The Lord’s further word through his prophet Isaiah (Isa. 66:2) informs us that like the foot (cf. Isa. 66:1), which we considered in the last chapter, the hand is used in normal communication in a figurative way. In fact foot and hand often occur together. For example, to wait on someone “hand and foot” is to provide diligent care for or service to him. But the hand itself often occurs figuratively in familiar idioms. Thus many a child has worn “hand me downs” clothes of an elder sibling.
Among the many uses that could be cited we may note the employment of the hand with various prepositions. An event that is “at hand” is close to occurring. To “hand in” a paper is to submit it, while to “hand out” an item is to distribute it. Teachers often prepare “handouts” for their students in order that they may have helpful additional information. If we “hand on” or “hand over” an article we pass it on or surrender it to another. In football a quarterback “hands off” the football to a running back. In another context an employer who takes a “hands off” approach to a project delegates responsibility to his employees. A “hands on” approach, however, would indicate his close involvement in it. A person who is “in another’s hand” is under his control.
Many times “hand” is employed in idiomatic phrases. A person who “takes a hand in” or “lends a hand” in a project or cause is actively involved in helping with it. If we “have our hands full” we are very busy or have many tasks to perform. A suitor who proposes to his loved one will ask her father “for her hand.” If we tell someone “I’ve got to ‘hand it to you,’” it means that we are giving that person credit for his or her accomplishment. An actor who says that the audience was “eating out of my hands” indicates that he was in control of the performance. But to be eating “hand to mouth” is to be surviving on meager rations. If we “wash our hands” of a situation, we refuse to continue in it or deny responsibility for it.
Likewise the fingers of the hand play a role in our figurative expressions. If something is liable to “burn your fingers,” there is the possibility of danger or getting into trouble. If we “keep our fingers crossed,” we are hoping for a satisfactory outcome. To “have a finger in the pie” is to indicate participation in something, while “not lifting a finger” means that we fail to exert the slightest effort to help. Failure to remember something can be expressed by saying, “I can’t quite ‘put my finger on it’” and “pointing one’s finger” at someone may indicate an accusation or an attempt to identify him.
It may be noted in passing that the arm is also used in a figurative way. We can speak of an “arm” of the sea or a sofa and military weapons are termed “arms.” If we greet people “with open arms,” we welcome them warmly but if we keep them “at arms length,” we don’t allow them to get too close to us. To walk “arm in arm” with another is to have a close relationship with that one. Potential lawbreakers need to be aware of the “long arm of the law” to enforce proper compliance with the standards of society.
As the above examples demonstrate, we employ hands, fingers, and arms quite freely in a figurative or idiomatic way. Such usages are simply common to human expression. It should come as no surprise, then, that the ancients, including those who penned our inspired Scriptures, used bodily parts in a similar fashion.
“Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
The original authors of the Bible often speak of the hand or arm in terms of common everyday speech. Thus when the attendants of Pharaoh’s daughter are reported as “walking along the riverbank,” literally they were going “along the hand of the river” (Ex. 2:5). When Jonathan stood beside his father King Saul, he was standing “at his hand” (1 Sam. 19:3). The side projections of the Tabernacle were called its “hands” (Ex. 26:17, 19) and the “road signpost” for the king of Babylon was called a “hand” (Ezek. 21:19). Breadth or length of hand could indicate ample space for human occupation (Gen. 34:21).
“Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10)
In the Scriptures the hand was employed in relation to one’s work ethic. Where there was a mind or willingness to work, especially for the Lord, such a one would receive God’s blessing (Deut. 2:7; 30:9). Indeed, “diligent hands” bring wealth (Prov. 10:4b, MT) and/or a position of leadership (Prov. 12:24a, MT). The virtuous woman is a case in point: “Her hands take hold of the distaff and her hands grasp the spindle. She extends her hand to the poor and reaches out with her hands to the needy” (Prov. 31:19-20). Such a woman is not only efficient in her work but sees to its successful conclusion. She is also a caring and compassionate person, for she gives of herself to provide for the needs of her own and those beyond her family unit (vv. 21-22). Indeed, “She is the walking example of Proverbs 11:25 which says: ‘Be generous, and you will prosper. Help others, and you will be helped.’”41 The attributes of the virtuous woman ought not to be lost on today’s society.
The hand also appears in contexts dealing with worship or spiritual activity. Putting the hand over the mouth signified silence in the presence of God (Job 40:4), while the uplifted hand could be a gesture of prayer (Ps. 28:2; Lam. 2:19; 1 Tim. 2:8) or praise (Pss. 63:4; 134:2; Neh. 8:6). Several other figurative and symbolic uses of the hand are also connected with worship or spiritual service. Thus when Aaron and his sons were ordained to the priesthood, certain parts of the ram of consecration as well as the prescribed bread offering were first placed in their hands, then burnt on the altar and subsequently returned to them for their consumption. By this symbolic act Aaron and his sons were aware from the beginning that their sustenance would come from the Lord in association with their consecrated service (Ex. 29:22-26).
