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The work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Through the centuries of history recorded in the Old Testament, we can see a progressive development of understanding of the identity and work of God’s Spirit. This revelation leaves room for the fuller doctrine of the Trinity that would be revealed in the N.T., where the Spirit continues to perform the same activity and work as found in the O.T.

The Hebrew word for spirit

The Hebrew word for spirit, “ruach” is used nearly four hundred times in the O.T. It has a variety of meanings, which have a large measure of overlap. Sometimes the meaning can be determined with reasonable certainty by the context of the passage, but in other places the meaning is not so distinct.

(i) Wind
Over a quarter of the uses of “ruach” is to describe the wind, the powerful but invisible physical force of moving air. After the flood, God made a wind blow and the waters subsided (Gen 8:1). Also, during the plagues of Egypt, God sent the east wind which brought the locusts and the west wind removed them (Ex 10:13,19). Often it describes a strong, or even violent and frightening wind. God sent a strong east wind that divided the Red Sea (Ex 14:21), and Elijah witnessed the strong wind that broke rocks on Sinai (1 Kg 19:11). The Psalmist speaks about escaping from the raging wind (Ps 55:8). In many of these passages, the wind is described as coming from God, or being sent by God, so it can be understood as more than merely a physical wind. Jesus also drew a parallel between the wind and those born of the Spirit when he spoke to Nicodemus (Jn 3:8), as the Greek word for spirit, “pneuma”, also has a similar breadth of meanings.

(ii) Breath
Sometimes ruach describes the smaller quantity of moving air from human nostrils, or poetically, from God’s nostrils, like “the blast of the breath of God’s nostrils” (2 Sam 22:16), or “the breath of God’s mouth” (Ps 33:6). This can overlap with the following meaning, the breath of life.

(iii) Human life.
The spirit, meaning human or animal life. God sent the flood to destroy everything with the breath (ruach) of life (Gen 6:17). The Psalmist speaks of committing his spirit into the hands of God (Ps 31:5), thereby entrusting his life to God. Jesus quoted these words as his last words on the cross, when he gave up his life (Lk 23:46). Jeremiah stated that idols have no breath (ruach) in them (Jer 10:14). They have no life, especially when compared with the living God.

This spirit can be troubled, like Pharaoh after his dream (Gen 41:8), jealous (Num 5:14), angry (Ju 8:3), sullen (1 Kg 21:5), or stirred by God (1 Chr 5:26). In these cases, “ruach” is being used to describe an emotional response in a person.

(iv) The divine Spirit
In the O.T., this is often described as the Spirit of the LORD. In the N.T., he is the personal third member of the Trinity, together with the Father and the Son, Jesus.

Determining the meaning of “ruach”

In most cases it is not difficult to determine the intended meaning of ruach, whether it describes the wind, the human spirit or God’s Spirit. However, in some passages, the exact meaning can be debated. For example, in the creation account, the more familiar translation is of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2), as in the KJV or NIV. But some versions translate ruach as the wind of God (NRSV, NEB), which seems to reduce the supernatural aspect of the creation account.

In the earlier books of the O.T. revelation, little or no distinction is made between the divine and human spirit. Job states that as long as the spirit of God is in his nostrils he will not speak lies (Job 27:3), a poetic way of saying that while he was still alive he will speak the truth.

Ezekiel may have intentionally used all three meanings using a clever play on words in his vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:1-14) . So the “ruach” was the Spirit of God who carried Ezekiel into the valley of dry bones (v1), and who will revive the house of Israel (v14). But it is also the breath that will enter the bones and give them life (v5, 10), as well as the four winds from where the breath will come from (v9).

The development in understanding of “ruach” through the O.T.

The doctrine and teaching of the Holy Spirit shows clearly the progressive nature of revelation through the Old Testament. In the early centuries, the Spirit was mostly seen as the power of God working in his creation and through his people. For example, the artistic and technical skills of Bezalel who made the tabernacle furnishings was described as him being “filled with the divine spirit” (Ex 31:3). This was because all wisdom and skill was understood to come from God. As the revelation through the O.T. progressed, God’s Spirit was described as being holy and having moral and even personal qualities.

