Question: "What does the Bible mean when it calls God the LORD of hosts?"
Answer: The name “LORD of hosts” occurs some 261 times in the Old Testament Scriptures. God is first called the “LORD of hosts” in 1 Samuel 1:3. The word LORD, capitalized, refers to Yahweh, the self-existent, redemptive God. The word hosts is a translation of the Hebrew word sabaoth, meaning “armies”—a reference to the angelic armies of heaven. Thus, another way of saying “LORD of hosts” is “God of the armies of heaven.” The NIV translates YHWH saboath as “LORD Almighty.”
This name for God first appears at the close of the period of the judges. In the same sentence as “LORD of hosts” is a reference to Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. The Ark symbolized Yahweh’s rulership, among other things, for He sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; Psalm 99:1). Some have suggested that ”LORD of hosts” reaffirms that God is the true Leader of Israel’s armies, in spite of the low spiritual condition of the nation of Israel at the time of the judges. In 1 Samuel 17:45, as part of his pre-fight verbal sparring with Goliath, David invokes this name of God. In doing so, David was claiming that God is the universal ruler over every force whether in heaven or on earth.
Soon after David’s defeat of Goliath, Israel would enter the international scene. It was necessary for the nation to realize that Yahweh was King even of the many other mighty nations. This kingship of the LORD of hosts is vividly expressed in Psalm 24:10: “Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory!” (ESV). He is the glorious King of Israel, and Zechariah 14:9 tells us that He will be King of the world, over all the kingdoms of the earth (cf. Isaiah 37:16).
Eventually, Yahweh of armies will put down all rebellion (Isaiah 24:21–23) and establish His Kingdom from Mt. Zion (Isaiah 31:4–5; 34:12). As the LORD of hosts, God is the all-powerful Ruler over the entire universe. All power and authority are His. He alone intervenes to provide victory for His people. He alone brings world peace. At the same time, He is available to hear the prayers of His people (Psalm 80:19). There is no other God like this.
The sovereign LORD of hosts has the grace to always be there for the one who comes to Him through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The King of glory, who commands the armies of heaven and who will eventually defeat all His enemies in this world, is none other than Jesus Christ. He is the LORD of hosts (Revelation 19:11–20).