The laying on of hands could symbolize not only the bestowal of a blessing (Gen. 48:13) but also a commissioning to the Lord’s service (Num. 27:18; 1 Tim. 4:14). In this way the early church at Antioch commissioned Paul and Barnabas for their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). The laying on of hands in ordination was viewed as a serious matter. Only those who demonstrated a prior calling by the Lord were to be commissioned to his work: “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily” (1 Tim. 5:22)
Pontius Pilate disavowed responsibility for Jesus’ death by symbolically washing his hands saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt. 27:24). The washing of hands, however, could accompany true repentance and confession of guilt or sin, thus rendering one fit for service or worship. The Old Testament priests literally washed their hands as a sign of spiritual cleansing before officiating at the various sacrifices (Ex. 30:17-21). James applied the practice figuratively in urging those in spiritual need to “cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded” (Jas. 4:8). A person with such a renewed heart attitude could be able to say with David of old, “The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness, according to the purity of my hands he has rewarded me” (Ps. 18:20 ).
“Open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are the poor and needy” (Deut. 15:11)
A number of the figurative uses of the hand or arm deal with inter-personal relationships or activities. Thus the hand can indicate helpfulness toward another: to “open the hand” entails giving to a person in need (Deut. 15:8-11); by way of contrast, to “shut the hand” is to withhold giving (Deut. 15:7, MT).42 The prophet Isaiah urges his hearers to “strengthen the hands that have gone limp,” for God would one day come to save his people (Isa. 35:3-4). Jeremiah condemns the prophets of his day, however, as those who “strengthen the hands of evildoers” (Jer. 23:14, MT). Especially noteworthy is the virtuous woman: “She extends her hand to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy” (Prov. 31:10). On the other hand, dropping of hands indicated an unwillingness to help (Josh. 10:6).
The uplifted hand was used in the act of praying, as we noted above, but it was also employed in bestowing a blessing (Lev. 9:22), the giving of an oath (Gen. 14:22), or the communication of judgment (Lev. 24:14). Elsewhere it could also signify hostility (2 Sam. 18:28, MT; Zech. 14:13, MT). “Laying hands on” someone could have both a positive or negative connotation as to whether it occurred in a context of worship activities (as noted above) or denoted doing harm or even killing someone (Gen. 37:22, 27). Indeed, the murderer has “bloody hands” (Gen. 4:11).
The hand is used in figures dealing with possession. Thus the Israelites took the territory east of the Jordan River “from the hands of” the Amorite kings (Deut. 3:8,lMT). Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, bought Joseph “from the hand of” the Ishmaelites (Gen. 39:1, MT . But the hand could signify authority as well. By God’s grace Joseph rose to a position of authority in Egypt. For Potiphar eventually put him in charge over his household affairs, giving “everything that he had into his hands” (Gen. 39:4, MT).43 Still later Pharaoh gave Joseph such authority over Egypt that without Joseph’s order no one could “lift hand or foot in all Egypt” (Gen. 41:44). In a wider sense all creation is “given into the hand of” mankind to rule (Gen. 9:2).
Those who submitted to another’s authority “gave their hand” to them (1 Chr. 29:24, MT). Some were duly commissioned “by the hand” of a superior. Thus Nebuchadnezzar gave instructions concerning Jeremiah “through the hand of” his commander Nebuzaradan (Jer. 39:11, MT). Others offered to serve the one in authority by using the figure of the hand. For example, Abner pledged his service to David saying, “Make an agreement with me and I will do whatever I can (lit. “my hand will be with you”) to cause all Israel to turn to you” (2 Sam. 3:12).
The most dominant sense in which the hand or arm figures is that of strength or power.44 Indeed, “The notion of a bodily limb recedes entirely into the background, generally speaking, giving way to the meaning ‘strength’, which belongs to the hand as the primary means of power; for example, the Hebrew ‘hand of the tongue’ … in Prov. 18.21 must be translated: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.’”45 Thus Moses performed awesome deeds in Egypt by his mighty hand (Deut. 34:12, MT). Israel’s military strength grew increasingly strong against Jabin: “Israel’s power continued to overwhelm King Jabin, of Canaan until they did away with him” (Judg. 4:24). Moses’ “outstretched hand” demonstrated God’s power in the plagues against Egypt (Ex. 10:12-25), as well as in dividing the waters of the sea that lay before the Hebrews during the times of their exodus journey (Ex. 14:16-18) and in the bringing back of those waters over the pursuing Egyptians (Ex. 14:26-28). Lack of strength or power, however, would be indicated as “a hand that had gone away” (Deut. 32:36, MT) or a broken arm. Thus the “arms of the wicked will be broken” (Ps. 37:17, MT), Moab’s “arm will be broken” (Jer. 48:25, MT), and God broke “the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Ezek. 30:21).