When Ezra looked back over Israel’s history from the perspective of the return from exile, he referred twice to the working of the spirit of God. He stated that God gave his good spirit to instruct them in the wilderness (Neh 9:20), and that God had warned them by his spirit through his prophets (9:30). In the original account in the Pentateuch, there is no mention that the Spirit instructed the people. Normally it was Moses who instructed the people with the words that God had spoken to him (eg. Lev 18:1-2). This teaching role of the Spirit was not understood at the time. That revelation came later. This is similar to the role of the Spirit in the N.T. to teach and remind us of what Jesus said (John 14:26).

The limited use of the term “Holy Spirit”

It is surprising that only three times in O.T., is the Spirit called the “Holy Spirit” (Ps 51:11, Is 63:10-11), whereas in the N.T. this is the normal title of the Spirit. In each of the occurrences in the O.T., the word “holy” is probably being used as an adjective, rather than as part of the formal title, as is characteristic of the N.T.. As the context of both passages is sin and rebellion, its use is likely to be intentional, showing that the holiness of God is offended by such sin.

Isaiah describes rebellion against God as grieving God’s holy Spirit (Is 63:10). The implication here is that Spirit is a personality who can be distressed and hurt by human behaviour. Paul uses similar language to warn his readers not to grieve the Holy Spirit through their ungodly talk and behaviour which was damaging the unity of the body of Christ (Eph 4:30). Isaiah also describes God as the one who put his holy spirit within his people, particularly Moses and the leaders of Israel (63:11). He then describes the work of the spirit in guiding his people through the Red Sea, and providing for them in the wilderness (63:12). This passage is probably the one coming closest to the New Testament teaching on the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.

After his sin with Bathsheba, David prays that God will not take his holy spirit from him (Ps 51:11). Again, the description of the spirit as being “holy” should be seen in contrast to the serious transgression David had committed.

The Spirit’s work in creation

One important work of the Spirit in the O.T. was in creation (Gen 1:2). God’s spirit was active in the creation and in the sustaining of physical life. Elihu stated that if God should take back his Spirit then all flesh would perish and return to dust (Job 34:14-15). Without God’s spirit, there would be no life at all. The N.T. reveals that Jesus was also involved in creation (Col 1:16, Heb 1:2, Jn 1:3).

The picture in Genesis is of the Spirit of God hovering over the water (Gen 1:2), probably imparting God’s energy, order and design into the empty and formless world. This would indicate that Spirit did not create the world out of nothing, but worked with what the Son had already created, bringing order out of chaos and life from non-living matter. The creative role of the Spirit is also stated elsewhere in the O.T: The Psalmist states that “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath (ruach) of his mouth” (Ps 33:6).

The Spirit was particularly involved in the creation of mankind. After God formed Adam out of dust, he breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living soul (Gen 2:7). Elihu said the same, “The spirit of God had made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). When put together, the revelation is of all three persons of the Trinity being directly involved in the creation of the world and especially of mankind in God’s image.

The Spirit enabling people for God’s service

One of the first people described as being empowered by the Spirit of God was Bezalel, son of Uri. He was filled with the divine spirit, skill and intelligence to work with gold and silver, and to devise artistic designs (Ex 31:3, 35:30-31). Together with Ohiliab son of Ahisamach, he constructed the ark of the covenant and other furnishings of the tabernacle. This is the first example of the Spirit of God giving people particular gifts or skills. In a similar way, God continues to equip his people for service with the gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament (1 Cor 12:4ff).

Leaders empowered by the Spirit

In many instances, God empowered the leaders and administrators of Israel with his Spirit. The judges were empowered by God’s Spirit to lead Israel into war to deliver them from their enemies, such as Othniel (Ju 3:10), and Gideon (Ju 6:34). The later judges lacked the moral character of the earlier judges, but were still empowered by the Spirit: Jephthah (Ju 11:29) and Samson (Ju 13:25, 14:6,19, 15:14). The spirit gave Samson great strength to fight Philistines, rather than him exhibiting any positive moral character or leadership qualities. The spirit of the LORD came mightily on David after he was anointed with oil by Samuel (1 Sam 16:13).

Sometimes the empowering of certain leaders by the Spirit is implied, rather than stated explicitly. For example, there is no mention of the Spirit initially coming upon Moses, but he was certainly empowered by the Spirit (Num 11:25). Solomon was given great wisdom by the Lord (1 Kg 3:12), but there is no explicit reference to him being empowered by the Spirit.

