One summer day years ago, as I was stitching on my Bernina at my kitchen table by the window against the backdrop of the wide prairie sky, my three-year-old son asked me,
“Mommy, did God ’chine the clouds?”
His words conjured up an image of the Creator working some great celestial sewing machine, surrounded by billowy white gauze that He gathered and shirred and tucked and tacked and hemmed as He filled the heavens with His handiwork.
My son had hit upon the fact of God’s creation as the first great “work of His hands” we read about in Scripture, and the phrase is used as well for the many doings of both God and mankind—for both good and evil (Ps. 8:3-6; Ps. 90:17; Deut. 28:12; Deut. 31:29). In fact, the word “hand” is used about 1,800 times in the Bible (KJV), two-thirds of them in a symbolic sense. For example, hands folded in slumber represent sloth (Prov. 24:33-34). Hands uplifted in prayer or full of blood or fashioning idols indicate one’s attitude towards God (1 Tim. 2:8; Isa. 1:15; Ps. 135:15). An open or closed hand signifies generosity or hardness of heart, while washing hands can be a declaration of innocence (Deut. 15:7-8; Ps. 26:6; Matt. 27:24). God’s right hand shows His power, protection, righteousness, and possession (Exod. 15:6; Ps. 17:7; Ps. 48:10; Ps. 16:8; Ps. 110:5).
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand (Isa. 41:10 NASB).
Figuratively, people are the work of the potter’s hand (Lam. 4:2; Jer. 18:1-7; Rom. 9:20-21). God’s mighty hand brought Israel out of Egypt—out of the enslaving hand of Pharaoh (Exod. 3:19-20; Exod. 7:4-5). God stretches out His hand in judgment as well as in redemption and restoration (Jer. 21:5; Ps. 81:14; Isa. 1:25; Ezek. 20:33-34). And every believer has surely felt His chastisement for unconfessed sin:
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer (Ps. 32:3-4).
But an overview of the physical hand as it appears throughout Scripture gives a framework for its anthropomorphic or anthropopathic application (that is, ascription of human physical or emotional attributes to God). Given the overwhelming number of occurrences of the hand image, my choice of examples in the following outline is admittedly subjective.
Who can forget that earliest of stories in which Adam and Eve, clutching forbidden fruit, were cast from the Garden to prevent their eating from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:6; Gen. 3:22-24)? Sin abounded but God’s grace prevailed as Cain’s hand dripped with the blood of his murdered brother, Noah’s hand welcomed the dove back into the ark, and Abraham’s hand was stayed from killing his own son (Gen. 4:11; Gen. 8:9; Gen. 22:9-12). Jacob, born holding onto the heel of his older twin brother Esau, later wore goat hair gloves to trick their blind father into blessing him instead of the rightful heir (Gen. 25:26; Gen. 27:15-16, 23). All that Joseph did prospered “in his hand” (NASB) until his master’s wife tore off his cloak as Joseph fled from her seduction; he was imprisoned until his political office was restored, when Pharaoh placed his royal signet ring on Joseph’s hand (Gen. 39:2; Gen. 39:11-12; Gen. 41:42).
Moses’ hands were full with freeing the Israelites from slavery as he wielded the staff of God to effect the plagues against Egypt—turning the country’s water into blood, summoning gnats and hail and locusts to devastate the land, bringing down pitch darkness upon the enemy, and parting the waters of the Red Sea in final victory (Exod. 4:2-5; Exod. 7:19; Exod. 9:22; Exod. 10:12; Exod. 10:22; Exod. 14:21). Moses obeyed God’s command to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff, bringing water to the thirsty wanderers; later he sinned by the same actions of his hands when he disobeyed God’s command in the Desert of Zin and suffered the penalty (Exod. 17:5-6; Num. 20:8-12). The stone tablets of the testimony, written by the finger of God on Mount Sinai, were carried down in the hands of Moses, who angrily broke them on the ground before Aaron’s hand-cast golden calf-idol (Exod. 32:2-4,15-19). Following the instructions given on the tablets, Moses oversaw the building and decorating of the Temple, accomplished by the hands of willing craftsmen and women—though Moses also warned the people not to think it was their hands that brought them prosperity (Exod. 35:10, 25-26; Deut. 8:17). One might think of the hand almost as a theme in Moses’ life.
