Christian Articles Archive

The Everlasting Arms
(Deuteronomy 33:27)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (10:45)

One of my current joys is to hold my tiny month-old granddaughter in my arms. Actually, she's so small I can cradle her in one arm. She isn't really aware of my arms, just my warmth and my breathing that comfort her. She's a sweetheart. Grandpa is content just to hold her as she falls asleep. We see tender arms when Isaiah writes of the Lord Yahweh as a Shepherd:

"He will tend His flock like a shepherd;
He will gather the lambs in His arms;
He will carry them in His bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11, ESV)

An old hymn, taken from Deuteronomy 33:27, has a similar concept of God's arms:

"Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms."[1]

And that's all good and true. But as I read Deuteronomy 33:27, the arms seem to have another meaning. Let's look at the passage together. Why don't you open your Bible and turn to it -- Deuteronomy 33:26-29.

Jeshurun = Israel, God's Favorite Child (verse 26)

Moses is preparing to die on Mount Pisgah, after which Joshua will take over and lead Israel across Jordan, and on to conquer the cities of Canaan, beginning with Jericho.

Moses has just blessed each of the 12 tribes by name. Now he concludes a series of individual blessings with a prophetic blessing over Israel as a whole, encouraging them as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.

"There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
who rides through the heavens to your help,
through the skies in His majesty." (Deuteronomy 33:26)

He refers to Israel with a kind of pet name, Jeshurun, "upright one," a name of endearment that refers to Israel's ideal character.[2] God will "ride through the heavens" to help them when they're in trouble.[3] Jeshurun, Israel, is God's favorite child. My pastor, Greg Krieger, always claims to be "God's favorite child." And when the congregation begins to groan at his audacious boasting, he grins and acknowledges that, indeed, all of us are God's favorites. Like Jeshurun. There's a real sense that God's pledges to help Israel are His pledges to help us, too, when we're in trouble.

The Eternal God Is Your Dwelling Place (verse 27a)

"The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deuteronomy 33:27a)

God is prepared to help Jeshurun (Israel) at any time. In turn, verse 27 tells us that God's favorite child dwells with God.

The NIV and KJV translate Hebrew meʿōnâ as "refuge," denoting a place to retreat to in time of danger, like we see in Psalm 91. Here, however, is "dwelling place" (ESV) is more accurate.[4] We dwell with God. We make our habitation in him, intricately interconnected as His Holy Spirit infuses our personal spirit.

We'll come to interpreting the line, "and underneath are the everlasting arms," after we've studied the rest of Moses' blessing.

A People Saved by Yahweh (verses 27b-29)

"27b And He thrust out[5] the enemy before you
and said, 'Destroy.'
28  So Israel lived in safety,[6]
Jacob lived alone[7]...." (Deuteronomy 33:27b-28a)

Soon, Israel will cross Jordan, and conquer the fortified cities of the Promised Land. With the exception of Jericho, they will fight hand to hand, but God will bring the victory. Yahweh is the One "thrusting out the enemy," forcing out inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and Hittites, Amorites and Jebusites, and all the rest. The result is that Israel will live by themselves, at peace in the land God has helped them to conquer. It is a good and rich land.

"... in a land of grain and wine,
whose heavens drop down dew." (Deuteronomy 33:28b)

Israel is indeed blessed by God.

"29  Happy[8] are you, O Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved[9] by the LORD,
the Shield[10] of your help,
and the Sword[11] of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread upon their backs." (Deuteronomy 33:27b-29)

Yes, the Israelites will fight, but the real Sword and Shield is Yahweh Almighty, and through Him they conquer the land. They are a blessed people, "a people saved by the Lord."

When we struggle to move the Kingdom forward, to overcome the obstacles, and resist the temptations the enemy puts in our way, God is our Shield and Sword. The battle is the Lord's -- and He is mighty! Don't give up!

Underneath Are the Everlasting Arms (verse 27a)

Now that we've looked at the entire blessing of Jeshurun (God's pet name for Israel), let's come back to the phrase, "and underneath are the everlasting arms."

"The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms." (Deuteronomy 33:27a)

These two lines exhibit Hebrew parallelism, a characteristic of Hebrew poetry often found in prophetic passages such as ours. The first line makes the statement, while the second repeats the idea in other words and carries it a bit further.

Line 1 refers to the "eternal"[12] God, while line 2 references His "everlasting"[13] arms. The words are synonymous. Our enemies are temporal, newcomers to the scene, but our God is timeless and forever. He is the "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3:14) who always IS. He is, and was, and is to come (Revelation 1:4, 8), the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 1:8). Yahweh has been from before the beginning and His arms are ancient.

But what about the arms that are "underneath"?[14] Are we talking about (a) tender arms that hold and carry, (b) supportive arms to lean on? (c) or open arms to welcome and embrace?

The Bible refers to arms in all these ways. But I think that here, "arms" is used in a different sense altogether. The context of the blessing in verses 26-29 is God fighting for Israel in the face of their enemies. That would suggest the strong arm[15] of the warrior that wields a sword and shield in battle.[16] Many times we read of God's strong deliverance of His people from Egypt, "by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."[17]

Often in the Old Testament, the hand isn't mentioned at all, only the mighty, outstretched, holy arm of Yahweh, the Lord of hosts (armies). The arm is the symbol of strength and deliverance.

"I will redeem you with an outstretched arm." (Exodus 6:6)

"You with your arm redeemed your people." (Psalm 77:15)

"With [the king of Assyria] is an arm of flesh,
but with us is the LORD our God,
to help us and to fight our battles." (2 Chronicles 32:8)

"The LORD has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God." (Isaiah 52:10)

Isaiah offers a wonderful prayer:

"O LORD, be gracious to us; we wait for you.
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble." (Isaiah 33:2)

Summing It Up

Since the context of our passage is protection and deliverance, I think strength to deliver is the sense of the "everlasting arms" in our passage.