Was the Spirit transmitted by laying on of hands?

Joshua was described as being “full of the spirit of wisdom” because Moses had laid his hands on him (Deut 34:9). At first sight this would imply that Joshua had received the Spirit through the laying on of the hands of Moses. However Joshua is described as “a man in whom is the spirit” before Moses laid his hand upon him (Num 27:18).

In the N.T. the seven appointed to wait at tables were stood before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands upon them (Acts 6:6). However they were all already full of the Spirit and widsom (v3) so in this case the laying on of hands was for setting apart for special duty, rather than for reception of the Spirit. Later, Paul refers to the occasion when he had laid hands on Timothy for the reception of a special gifting and enabling from God (2 Tim 1:6). However, on other occasions, people did receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands by the apostles (Acts 8:17-19, 9:17, 19:6).

In both the O.T. and N.T. there appears to be a common pattern. All God’s people have the Spirit living within them, but there is a special endowment of the Spirit to fulfil a calling for service to God.

Were believers in the O.T. indwelt by the Spirit?

One area of debate is whether people in the O.T. were indwelt by the Spirit in the same way as N.T. believers are filled with the Spirit (eg: Eph 5:18, Acts 2:4). Some scholars have claimed that they were not, based on the statement Jesus made (Jn 14:17), making a distinction between the Spirit abiding with you and that he will be in you, after Pentecost . However the O.T. does describe people being full of the Spirit (Ex 31:3, Deut 34:9), and the Spirit entering into them (Ezek 2:2). In the passage in Isaiah noted above, God put his holy spirit within Moses (63:11), which would also confirm that people in O.T. times could be indwelt by the spirit.

It is likely that most if not all the references to the Spirit in the O.T. refer to empowerment for special service for God, rather than to regeneration and their individual spiritual salvation . He suggests that the O.T. does not directly describe the work of the Spirit in this way, but the changed lives, upright moral behaviour, and courageous acts of faith would indicate that the O.T. believers were certainly spiritually renewed, and regenerated as true children of God .

Of the thirty-six references to God’s spirit, the preposition most frequently used is “coming upon” people (twenty-five times) . In the period of the judges and early monarchy, the result of the spirit coming upon a person was normally prophesying or some mighty deed. This again would suggest that the Spirit came upon them to empower them for ministry, whether to prophesy, to lead the nation into battle, or to administer the nation.

Was the presence of the Spirit temporary or permanent?

The popular understanding of the Spirit in the O.T. is often that the Spirit came upon people to empower them, and then left them. However this contradicts the clear revelation in the N.T. where indwelling by the Spirit is permanent and that no one can belong to God without having the spirit (Rom 8:9, 14). If this understanding was true, then the normally unforeseen implication is that people in the O.T. could be saved and then lost, (even a number of times in their lives), which would contradict the Biblical teaching of election and security. It should be noted in this context, that although the O.T. describes the Spirit “coming upon” a number of different people, it is only Saul who had the experience of the Spirit leaving him and being replaced by an evil spirit (1 Sam 16:14).

The question then is whether the description of the Spirit coming upon people is connected in any way with their regeneration and salvation. The popular assumption described above would imply that it is, because of the contrast made with the N.T. However, it is crucial to make a distinction between the renewal of the spirit leading to regeneration and the empowering by the spirit for ministry and service to God. In the O.T., the empowering could be taken away, as happened with Saul (1 Sam 16:14) and as David feared it could be (Ps 51:11).

What happened at Pentecost?

The conclusion so far is that believers in the O.T. had a similar experience of the Spirit that N.T. believers do. They were indwelt by the spirit, they were spiritually renewed and regenerate, and experienced the empowering by the Spirit. They were regenerated, indwelt, sealed, filled and empowered by the Spirit. The question then arises of what difference did the Day of Pentecost make, and what differences are there in the N.T. experience of the Spirit?

Joel predicted a time when the Spirit would be poured out (Joel 2:28ff), which Peter claimed was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17ff). Joel’s prediction was particularly that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, so that all groups of people will prophesy, see visions and dream dreams (Joel 2:28b-29). In the O.T., only selected individuals, mostly leaders within the nation of Israel, experienced the Spirit. After Pentecost, there is much wider distribution of the Spirit, so that anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, can become regenerate and be empowered by the Spirit to serve God.