Especially significant is the use of the right hand to represent distinct identity or emphasis.46 Those worthy of honor were seated at the right hand of the one in charge. Solomon’s mother, for example, occupied a throne at the right hand of the king (1 Kings 2:19). The royal bride stood at the king’s right hand (Ps. 45:9) and the risen Christ laid his right hand upon the prostrate apostle John (Rev 1:17).47 In sum, “In social concourse, oaths and agreements were affirmed with the right hand (Gen 14:22; Ezek 17:18; Dan 12:7, expressions of fellowship were sealed with the right-handed handshake (Ezra 10:19), and giving and receiving were done with the right hand (Ps 26:10; Gal 2:9).”48 This custom cast light on the assassination of King Eglon of Moab. Because protocol demanded that the king would receive the Hebrew judge Ehud by extending the right hand to the one granted an audience, he would not anticipate that Ehud, who was left-handed, would be able to inflict harm upon him. The unsuspecting Eglon was certainly caught off-guard (Judg. 3:19-21).
“The hand of the diligent brings wealth” (Prov. 10:4)
We have noted previously the case of the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:18-22) whose caring and compassionate heart enabled her to have an excellent attitude toward her work and to prosper in it. The case is far different for the lazy person. The slothful man has “hands” that “refuse to work” (Prov 21:25). So lazy is he that he “buries his hand in the dish,” because he is too lazy to “bring it back to his mouth” (Prov. 19:24). So it is that lazy hands make a man poor (Prov. 10:4a) or make him to end up as part of the slave labor force (Prov. 12:24b).
Other idioms and figures relative to the hand also speak of a person’s personal make-up, as does the figure of the broken arm (Ps. 37:17). Those who are “small of hand” are “powerless” (2 Kings 19:26). This verse speaks of God’s preordained work in the life of Sennacherib, even though the Assyrian king was not aware of it. “Sennacherib had been able to wreak havoc on people who were totally powerless and as helpless as tender herbage and plants before the blasts of the Sirocco. No, Sennacherib should not boast as though what he had done was either self-generated or self-accomplished. It was God’s divine government that was at work; Sennacherib was but God’s instrument of correction for Israel and the nations.”49 People who are “high-handed” can be obstinate or defiant in the face of God’s clear precepts. Such a one “sins defiantly” and insults” the LORD … because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment” (Num. 15:30-31). The “wave of the hand” (Zeph. 2:13; NET, “shakes his fist”) can show contempt or ridicule. Thus Zephaniah prophesies that the once mighty and proud city of Nineveh will fall and be reduced to rubble.50
The compassion noted in the virtuous woman’s concern for the poor and downtrodden is absent in the case of the merciless, however. Thus Jesus speaks of those who callously burden down others and who “refuse to touch the burdens with even one of youe fingers!” (Lk. 11:46). Job’s friend Eliphaz reminds him that his words and actions have often “strengthened feeble hands” (Job 4:3). Job himself later protests his innocence of any wrong doing against the helpless by swearing, “If I have raised my hand to vote against the orphan, when I saw my support in the court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let my arm be broken off at the socket “ (Job 31:21-22). Isaiah also commends those who do not oppress the poor or bring railing accusations against them with a pointing finger and malicious talk (Isa. 58:9). Solomon warns against such a person.
A worthless and wicked person,
walks a round saying perverse things,
he winks with his eyes,
signals with his feet
and points with his fingers,
he plots evil with perverse thought in his heart,
he spreads contention at all times. (Prov. 6:12-14)
Yet such an individual ultimately brings disaster upon himself: “Therefore disaster will come suddenly; he will suddenly be broken and there will be no remedy” (Prov. 6:15).
Far better is it to be a righteous person who maintains a proper perspective and way of life toward God and his fellow man. For “The righteous holds to his ways, and the one with clean hands grows stronger” (Job 17:9).
Divine power and authority are often associated with the figure of the hand in the ancient Near East. In ancient Mesopotamia human success could be attributed to the “hand of a god.”52 A god could be beneficent toward a man; he could “put his arm on my arm, saying: My hand is in your hand.”53 “Diseases, however, are often referred to as ‘the hand of Ishtar (or Ninurta, etc.),’ and the hands of demons often bring disaster.”54 Moreover, a god could be invoked to bring sickness upon another: “May an unremitting illness be in his body through the hand of Gula.”55 Thus the great law codifier Hammurapi invoked divine curses against the one who would disregard his law by asking his beloved Ishtar to “deliver that man into the hand of his enemies and lead him in bonds to a land at enmity with him.”56
In Egypt the Pharaoh was considered to be the god Horus incarnate. A hymn to Sesostris III praises him as the one “Who holds the Two Lands in his arms’ embrace, [Who subdues foreign] land by a motion of his hands.”57 In a stele found at Karnak the god Amon Re declares that it is through his favor that the great Thutmose III has experienced health and victory: “My hand have endowed your body with safety and life… . The princes of all lands are gathered in your grasp, I stretched my own hands out and bound them for you.”58
It would be natural, then, that God would reveal the truth through the authors of Scripture and would do so in a way that would be familiar to those who heard and read it. Because figurative language utilizing the hand, fingers, and arm was so well known throughout the area, it served as a ready vehicle for communication.