So we begin to see the extent of God’s usage of the motif even in the first books of the Bible. As we continue to flip through the scriptural accounts, we remember Balaam as he beat his talking donkey that saw the angel with the drawn sword in hand, we recall Ehud the Benjaminite assassin who thrust his blade into the belly of the Moabite king, and we think about Jael hammering the tent peg through the sleeping enemy’s temple—examples representative of God’s using weapons in human hands to get His point across ([pun intended] Num. 22:22ff; Judg. 3:20-22; Judg. 4:21). With his bare hands Samson killed a lion and scraped out honey from its carcass, tied the tails of 300 foxes with torches to burn the enemies’ crops, killed 1,000 men with a donkey’s jawbone, and finally collapsed a whole house by manually pulling down two pillars and dying in the process—all used by God to release Israel from the hand of the Philistines (Judg. 14:6-9; 15:4; 16:29-30; 13:5). David’s hand that played the lyre to soothe mad King Saul also killed Goliath (1 Sam. 16:23; 17:49). Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal and proved God’s holiness when his prayers caused “a little cloud like a man’s hand” to arise from the sea and rain on their parade (1 Kings 18:44). The intrinsic sanctity of the Ark of the Covenant, improperly transported against the Law, was desecrated by Uzzah’s misplaced hand (1 Chron. 13:9-10).
Old Testament visions often included the image. A seraph with tongs held a burning coal to Isaiah’s “unclean lips” and declared his guilt forgiven (Isa. 6:4-7). Ezekiel’s four-fold creature sported human limbs, and an outstretched hand delivered to the prophet a scroll of woeful lamentation; in fact, the book of Ezekiel with its focus on the glory and character of the Lord contains dozens of references to this motif, commenting on judgment for corruption and disobedience, righteousness and purification of God’s people, and the restoration of Judah (Ezek. 1:8; 2:9-10; see also Ezek. 8:3; 10:2-7; 20:34; 23:37; 40:3). No one can forget Daniel and the handwriting on the wall or Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the block of stone, “not cut by human hands,” that smashed the feet of clay (Dan. 5:1-5; Dan. 2:31-35).
The OT comes to a close and the NT begins with a mention of this motif: a surveyor—possibly the Angel of the Lord—marked out the boundaries of Jerusalem with the measuring line in his hand (Zech. 2:1) and John prophesied the coming Messiah:
He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:11-12).
The hands of Jesus on earth showed salvation in action. He stretched out His right hand to heal—touching diseased skin and withered limbs and blind eyes, raising the dead to life (Matt. 8:3; 12:13; Mark 8:25; Matt. 9:18). He laid His hands in blessing on children and lifted Peter out of the tempestuous waves and dipped His hand into the dish alongside His betrayer, Judas (Matt. 19:13; 14:30-31; 26:23-25). Jesus’ hands were pierced for our transgressions, and into His Father’s hands He committed His spirit at death, after which He took His place at the right hand of the throne in Heaven (Isa. 53:5; John 20:20; Luke 23:46; Matt. 26:64).
During Christ’s earthly sojourn, we mortals touched God with our hands—He came in the flesh to bring us immortality (1 John 1:1; 2 Tim. 1:10). In a future time, an angel will carry a golden censer burning incense symbolic of the prayers of the saints ascending before God, and he will throw it onto the earth as the trumpet judgments begin to bring devastation to this world (Rev. 8:1-7). Clothed in robes made white in the blood of the Lamb, righteous martyrs holding branches and the harps of God will praise the Lord before His throne (Rev. 7:9-12; Rev. 15:2). Creator God—who laid the earth’s foundations and spread out the heavens and measured the waters in the hollow of His hand—hides us in the shadow of His hand (Isa. 48:13; Isa. 40:12; Isa. 51:16). His children are eternally safe in His palm (John 10:27-29). Someday King Jesus, the firstfruits from among the dead—who holds in His hand the seven stars and lampstands of the Church, the sealed scroll of judgment, and a sharp sickle to harvest the earth—will resurrect our bodies, as well, to everlasting life (Rev. 1:20; 5:1; 14:14-16; 1 Cor. 15:20; Mark 14:58-62):
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1).