Another difference is that the O.T. never speaks about baptism by the Spirit. The Day of Pentecost marked the birth of the church, the body of Christ. The Spirit came upon the believers in order to establish the church and to baptise them into the new body of believers. This gives the believer power to witness (Acts 1:8), as well as bringing them into a spiritual relationship with the world-wide church, uniting them into the body of believers with a common sense of purpose, without barriers of nationality, culture or status. Paul stated that in the Spirit we were all baptised into one body and all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13).

The question of Saul

One of the more difficult issues concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in the O.T. is trying to understand what happened to Saul, the first king of Israel. After he anointed Saul, Samuel predicted that “the spirit will possess you, you will be in a prophetic frenzy and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam10:6). God gave him a new heart (10:9), and Samuel’s prediction came to pass (10:10). Saul joined the band of prophets and began to prophesy, which was a sign to the people that God’s spirit had come upon him (10:12).

This can either be understood as describing Saul becoming regenerate and becoming a new creation (as 2 Cor 5:17), or as the spirit coming upon him to empower him for service as king. If he became regenerate at this time, then he would have lost his salvation when the spirit left him following his disobedience (16:14). It is more likely that the spirit came upon him, changing him from an insecure shy person into a brave warrior who won a great victory against the Ammonites (11:6), equipping him to lead his army into battle against the Philistines, and to rule them as their king. After his disobedience and rejection, the empowering ended, and was replaced by an evil spirit. The quality of his rule deteriorated rapidly, so that he failed to rule the people or fight the Philistines effectively, but instead spent much of his efforts pursuing David, who he perceived as a threat to his rule.

After Nathan had pointed out David’s guilt in committing adultery with Bathsheba, he composed Psalm 51. In this Psalm, he asked God not to take his holy spirit away from him (v11). He evidently feared the same would happen to him as had previously happened to Saul, that God would take his spirit away and send an evil spirit . Again this should be understood as his anointing and empowering for being king, rather than his personal salvation. He also asked God to “restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v12). It would be wrong to imply that David had lost his salvation and become unregenerate because of his sin, as this would make salvation dependent on good works. But David would have felt deep guilt at his sin, and would not be experiencing much joy, so he prayed that God would forgive his sin, after which he could genuinely rejoice in his salvation, and in the grace of God.

Strange manifestations of the Spirit

Particularly in the account of Saul, some unusual manifestations of the Spirit are described. One of the more unusual is when Saul sent messengers to arrest David, but they fell into a prophetic frenzy when the Spirit came upon them (1 Sam 19:20). Then Saul himself also fell into a prophetic frenzy, stripped off his clothes and lay naked all night (19:24). Because of this people asked whether Saul is also among the prophets, appearing to make it sound that this was the normal behaviour of people who were effected by God’s Spirit. The spirit overwhelmed Saul and his messengers, humiliating them, showing that David was God’s anointed ruler of the nation, and protecting David from them.

Many scholars have claimed that Israel’s prophets were ecstatics, using techniques copied from the Canaanites. This would imply that the prophet lost control of themselves and of what they were saying, and had to enter some sort of trance to receive a message from the gods. In contrast to this, Paul states that the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet (1 Cor 14:32), so that everything is done in order.

One question is over the nature of the prophesying being described. It is unlikely that Saul and others were bringing a message from God in passages where he “fell into a prophetic frenzy” (1 Sam 10:10). One possibility is that the word means “praising”, as when David appointed people whose role was to prophesy with music in giving thanks and praise to God (1 Chr 25:3). So when Saul was overcome by the spirit of God, and began to prophesy, his attitude was changed by the spirit from anger into praise, so that David’s life would be preserved.

The Spirit inspiring the prophets

The characteristic introduction to the words of the prophets is “Thus says the LORD ...”. Each prophet knew that he was called by God to speak the words of God (eg. Jer 1:9, Amos 3:7-8). It is surprising that pre-exilic prophets rarely claimed that they were inspired by the spirit of God. The empowering or inspiration by the spirit is not mentioned by Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum or Habakkuk. The single exception is Micah, who claimed: I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. (Micah 3:8). Also, the general public appeared to associate the prophets with the Spirit of God, as they thought that Hosea, “the man of the Spirit” was mad (Hos 9:7). Elisha recognised Elijah’s empowering by the spirit, when he asked for a double portion of the spirit (2 Kg 2:9). Looking back from a New Testament perspective, Peter understood that the prophets were indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21).