The most common use of these bodily parts to express God’s character and attributes revolves around the twin concepts of strength and power (1 Chr. 29:12). So it is that the psalmist can sing of God’s mighty arm and hand: “Your arm is powerful; your hand is strong, your right hand victorious (Ps. 89:13). It was God’s mighty hand that brought the universe into being. God himself declares: “I made the earth, I created the people who live on it. My hands stretched out the heavens, I gave orders to all the heavenly lights” (Isa. 45:12).59 The psalmist observes that the very heavens were “ made by God’s fingers” (Ps. 8:3). Indeed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). Not only did God create all things but everyone and everything on earth is under his jurisdiction: “I made the earth and the people and animals on it by my great power and great strength (lit., outstretched arm) and I give it to whomever I see fit (Jer. 32:17).
God’s mighty hand and arm were also in evidence when he brought his people out of Egypt. God told Moses,” I will extend my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders” so that Pharaoh would be compelled to let the Israelites go (Ex. 3:19-21). God repeatedly assured Moses that his strong hand (Ex. 6:1) and outstretched arm (Ex. 6:6) would deliver his people from Pharaoh and the Egyptians.60 Even the Egyptian magicians came to recognize that the wondrous plagues came by the finger of God (Ex. 8:19). What God promised he did (Ex. 13:14; cf. Deut. 9:26, MT) with “a mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deut. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 26:8, MT) and “uplifted arm” (Acts 13:17)
What God did for Israel that first Passover night in bringing his people out of Egypt was to be commemorated with proper observance through the succeeding generations (Ex. 13:9, 16). God’s mighty power against Egypt was not finished that night. Later at the edge of the sea that lay before the Israelites on their journey toward the Holy Land God’s people were menaced by pursuing Egyptians. Here, too, God instructed Moses: “Lift up your staff and extend your hand toward the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites may go through the middle of the sea on dry ground. As for me, I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after them, that I may be honored because of Pharaoh and his army and his chariots and his horsemen” (Ex. 14:16-17). And everything came to pass exactly as God had promised (Ex. 14:26-31). Moses would later sing of that great event in his great victory song saying, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you —majestic in holiness, fearful in praises, working wonders? You stretched out your right hand, the earth swallowed them” (Ex. 15:11-12). So great was the deed that God had done that those nations and peoples that lay ahead on Israel’s journey would hear of it and be afraid (Ex. 15:16; cf. Ps. 106:9-12).61
The figure of the outstretched hand/arm of God appears in other ways as well. By his outstretched hand God controls the affairs of earth’s history, including the rise and fall of nations (Isa. 14:26; 25:10-11; Jer. 6:12). By that same mighty hand and his outstretched arm with which he brought his people out of Egypt he would one day judge his sinful people and scatter them among the nations. Yet in a future time he will regather a then purified people to their Promised Land (Ezek. 20:33-36; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-38; 37:21-28).62 The outstretched arm of God assures believers that everything is in accordance with God’s just administration of the world (cf. Isa. 51:5; 59:15-19) not only among the nations (Isa. 63:5-6) but also with his own people (Jer. 21:3-5).
The symbolism of God’s omnipotence is strongly felt in the figure of the right hand (Ps. 118:15-16). Not only God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm but also his right hand “was majestic in power” against the Egyptians during the exodus; by them God “shattered the enemy” and “the earth swallowed them” (Ex. 15:6, 12). It is by God’s right hand that he saves (Ps. 98:1) “those who look to him for protection” (Ps. 17:7). With his right hand God will lay hold on all his enemies (Ps. 21:8, MT) and protect (Ps. 138:7), sustain (Ps. 18:35) and guide (Ps. 139:10) his own. In him alone the believer has the sure hope of eternal bliss and pleasures at God’s right hand (Ps. 16:11, MT).
God’s activities and relations with his people in times past are frequently expressed in figures utilizing the hand or arm. As already noted, it was God’s powerful hand that brought about the deliverance of his people from Egypt (Deut. 4:34; 7:8; Ps. 136:11-12) and preserved them through the Red Sea (Ps. 106:9-10). He would deliver his people repeatedly in the days and years that followed (e.g., Judg. 3:7-11; 6:14; 2 Kings 19:19,MT; cf.2 Kings 19: 35-36).
God’s providential care could be expressed as his “gracious hand” upon them.63 In 458 B.C. it was God’s “gracious hand” that gave Ezra protection and guidance all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus of Persia (464-424 B.C.; Ezra 7:9; cf. 8:22). About a decade later Nehemiah similarly experienced God’s “gracious hand” when he approached the Persian king for permission to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild its fallen walls (Neh. 2:8). Both men experienced God’s gracious sustaining hand for the work that he called them to do.
