Question: "What does the Bible mean when it refers to God's outstretched arm?"
Answer: There are seventeen references in the Old Testament to God’s “outstretched arm.” The Hebrew phrase besorah (related to the word for “arm”) natiyah (“outstretched”) is most literally translated simply as “outstretched arm.” Examining the phrases connected with God’s outstretched arm helps us understand that God’s outstretched arm is a reference to God’s sovereign involvement in the world attended by mighty displays of power.
In each instance of the phrase God’s outstretched arm there is a connected or parallel synonymous phrase that helps further our understanding. The first instance appears in Exodus 6:6, as God explains to Moses that He will accomplish deliverance and redemption with “an outstretched arm” and with great judgments. Long after that redemption was accomplished, Moses reminds the people that God had led them out of Egypt with signs, wonders, war, a mighty hand, and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34). Moses later repeats the parallel reference to God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm in Deuteronomy 5:15. Moses reminds God that the people of Israel are God’s people and that He had brought Israel out of Egypt “by your great power and your outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 9:29). Moses challenges the people that they have experienced God’s greatness, His mighty hand, and His outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 11:2), and in his final reference to God’s outstretched arm, Moses reminisced that God had brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, terrors, and signs and wonders (Deuteronomy 26:8).
When Solomon dedicated the temple, he spoke of God’s great name, mighty hand, and outstretched arm (1 Kings 8:42; 2 Chronicles 6:32). The author of 2 Kings reminds readers that God had delivered Israel from Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm (2 Kings 17:36); consequently, God is to be feared, worshipped, and given sacrifices. Remembering God’s greatness and provision, a psalmist recounts that God brought Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Psalm 136:12) and three times within that context emphasizes that God’s lovingkindness is everlasting (a statement that appears frequently throughout the psalm).
Jeremiah records four more allusions to God’s outstretched arm, recording first God’s warning that, because of the nation’s sin, He would wage war against them with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm (Jeremiah 21:5). God reminds the listener that He created by His great power and outstretched arm (Jeremiah 27:5)—a refrain echoed by Jeremiah in Jeremiah 32:17, as he observes that nothing is too difficult for God, who is full of lovingkindness and who recompenses justly (Jeremiah 32:18). Jeremiah also recounts God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt “with signs and wonders, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror” (Jeremiah 32:21).
The final two references to God’s outstretched arm appear in Ezekiel 20:33–34, as God promises that He would rule with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out (or completed). God adds that He would bring Israel back into the land with the same three characteristics—with a mighty hand, an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out.
Many of these references to God’s outstretched arm refer the reader back to God’s mighty deliverance of Israel, to His ongoing dealings with Israel, and the future deliverance of the nation. These references are connected to ideas such as great judgments, a mighty hand, signs, wonders, war, power, greatness, terrors, a great name, everlasting lovingkindness, and wrath poured out. These descriptive contexts help us recognize that God’s outstretched arm is His applying of His sovereignty over the affairs of humanity—and particularly Israel. The result is that we should fear Him, recognizing His sovereignty and purpose where He reveals them. He is worthy of worship. Because He is also full of lovingkindness, we realize that He also stretches out His arm to exercise grace and restoration, and we can rest in the fact that, while we fear Him as the Sovereign over all, He loves us and has the power to deliver.