During the exile, the prophet Ezekiel was aware that he spoke through the Spirit. He frequently introduced his words with phrases such as, “The spirit of the LORD fell upon me, and said to me, “Say, Thus says the LORD ...” (Ezek 11:5). He was given visions through the Spirit, and even transported to the temple in Jerusalem by the spirit (11:1,24).

By post-exilic times, the understanding of the spirit had developed, so the earlier prophets were now understood to have been inspired by God’s spirit. Zechariah stated that the people had not listened to the words he had sent by his spirit through his prophets (Zech 7:12), Ezra later said this in similar words (Neh 9:30). In both these passages, the spirit is understood to be the mediator of God’s word to the prophets, who in turn are also mediators between God and mankind.

This understanding of the inspirational role of the spirit in prophecy continued into the N.T. By the Spirit, Agabus predicted a severe famine (Acts 11:28), as well as the arrest and captivity of Paul (21:10). In his second prediction, he followed the practices of many of the O.T. prophets by enacting his prediction and tying up Paul with his belt. Both of his predictions soon came to pass, showing that Agabus was a true prophet (Deut 18:22), genuinely inspired by God’s Spirit. Paul later gave a more detailed teaching on the gift of prophecy, saying that it was a superior gift (1 Cor 14:1-5). Philip the evangelist had four daughters who also had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9), although we are not given any examples of them using this gift.

The spirit of God even came upon the controversial figure of Balaam (Num 24:2), the Mesopotamian prophet who was employed by Balak to curse Israel. However, the spirit of God prevented him doing that, and instead he uttered blessings, including a Messianic prediction of the star coming out of Jacob (24:17).

The Messiah anointed by the Spirit

In several places, the O.T. predicts that the Messiah will be anointed and full of the Spirit. Isaiah predicted that the spirit of the Lord will rest upon the shoot which will spring from the stump of Jesse (Is 11:2). God will put his spirit upon his servant (Is 42:1), and the spirit of the Lord God is upon the one who will bring good news to the oppressed (Is 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Lk 4:18). Isaiah predicted that through the Spirit God’s servant the Messiah will speak God’s word, and bring justice and righteousness to the earth. Luke confirms this when he describes Jesus returning to Galilee from the temptations in the wilderness filled with the power of the Spirit to teach God’s word (Lk 4:14).

Eschatological pouring out of Spirit

The prophets also looked forward to a general outpouring of the spirit in the last days. Moses also wished for this day, when all of God’s people would be prophets, and the Lord would put his spirit on them (Num 11:29). Isaiah predicted that God would pour his spirit on Israel’s descendants (Is 44:3). Ezekiel looked forward to the day that God would give his people a new heart, and put a new spirit within them (Ezek 36:27), in addition to the well-known passage in Joel, which Peter understood to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Joel 2:28).

Conclusion

Although the O.T. does not give so great a revelation of the person and work of the Spirit as is found in the N.T., it is clear that God’s spirit was at work empowering his people for service to God. It appears that the believers in the O.T. were indwelt by God’s spirit and became regenerate in the same way as N.T. believers. However after the Day of Pentecost the Spirit was experienced by a far wider range of people than in O.T. times, when it was restricted to certain individuals, particularly leaders. When the spirit was taken away, the person did not lose their salvation, but, like Saul, lost their anointing and empowering for ministry.

Bibliography
Ashley, T.R. The Book of Numbers. New International Commentary on the O.T. (NICOT). Eerdmans 1993.
Baldwin, J.G. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP 1972.
Bruce, F.F. The Book of the Acts. New International Commentary on the N.T. (NICNT). Eerdmans 1988.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians. New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Eerdmans 1984.
Cole, A. Exodus, An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (TOTC). IVP 1973.
Dunn, J.G.D. Spirit, Holy Spirit, in Illustrated Bible Dictionary. IVP 1980.
Kidner, D. Psalms 1-72, An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP 1973.
Oswalt, J.N. The Book of Isaiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT). Volumes 1 & 2. Eerdmans 1998.
Taylor, J.B. Ezekiel. An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP 1969.
Wood, L.J. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Wipf and Stock 1998.


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