Not only did God’s hand sustain his own but at times it “fell upon” or “came to” selected ones whom he called for special service. For example, a call to be God’s prophet came to Jeremiah: “Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, I will most assuredly give you the word that you are to speak for me. Know for certain that I hereby give you the authority to announce to nations and kingdoms that they will be uprooted and torn down, destroyed and demolished, rebuilt and firmly planted” (Jer. 1:9-10). God’s prophets often felt the hand of God as they ministered. Thus the hand of God was upon Elijah as he “ran ahead of Ahab” from Mount Carmel to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:46, MT). The hand of the Lord came upon Elisha so as to give the Lord’s instructions to King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah during the Edomite campaign (2 Kings 3:15). Several other prophets report a divine hand upon them (e.g., Isa. 8:11, MT; Jer. 1:19; Ezek. 1:3; 3:22; Dan. 10:10).
The call to special ministry was particularly marked in the promise that one day the heir of David par excellence would come to give his people a full and final deliverance, and to rule over them forever in a grand new covenant (Ps. 89:20-27, 35-37). Surely every believer’s heart yearns for that day when David’s heir, the Lord Jesus (Mt. 1:1-17; 17:5; Col. 1:18; Heb. 1:5; 2 Pet. 1:17) will assume his rightful rule over all the earth (Phil. 2:5-11; Rev. 11:15; 22:20).
“The Father has placed everything in his hand” (Jn. 3:3, Grk)
The foregoing truths with regard to the Lord Jesus stand as a reminder that he is Lord of all and fully divine. Moreover, the fact that many of the figures of the hand that are used of God the Father are attributed to Jesus gives further evidence of his deity. Thus of David’s heir it is said: “Sit down at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps. 110:1). Jesus challenged the Pharisees to explain how the one who was David’s son could also be called Lord. In so doing he attests both the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 and his own position as Messiah and Lord. As Don Carson rightly points out, “What Jesus does is synthesize the concept of a human Messiah in David’s line with the concept of a divine Messiah who transcends human limitations (e.g., Ps. 45:6-7; Isa. 9:6; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zech. 12:10, MT; 13:7 [NASB]).”64
In harmony with the previous text is the truth that Christ, the divine Messiah, is the judge of all. John the Baptist warned that Jesus’ “winnowing fork is in his hand” (Mt. 3:12), while John sees Jesus future coming in judgment “with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand” (Rev. 14:14). Jesus confirms the fact of his divine role as Son of God and coming King when he tells the high priest, “I tell you; from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on theclouds of heaven” (Mt. 26:64).65
The figure of the hand thus attests Jesus’ deity. As our Lord, Christ has absolute authority. God has “given all things into his hands” (Jn. 13:3, Grk). Therefore, the Apostle John could rightly declare, “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands” (Jn. 3:35). He is the long-expected deliverer of Israel (Lk. 1:71, 74) and head of the church (Rev. 1:16; 2:1), as well as its coming King. It is small wonder, then, that the mother of James and John requested of Jesus, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and the one at your left, in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:21). Even Satan recognized (Mt. 4:6) that the angels ministered to his needs (Ps. 91:12).
“My times are in your hands” (Ps. 31:15, MT)
The symbolism of the hand, arms, and fingers ought not to be lost for believers. The figure of God’s hand/arm/fingers in relation to the personal ethical qualities of believing Israelites has already been noted. Here we examine several texts that remind believers of all ages of their high value and the blessings of their life before God. Indeed, the Scriptures provide the authoritative guidebook for the believer’s life. Moses declared that the Ten Commandments, which gave God’s standards relative to human relations with God, were written by “the very finger of God” (Deut. 9:10). The rest of the Bible is no less of divine inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16). Many passages in God’s Word tell of his care for his own. He protects and delivers believers from “the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 97:10, MT; cf. Ps. 31:15, MT; Jer. 15:21, MT) and at times even delivers the enemy into the hands of his people (Josh. 2:24; 6:2, MT).
But it is not alone for perils and difficult times in our lives that God’s concern can be felt, for he sustains his faithful one in the everyday affairs of his life: “The LORD grants success to the one whose behavior he finds commendable. Even if he trips, he will not fall headlong, for the LORD holds his hand” (Ps. 37:23-24). Indeed, God has “engraved” his own on the “palms” of his hands (Isa. 49:16). How grand for the believer to know that as the heir of Christ’s salvation he or she is safely in the hands of both Christ and God the Father. “They will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (Jn. 10:28-30). The Apostle Paul could rightly declare therefore, “Nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord: (Rom. 8:39).
As with Ezra and Nehemiah of old, then, all along the way, through good times and bad, the believer may be assured that “the LORD holds his hand” (Ps. 37:24), wherever that may take him (Ps. 139:7-10). Surely the Lord takes his own “by the arm” (Hos. 11:3).
As we have noted, the dominant image in the figure of the hand/arm is that of power. To Israel it was promised: “Look, the Sovereign LORD comes as a victorious warrior; his military power (lit., arm) establishes his rule. Look, his reward is with him; his prize goes before him. Like a shepherd he tends his flock; he gathers up the lambs with his arm; he carries them close to his heart” (Isa. 40:10-11). We may remind ourselves also that the Lord Jesus Christ is the promised shepherd of the New Covenant (Ezek. 37:24). Moreover, he is the good shepherd who layed down his life for the sheep (Jn. 10:11-12). As the great shepherd who rose from the dead (Heb. 13:20), he is also the chief shepherd who shall come again for his own (1 Pet. 5:4). Therefore, as the true “shepherd and guardian” of the believer’s soul (1 Pet. 2:25), today’s believer, no less than Israel of old, may also partake of the psalmist’s testimony and praise:
But I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me by your wise advice,
and then you will lead me to a position of honor.
