10 Things You Should Know about the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
Many are under the false impression that the Holy Spirit is absent from the Old Testament. These ten things will serve to correct this misunderstanding.
(1) The Hebrew term ruach = breath, wind, spirit, appears @ 377 times in the OT (only 264 of which are translated by the Greek pneuma in the LXX). 94 of these 377 instances refer to the Spirit of God. No significance should be placed on the fact that ruach is feminine. Says Anthony Thiselton: “It is an accident of convention that ‘spirit’ (ruach) in Hebrew is feminine, and ‘spirit’ (pneuma) in Greek is neuter. It does not suggest that Greeks viewed children as sub-personal merely because teknon, ‘child,’ is neuter” (121). God’s Spirit is called “your Holy Spirit” three times in the OT (Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10-11).
(2) The Spirit of God is described in several texts as God’s creative power. This does not mean the Spirit isn’t also a person, but his primary task is that of giving expression to God’s power. In several texts the Spirit is responsible for creation and the eschatological renewal of the earth:
“When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30; cf. Gen. 1:2)
“For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest” (Isaiah 32:14-15).
“Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name” (Isaiah 63:11-14).
“The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4).
(3) The Spirit is also responsible for the empowering and equipping of civil leaders among the people of Israel.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).
In Judges, with the exception of Abimelech, at least seven judges receive the enabling of the Spirit to perform ministries on behalf of the whole community of Israel.
“The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel” (Judges 3:10; see also 6:34).
“The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim” (Judges 3:10).
“But the Spirit of the Lord clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him” (Judges 6:34).
(4) We also see military commanders, such as Joshua, being empowered and enabled by the Spirit.
“So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him’” (Num. 27:18).
We see this especially in the case of Samson:
“Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done” (Judges 14:5-6).
“When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him. Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. And he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men” (Judges 15:14-15).
“And she said, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ And he awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the LORD had left him” [which is to say, the Spirit of the Lord had left him] (Judges 16:20).
(5) Kings in Israel were anointed with the Spirit to enable them to fulfill their calling. Of Saul, we read the following:
“Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, ‘Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage. When you depart from me today, you will meet two men by Rachel's tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah, and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys that you went to seek are found, and now your father has ceased to care about the donkeys and is anxious about you, saying, “What shall I do about my son?”’ Then you shall go on from there farther and come to the oak of Tabor. Three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you there, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine. And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall accept from their hand. After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines. And there, as soon as you come to the city, you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre before them, prophesying. Then the Spirit of the LORD will rush upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. Now when these signs meet you, do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you. Then go down before me to Gilgal. And behold, I am coming down to you to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice peace offerings. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do.’ When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them” (1 Samuel 10:1-10).
“Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him” (1 Samuel 16:14).
Similarly, we read this regarding David:
“And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, ‘Arise, anoint him, for this is he.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah” (1 Samuel 16:12-13).
(6) The Spirit empowered/enabled unique skills for the sake of the people of Israel.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze . . .” (Exod. 31:1-4).
(7) The Spirit was also responsible for prophetic ministry in the Old Testament.
“So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!’ And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp” (Numbers 11:24-30).
“Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, the son of Jesse, the oracle of the man who was raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel: ‘The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue’” (2 Samuel 23:1-2).
“Then the Spirit clothed Amasai, chief of the thirty, and he said, ‘We are yours, O David, and with you, O son of Jesse! Peace, peace to you, and peace to your helpers! For your God helps you.’ Then David received them and made them officers of his troops” (1 Chronicles 12:18; see 2 Chron. 15:1-2; 20:14).
“But as for me, 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).
(8) In numerous texts the Spirit of God is responsible for the future salvation and renewal of God’s people. The presence and power of the Spirit will characterize the ministry of the Messiah and will be central in the fulfillment of the new and eternal covenant.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:1-2).
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).
“And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 59:21).
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19; cf. 18:31).
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27; see 37:14).
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).
(9) We should also consider what David had in mind in Psalm 51:11 when he prayed: “take not your Holy Spirit from me.” This does not mean he envisions the loss of salvation or the withdrawal of divine grace. As we have noted above, aside from the saving activity of the Holy Spirit in the OT and the empowering ministry by which believers are sanctified and enabled to live holy lives, the Holy Spirit was poured out on select individuals to equip them to perform important tasks in the covenant community of Israel.
There was, therefore, a ministry of the Holy Spirit in the OT, unrelated to personal salvation or character, designed solely to empower, enable and equip someone for a task to which God had appointed him/her. Such, I believe, is what David has in mind in Psalm 51:11. His prayer is that God would not withdraw the enabling anointing of the Spirit that empowers and equips him to lead Israel as King. Indeed, he may well have had in mind that disturbing scene where “the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul” (1 Sam. 16:14) and prays that such would never befall him.
(10) If anyone should doubt whether the Spirit is divine, in a number of texts the Spirit is in synonymous parallelism with God:
“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11).
“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:29-30).
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).
“Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the LORD. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the LORD. Work, for I am with you, declares the LORD of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not” (Haggai 2:4-5).