Aside from its physical definition, arm is used in Scripture as a symbol of power in action–either divine or human. The context will of course determine whether the word is meant literally or figuratively, and whether its figurative sense is power used for good or for evil.
God’s Mighty Arm
The most common function in Scripture for the symbol of a powerful arm is to describe the mighty actions and purposes of God. The biblical writers often referred to his “mighty are”: “Your arm is mighty. Your hand is strong. Your right hand is lifted high (Ps. 89:13). The idea behind this symbolic picture is so obvious that modern translations often convey the meaning directly. For example, GOD”S WORD translates Psalm 77:15 as, “With your might [literally arm] you have defended your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.” One of the frequent contexts for the use of arm communicates his willingness to intervene powerfully in the affairs of this world. He instructed Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘I will bring you out from under the oppression of the Egyptians, and I will free you from slavery. I will rescue you with my powerful arm and with mighty acts of judgment’ ” (Exod 6:6). The word powerful translates a Hebrew expression for “outstretched or reaching action” on God’s part. God is not just powerful at a distance; he is fully able to judge, defend, and act on behalf of those he wants to protect or correct. This is the idea in Deuteronomy 3:34; 5:15; 1 Kings 8:24; 2 Kings 17:36; Psalm 136:12; and Jeremiah 21:5.
GOD’S COMPASSIONATE ARMS
Isaiah refers to God’s arm more often than any other biblical book (fourteen times). Among these is a prophetic picture of God’s compassionate care for his people, even after he has had to correct them severely: “Like a shepherd he takes care of his flock. He gathers the lamps in his arms. He carries them in his arms. He gently helps the sheep and their lambs” (Isa 40:11). Fitting in with this meaning of the symbol, we think of his “arms” supporting us in times of need and sorrow. Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 33:27 are poignant reminders of God’s tender case: “The eternal God is your shelter, and his everlasting arms support you.” Many hymns, such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” reflect that sentiment. The comforting aspects of God’s enveloping arms can be seen most clearly when God puts on human flesh. In New Testament we see God with flesh-and-blood arms, and he doesn’t hesitate to use them. “Jesus put his arms around the children and blessed them by placing his hands on them” (Mark 10:16). Both Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:51) and John (John 12:38) saw in Jesus the revelation of God’s power/might that was anticipated in Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our message? To whom has the LORD’S power [arm] been revealed? The mode of Jesus’ death leaves us with a powerful picture of how far God went to show us his love. Romans 5:8 declares, “Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This demonstrates God’s love for us.” God was willing to open his arms in love to us, even if that meant being nailed to a cross.
THE ARM OF JUDGMENT
While God’s powerful arm is usually portrayed as working to redeem and protect his people, it is occasionally meant as a symbol of judgment. When his people committed idolatry, God declared that he would allow the Babylonians to conquer them, saying, “I will fight you in anger, fury, and rage with my powerful hand and my mighty arm” (Jer 21:5). The same powerful arm that redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Deut 4:34) now sided with Babylon to bring about her defeat. Occasionally in Scripture arms are used to symbolize human agency, usually for evil. When the psalmist prays, “break the arm of the wicked and evil person. Punish his wickedness until you find no more” (Ps 10:15), he is referring not to the literal breaking of arms but to the figurative breaking of the power of evil people and the hold they have on the powerless. He is in effect asking God’s arm of judgment to be raised against the forces of evil in the world. God’s arm as a symbol for his power at work in the world can be an image of both comfort and fearsome judgment. For the believer, the image need not cause fear-God works on our behalf, both defending the causes of righteousness with his strength and bearing us up in the face of our troubles. But those who wield their power to work evil and injustice, opposing God’s work in the work, should fear the arm of the Lord that has the power to bring them down.