Whom do I have in heaven but you?
I desire no one but you on earth.
My flesh and my heart may grow weak,
but God always protects my heart and gives me stability (Ps. 73:23-26).
Accordingly, the believer’s attitude and desires should be examined. Because Christ is all-powerful, believers are challenged to be his faithful witnesses and obedient servants (Mt. 28:18-20). Too often we live as those who are masters of our own destiny. To the contrary, our very times are in God’s hands (Ps. 31:15, MT).66 Rather than fixing our hearts on selfish desires or the things of this world (1 Jn. 2:15-16), we have need to heed the Apostle Paul’s challenge to holy living: “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Keep thinking about things above, not things on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).
May we ever be those who have “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4, MT) and who commit our lives into the Lord’s hand (Ps. 31:5). Indeed, how could we be in better hands than his? The old spiritual says it so simply: “He’s got you and me in his hands; He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
“In your name I will lift up my hands” (Ps. 63:4, MT)
What does the biblical teaching concerning God’s hands, arm, and fingers tell us as believers? Does it really matter to us that God is portrayed in this way? Let’s review a few matters and suggest some further applications.
We saw previously that God’s “hand, arm, and fingers” spoke of his great power and strength. This was especially pronounced in the motifs of his outstretched hand/arm or his right hand. We saw also that the “hand of God” emphasized his authority, and his just government and providential activity. God’s hand was truly in evidence in the redemption of his people out of Egypt and his guidance of their destiny throughout their history. From among his people he at times called some to be special ministers of his grace.
Of special importance was the promise of the coming Messiah, David’s heir. We saw that this was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, to whom all authority and judgment are ascribed. Jesus was shown to be fully divine and the One who is the long-awaited deliverer and head over all things, including his church. Because it is to him that all humanity will bow one day, his followers are to be sensitive to live worshipful lives before him, and to live in holiness as obedient and faithful servants. As they do, they can be assured of God’s guidance and protection all along life’s journey.
Yet there is more to be noted concerning the images of hand, arm, and fingers. We shall see that they serve as reminders that such bodily members are working parts. It was for that reason that we began chapter three with a quote from Isaiah 66:2: “Has not my hand made all these things?”
“I have opened up the place where my weapons are stored” (Jer. 50:25)
Indeed, the Scriptures often record God’s working. This includes the creation and sustaining of the world (Gen. 1:1; 2:2-3; Pss. 89:8-12; 104; 136:5-9) and of all mankind (Gen. 1:26; 9:6). Moreover, God’s “work” “stands for God’s work over and above the creation, and then principally means the acts of Yahweh in history, through which he demonstrates to Israel his covenant faithfulness.”67 As we have noted, this was often said to be done by his hand(s), arm, or even his fingers. Consider Moses’ testimony to Israel concerning God’s deliverance of the Hebrews out of Egypt: “You saw the signs and wonders, the strength and power (lit., strong hand and outstretched arm), by which he brought you out” (Deut. 7:19). Knowing God’s mighty deeds and great works, Moses prayed to the Lord, “O LORD God, you have begun to show me your greatness and strength (lit., strong hand). (What god in heaven or earth can rival your works and mighty deeds?” (Deut. 3:24).68
All of God’s works are clearly discernable to the careful observer (Pss. 46:8; 66:5; Eccl. 7:13). The people of Israel who served the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime and beyond saw all the great things that the Lord did for Israel (Josh. 24:31). They were amazing (Josh. 3:5; Ps. 78:12), often miraculous (Ex. 11:16), deeds. Indeed, his innumerable (Ps. 104:24) works are both wonderful (Ps. 139:14; Rev 15:3) and unequaled by any other (Ps. 86:8). Moreover, they are done in truth (Heb. 6:18-19), and righteousness and justice (Pss. 103:6; 111:7; Dan. 4:37). Truly, “As for the Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. He is a reliable God who is never unjust, he is fair and upright” (Deut. 32:4). Because God’s work is done on the basis of his gracious concern, compassion, and love, his people will praise him (Jer. 51:10). Thus the psalmist declares, “The LORD is merciful and compassionate; he is patient and demonstrates great loyal love. The LORD is good to all, and has compassion on all he has made. All he has made will give thanks to the LORD. Your loyal followers will praise you” (Ps. 145:8-10). David also proclaims that “The LORD’s decrees are just, and everything he does is fair.. The LORD promotes equity and justice; the LORD’s faithfulness extends throughout the earth” (Ps. 33:4-5).
