The weakness of God is stronger than man.
— John Woolman (The Journal of John Woolman)
In Egyptian iconography, it was typical to see the Pharaoh (who is also sometimes referred to as the king) in a pose which accentuates his strong arm. There is a scene from the reign of Amenhotep II that shows the king grasping the locks of his enemies hair with one hand, while the other hand is ready to bludgeon him. The inscription reads, “Amenhotep . . . who smites the rulers of the foreign lands of the far north, he is a god whose arm is great” (in Block, 175).
To emphasize the connection between Pharaoh and his strong arm even further, Pharaoh Hophra was nicknamed “Strong-arm”. All this makes Yahweh’s pun on his name deliciously ironic:
Mortal, I have broken the arm of [Strong-arm] king of Egypt; it has not been bound up for healing or wrapped with a bandage, so that it may become strong to wield the sword” (v. 21, NRSV).
. . .
The “arm” of the king represented his strength. The “hand” was often spoken of in connection to the arm (metaphorically, and of course, physically). For this reason, Yahweh is often referred to anthropomorphically:
Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power—
your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
Exodus 15:6, NRSV
Terror and dread fell upon them;
by the might of your arm, they became still as stone.
Exodus 15:16, NRSV
Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:34, NRSV)
One of the chief characteristics of God in the Hebrew Bible is his strength—both to deliver his people and to judge. God flexes his muscle here.
Not only has Yahweh broken the Pharaoh’s arm, he will not allow for it to receive medical treatment. Not only has Yahweh broken the Pharaoh’s strong arm, he will break his other arm as well. Not only has Yahweh broken Pharaoh’s arms, he will offer his own sword (remember the sword song from Ezekiel 21?) to king Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon.
. . .
All this talk about God’s power, contrasted with the weakness of mortals reminds me of some words that an angel told another prophet some hundred years later:
“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts (Zechariah 4:6, NRSV).
We value human strength highly today—look at any sporting event! It’s incredibly difficult to switch our mindset from prizing human strength, to humbly accepting human weakness. But when it comes to Yahweh, we have no option. Look at the way he was able to toy with world politics in order to bring about divine justice! The military might of entire nations are infinitesimal when compared with the strong right arm of Yahweh.
. . .
Omnipotent God, keep reminding me that your strength can be most clearly shown through my weakness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.