"The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms." (Deuteronomy 33:27a)

We live in Him, we dwell in Him and He in us. He is our home. We enjoy His presence. The relationship isn't really about war, but love. But whenever trouble strikes or the enemy attacks, His Ancient Arms are ready to defend us or to utterly rout the enemy. That doesn't mean we aren't to exercise the powerful weapons of spiritual warfare that He has given us. We are.[18] But when we get out of our depth, beyond the training we've received so far in the Lord, His arms emerge from "underneath" to fight on our behalf. The colloquial expression, "He's got your back,"[19] describes it well.

My friend, enjoy the Eternal God. Live in the "dwelling place" of His presence, sharing your day-to-day life with Him, secure in the knowledge that, whenever needed, His strong Ancient, Eternal, Everlasting Arms will fight on your behalf and win the day. After all, you, like Jeshurun, are God's favorite child.



[1] "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, words by Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman, music by Showalter (1887).

[2] Yeshurûn, "upright one," a "poetic name of Israel, designating it under its ideal character" (Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament ("BDB"; Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1907, 1953), p. 449). See also D.F. Roberts, "Jeshurun," in Geoffrey W. Bromiley (general editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ("ISBE": Eerdmans, 1979-1988), 2:1033. This name yeshurûn occurs only in Deuteronomy 32:15 33:5; 33:26; and Isaiah 44:2.

[3] See also Psalm 18:10; 68:4; 68:33; 104:3; Isaiah 19:1.

[4] Meʿōnâ (from ʿûn, "dwell") "dwelling, habitation," and most frequently used of the dens of animals (in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ("TWOT"; Moody Press, 1980), #1581b. Nevertheless, we see meʿōnâ in Psalm 91:9, in parallel with maḥseh, "place of refuge, shelter."

[5] "Thrust out" (ESV, KJV), "drive out" (NIV, cf. NRSV) is gārash, "cast up, drive out/away, divorce, expel, put away, thrust out, trouble." The root denotes an effective separation between persons or groups, expulsion (Harold G. Stigers, TWOT #388).

[6] "Safety" is beṭaḥ, "safety, security, carelessness." Used almost exclusively in adverbial constructions, and used frequently with yāshab "to dwell" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #233a).

[7] "Alone" (NIV, ESV, KJV), "untroubled" (NRSV) is bādād, "to be separate and isolated" (Louis Goldberg, TWOT #201b).

[8] "Happy" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "blessed" (NIV) is ʾesher, "happiness, bliss." "O the happiness(es) of" (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #183a).

[9] "Saved" is the Niphal perfect of yāshaʿ, be saved, be delivered." The root meaning in Arabic is "make wide" or "make sufficient"; this root is in contrast to ṣārar "narrow," which means "be restricted" or "cause distress." That which is wide connotes freedom from distress and the ability to pursue one's own objectives. To move from distress to safety requires deliverance (John E. Hartley, TWOT #929).

[10] "Shield" is māgēn, The basic idea of the verb gānan is to cover over and thus shield from danger. Māgēn refers to the smaller and more common type of round shield carried by light infantry and officers. Sinnâ is the rectangular shield which covered the whole front of the body (James E. Smith, TWOT #367c).

[11] "Sword" is ḥereb, "sword, dagger," From archeological and iconographic evidence we know that the common swords of the third and early second millennia BC were rather short, straight swords made of bronze. In the second millennium a curved sickle-shaped sword, called by the Egyptians khopesh "foreleg," became popular. Yadin believes that the expression "to smite with the edge of the sword," e.g. in Joshua's campaigns, refers to this type of smiting sword. Examples have been recovered from Shechem and Gezer. (Edwin Yamauchi, TWOT #732a).

[12] "Eternal" is the noun qedem, "East, eastern." It is used of time: "ancient time, aforetime... It denotes an idyllic state whereas ʿôlām, ʾad denote perpetuity, zāqēn, agedness, and ʾshôn primacy" (Leonard J. Copps, TWOT #1988a).

[13] "Everlasting" is ʿôlām, "forever, ever, everlasting, evermore, perpetual, old, ancient, world, etc." Though ʿôlām is used mostly to indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future, it can refer to the long-ago past (Alan A. MacRae, TWOT #1631a).

[14] "Underneath" is the preposition tahat, "under, beneath" (William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, based on the Lexical work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), p. 389, 2).

[15] "Arm" is zerōa', "arm, shoulder, strength." The arm is often used as an anthropomorphic figure of God's power (Walter C. Kaiser, TWOT #583a).

[16] Genesis 49:24; 2 Samuel 22:35 = Psalm 18:34; Psalm 37:17; Ezekiel 30:24-25. The ideal wife in Proverbs 31, "dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong" (Proverbs 31:17), underscoring the association of arms with strength.

[17] The plural "arms" is occasionally used in the plural in the sense of strength and military prowess: Deuteronomy 4:34; 5:15; 11:2; 26:8; 1 Kings 8:42; 2 Kings 17:36; 2 Chronicles 6:32; Psalm 136:12; Jeremiah 32:21; Ezekiel 20:33.

[18] For more on spiritual warfare, see Lesson 8 in my study, Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship (JesusWalk, 2019), Lesson 8. "Paul Fights the Good Fight of Faith -- Spiritual Warfare."

[19] The phrase "I've got your back" comes from wartime, when it meant,  "I'm right here watching to see that no one comes up on you from behind." According to UrbanDictionary.com, "When someone 'has your back,' they are there to support you unconditionally. When life seems to blindside you with undesirable events, they're there for you without complaint, supporting you in your moment of need."

Copyright © 2019, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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