God’s work also involves the providential care and control of all of earth’s history (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 103:19; Isa. 19:25; 28:21; 48:14), including especially the lives of his own (1 Cor. 12:6; Eph. 1:11; Phil. 1:6; 2:13; Heb. 13:21). In accordance with his revealed word and purposes he declares, “In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend” (Isa. 55:11). God has made known (Am. 3:7) his will and standards via his Word (Isa. 40:8; 1 Thess. 2:13), which is unalterably effective (Heb. 4:12) and intended for man’s benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
“My Father is working … and I too am working” (Jn. 5:17)
Central to God’s work was the power that he exerted in the miraculous ministry (Acts 2:22) and resurrection (Acts 2:24; 3:15; 4:10; Eph. 1:20) of Jesus Christ. It is he whom God has made the judge of all so that all may “honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (Jn. 5:22-23). All authority and power have been granted to him (Ps. 2:6-9; Mt. 28:20). In accordance with God’s plan to culminate earth’s history by bringing in a new heaven and earth (Isa. 65:17-18; Rev. 21:5) filled with those who will worship and serve the Lord (Isa. 66:22-23), God has exalted his Son Jesus Christ: “As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).
Certainly Jesus was aware of his divine mission (Jn. 9:3-5). For he himself declared that “The deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete—the deeds I am now doing—testify about me that the Father has sent me” (Jn. 5:36). Christ’s work was nothing less than a completing of God’s the Father’s work (Jn. 4:34; 5:17; 10:36-38). This included not only the performance of good deeds (Acts 10:38) and miracles (Mk. 6:14; Jn. 2:11; 10:25) but also especially his work of providing for the believer’s salvation (Heb. 1:3) through his sacrificial death (Heb. 7:27) and resurrection (Jn. 10:17). These demonstrate that Christ is the Savior (Heb. 7:25; 1 Pet. 1:3) and the architect of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike. Therefore, he is both “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), as well as the guarantor (Heb. 7:22) and mediator (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:15; 12:24) of the better, New Covenant in his blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Although he is now seated in the heavens making intercession for believers (Heb. 7:25), one day he shall return “and transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21; cf. 1 Jn. 3:2-3).
“The hand of the LORD was with them” (Acts 11:21)
It is thus obvious that God has made splendid plans for those who have accepted his Son as Savior and Lord of their lives (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 4:9-10; Rev. 21:1-4). On their part believers are expected to do spiritual services for the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58; 16:10). Among those who work for Christ some are teachers (Eph. 4:11) from whom others are to learn (Phil. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:2; cf. Ex. 18:20) and in turn pass the truth on to subsequent generations (Deut. 4:10). Yet all mankind is to consider what God has done (Eccl. 7:13-14) and praise him for it (Job 36:24) so that they might “fear” and “proclaim what God has done and reflect on his deeds” (Ps. 64:9).
It is certain that people of genuine faith should perform spiritual service for God, because “faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself” (Jas. 2:17; cf. 2:20-24). Indeed, the Scriptures repeatedly point out the necessity for the believer’s faith to be accompanied by good works (Pss. 34:14; 37:27; Eph. 2:10; 1 Tim. 5;10; 6:18). In so doing unbelievers “may see your good deeds and glorify God when he appears” (1 Pet. 2:12). Accordingly, the Lord Jesus urged his followers, “Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
Good works spring from a heart that is committed to God (Prov. 16:3) and overflows with love (Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 16:14; Gal. 5:6). They are to be deeds of honesty (Ps. 15:2) and righteousness (Ps. 18:20-21). Thus Zephaniah urges his hearers, “Seek the LORD’s favor, all ye humble people of the land who have obeyed his commands! Strive to do what is right! Strive to be humble! Maybe you will be protected on the day of the LORD’s angry judgment” (Zeph. 2:3). “Zephaniah intends all who will respond with poverty of soul in humility and submission to God. He urges them to react to his pleas with the two qualities necessary for spiritual productivity: righteousness and humility. By the first is meant those spiritual and ethical standards that reflect that nature and will of God, by the second submission to and dependence on God.”69
Such good deeds are to be done moreover through God’s power (Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:28-29) and with a genuine concern for the needs of others (Jer. 22:3; Mt. 6:1-4; cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Tim. 5:3-16; 6:17-19; Jas. 1:27). Above all, the believer’s works are to be out of concern for the truth (3 Jn. 8) and for the advancement of the kingdom of God (Col. 4:11; 3 Jn. 5-8). Accordingly, believers are not to be negligent in doing the Lord’s work (Jer. 48:10), even to those who appear to be enemies (Rom. 12:20-21; cf. Prov. 25:21-22).
The believer’s work is also to be done in accordance with God’s will (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 7:17) and as unto Christ (Mt. 25:40). Indeed, it is because God has extended his grace in order that men may be saved through faith and be taken into union with the risen Christ that any believer is enabled to do good works (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:4-10; cf. Jn. 14:12-14). So it is that the believer’s capacity for doing God’s will and work is limitless (Phil. 4:13). It is his part to make himself available (Rom. 12:1-2), to stand firm in the faith (1 Cor. 15:58; 16:13) and press on (Phil. 3:12-14) in order to be faithful to the end (Rev. 2:10) even as God is faithful to him (1 Cor. 1:7-9). As the anonymous poet has expressed it:
Lord, let me not die until I’ve done for Thee
My earthly work, whatever it may be.
