was not new in the culture. God may have revealed the name to some prophet in Israel, or it may be in the wars that Israel was fighting, God’s help and presence were so powerfully manifested that “Yahweh of Armies” was invented as a fitting name for Him. We can see that people were comfortable enough with the name “Yahweh of Armies” that it was used to directly address God in prayer, as Hannah did: “O Yahweh of Armies, if you will see…” (1 Sam. 1:11). Once it was introduced here in Samuel, the name “Yahweh of Armies” was commonly used in the Bible, occurring almost 250 times in the Old Testament.
God has enemies with whom He, His angels, His human armies, and His Messiah are at war. This is very solid evidence that God is not in control of everything that happens on earth. If God were in control of both sides of the conflict between good and evil, then His kingdom would be divided and would fall, just as Jesus said, “And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom is not able to stand” (Mark 3:24, cp. Matt. 12:25-26; Luke 11:17-18).
[For more on the war between God and the Devil, and that God is not in control of everything that happens, see commentary on Luke 4:6].