Call me not hence with mission unfulfilled;
Let me not leave my space of ground untilled;
Impress this truth upon me that not one
Can do my portion that I leave undone.70
One of the greatest of all good works that a believer may do is to share the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 2 Tim. 4:5) and the truth of the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:15). Believers should never be ashamed of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) but be willing if necessary to endure suffering in connection with their Christian service (1 Pet. 3:12-16). Such faithful service will earn God’s blessing both in this life (Deut. 2:7; 14:29; 15:10) and the next (1 Cor. 3:12-14; 2 Tim. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10). Because in the ultimate sense all that we are and do and have is by God’s grace (Rom. 2:4; Eph. 1:7, 18; 2:7; Phil. 1:6; Jas. 1:17-18), believers may humbly pray, “May our sovereign God extend his favor to us! Make our endeavors successful! Yes, make them successful!” (Ps. 90:17). Believers know that such prayers will be answered when their hearts and wills are blended with his, for they have come to realize God stimulates a desire and ability in us to accomplish his work and will “for the sake of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). How grateful we should be to have the privilege of carrying on the work that the Master has given us to do (Jn.14:12; 20:21)!
Creation’s Lord, we give Thee thanks
That this Thy world is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshaled ranks,
That work awaits our hands and feet;
That Thou hast not yet finished man,
That we are in the making still,
As friends who share the Maker’s plan,
As sons who know the Father’s will.71
41 Robert Alden, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 221.
43 The use of the hand to express authority, possession, or custody is also attested in texts from the ancient Near East. For example, an Akkadian text deals with the case of a child that has died “in the hand of” the wet nurse, that is under her care. Another cases speak of monies, property, or people that are delegated to a person’s custody or jurisdiction. See Erica Reiner, et al, The Assyrian Dictionary, Q, vol. 13 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1982), 189, 190. Human agency can also be expressed with figures relative to the hand. Thus a fire that swept through the land is attributed to the hand of bandits (Ibid, 193).
44 Accordingly, the Hebrew word for hand (yad) is often rendered “power” in the NET in accordance with the force of the context.
45 Hans W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 68.
46 Ben Johnson (“The Masque of Hymen”) spoke of his beloved son as the “child of my right hand and joy.”
47 It is interesting to note that in Jesus’ teaching concerning the judgment of the believers (sheep) and unbelievers (goats) the sheep are placed on the Savior’s right (Mt. 25:31-33).
48 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds, “Right, Right Hand,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 727.
49 Hermann J. Austel and Richard. D. Patterson, “Kings,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol.4(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 267. Both Ps 37:17 and 2 Kings 19:26 speak of God’s overpowering action in rendering the wicked powerless.
50 Zephaniah’s prophecy literally came true. “About 200 years after its devastation, Xenophon passed by its site without realizing that the ruins were the remains of haughty Nineveh (Anabasis III, 4, 10-12). He calls the territory Mespila. Lucian (Charon, c. 23) declares: ‘Nineveh has perished, and there is no trace left where it once was,’” Walter A. Maier, The Book of Nahum (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 135.
52. Reiner, Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Q, 187.
53 Ibid, 186.
54 Wolfram von Soden, “dy*” yad” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 397.
55 Reiner, Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Q, 186.
56 G. R. Driver and John C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, vol . 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), 105. In his prologue Hammurapi maintains his piety to all the gods, in one case describing himself as “the prince pure (in heart) whose hands uplifted (in prayer) Adad regards” (vol.1, 11).
57 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 198.
58 Ibid, vol. 2 (1976), 36.
60 See the interesting study by James K. Hoffmeier, “The Arm of God vs the Arm of Pharaoh in the Exodus Narratives,” Biblica (1986): 378-87.
61 For a literary comparison of the prose and poetic accounts of Israel’s adventure at the Red Sea, see Richard D. Patterson, “Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161 (2004): 42-54.
62 For the relation of these passages to the establishment of God’s New Covenant, see Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31-34,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972): 11-23; Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 231-35, 242-44.
63 A familiar Spanish farewell invokes God’s holy hand: Dios te tenga en su santo mano (God keep you in his holy/blessed hand).
64 D. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, et al., vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 468. The author of Hebrews also draws upon Psalm 110 in pointing out Christ’s superiority to the angels (Heb. 1:13).
65 Not only is the right hand motif used with regard to Jesus but it may be significant that like God the Father, Jesus is said to “stretch out his hand” in times of healing others (Mk. 1:41; cf. also Mt. 9:13).
66 The apocryphal The Wisdom of Solomon observes that “the souls of the just are in God’s hand.” See D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979). 124-26.
67 H. C. Hahn, “Work,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 1148.
69 Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 330.
70 “My Work,” in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, ed., James D. Morrison (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 372.
71 W. De Witt Hyde, “Creation’s Lord, We Give Thee Thanks,” in Masterpieces, 306.