The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (1)

As I am too busy to write much at present, I thought I would air this article from 2007.  Hope it helps some of you.


The whole subject of the Person of the Holy Spirit, and especially of His work, is one that is something of a mystery to many Christians. They know that the Spirit is and has always been the third Person of the Godhead, but when they come to think about the way He is revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures, often they find it quite difficult to cite passages that plainly deal with Him. Still more, many believers are unsure about the specific roles taken up by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and how one would elucidate the particulars of His working.

In the following study we shall try to explain the doctrine of the Spirit in the Old Testament by first giving attention to the main verses in which the Spirit’s activity is described. These can be separated into the categories of Creation, Redemption, Prophesying, Empowerment, etc. When we turn to prophets and prophesying we shall ask the question, “Did the OT prophets go into some kind of ecstatic trance-like state like the pagans, or was the Spirit’s influence on them outwardly less peculiar?” Lastly, we shall examine the question of the regeneration of Old Testament saints. Our specific inquiry will be to seek to understand whether the New Testament doctrine of regeneration can be predicated of Old Testament believers.

The Personality of the Spirit

As with the New Testament the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures to the personality of the Holy Spirit is quite minimal. In one sense this is readily explainable since the Trinity is not as frankly revealed in the Old Covenant as it is in the New. On the other hand, it would be strange if the Person of the Spirit were portrayed with more clarity before Christ than after.

Nevertheless, there is sufficient testimony to the Spirit as personal in a number of passages in the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 1:2 the “Spirit of God moved [brooded] upon the face of the waters,” a reference to an emotion such as only a person might feel – never, indeed, a force. Providing one takes ruach in the text to refer, not to a wind, but to a spirit, the translation of rahap is slimmed down to words like “was moving,” “hovered,” “brooded,” etc. Hamilton argues that the best way to interpret the meaning is to see it as a hovering over the darkness as if to keep the chaos in check. This would lead one to construe the ruach as superintending personal Spirit instead of an impersonal wind.

The prophet Isaiah contains a number of interesting references to the Spirit. One of them (Isa. 30:1) appears to associate God’s Spirit with His “mind” when it says, “Woe to the rebellious children. Who execute a plan, but not Mine, and make an alliance [i.e. protective web], but not of my Spirit, in order to add sin to sin.” The prophet inveighs against those people who hatch schemes that are out of sync with the mind of God, and who intend to transgress. If they had feared God they would have gone to Him for counsel and they would have sued Him for the protection of His Spirit. The connection seems to be that to seek God’s wisdom is to seek also His protection.

In Isaiah 40:13 the rhetorical question is asked, “Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, or as His counselor has informed Him?” (The thought continues in verse 14). The creation of the world is in view (Cf. v. 12), thus making the idea of the Spirit’s codependence with the creature deliberately absurd. In this context the personality of the Holy Spirit is impossible to ignore. This is further sustained by Paul’s use of the passage in his doxology at the end of Romans 11 (verse 34). When one adds to this the allegation in Isaiah 63:10 that the ones who came up out of Egypt at the time of the exodus “rebelled, and vexed His holy Spirit” it becomes a fairly uncomplicated thing to say that the Old Testament does represent the Spirit of God as a divine Person. In his comments on this passage Delitzsch sees the designation of the “Spirit of holiness” as personal “by the fact that He can be grieved, and therefore can feel grief (compare Eph. iv. 30…).” In fact, there is more here. Noticing the Trinitarian implications of the passage, Letham writes,

There is…a subtle series of ascriptions in Isaiah 63:8-14, where Israel’s checkered past is in view. Yahweh became their deliverer (v. 8), the angel of his presence rescued them (v. 9), he loved, pitied, and carried them (v. 9), but they grieved his holy Spirit, and so he fought against them (v. 10). Then he remembered that he had put his holy Spirit in their midst (v. 11), and so the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest (v. 14).

Among the hagiographa there is the well known reference in Psalm 139:7-10 where, among other things, David’s musings on the attributes of God relates His Spirit with His personal presence (v. 7). Then there are the two important mentions of the Spirit in Nehemiah 9. Nehemiah 9:30 states that the Spirit of God “testified” against the children of Israel but they would not hear. In this they were showing themselves to be ripe for chastisement (v.31) since, as verse 20 had already said concerning God’s provision, “Thou gavest also thy good Spirit to instruct them.” From its position in the narrative rehearsal of Israel’s history this is surely a reference to Numbers 11:17-30 where the Spirit of prophecy is given to seventy elders of Israel to assist him in guiding the people. It is difficult to imagine an inanimate spirit instructing anyone. Therefore, we feel justified in the inclusion of this verse among those that refer to the Holy Spirit as personal.

We may say in summary that the Old Testament is not lacking a few plain and clear passages from which we can obtain the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit. The verse are, for the most part, not such as might not be overlooked or wrongly translated without the New Testament witness, but, even so, passages like Isaiah 63:10 cannot be bypassed without doing injustice to the text of Scripture.

The Multiform Work of the Holy Spirit

The Old Testament is filled with information about the Spirit’s works. Although His activity is not mentioned with the regularity of the New Testament, there are a great variety of instances deserving our attention.

A. Creation

To no one’s surprise we shall start with Genesis 1:2, “And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved [or ‘hovered,’ ‘brooded’] upon the face of the waters.” As already stated above, here the Spirit is pictured as both watching over the amorphous matter of the universe and, if we have understood it aright, anticipating the spoken creative Word (Jn. 1:1-3; Heb. 1:2; Col. 1:16) that will organize a Cosmos, placing every facet into its perfect position and true relation to everything else. The Spirit “providentially superintended the waters that surrounded the earth until the triune God finalized the creative design in six days.”

In John 1:4-5 the apostle brings life and light into relation with each other in the Logos-Son. This combination of light and life is there for all to see in Genesis 1:3-4, 11. That the Holy Spirit is not to be excluded from the actual creative process is shown in Psalm 104:30 where one is told that, “You send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Modern scholarship wants to erase the Spirit from this verse by translating ruach as “breath.” Such a translation is not unnatural since God, the Subject, is “sending” it out. However, it is the ruach of God which is doing the creating – a predication better ascribed to a Person than a breath. Therefore, we think the conservative translations are correct in rendering the word as “Spirit” in this place. Here, of course, it is the Spirit regenerative power that is presented.

On a more individual level, we have Elihu’s challenge to Job in Job 33:4: “The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Elihu is saying of himself that he, like all men, is a creature of God, fashioned by His Spirit (cf. v.6). Since Job’s plaint against the LORD is the issue, it is quite in order for the younger man to remind Job that it is God who, by His Spirit, makes every man. Perhaps there is also in this a hint that because we are the Spirit’s work, we are by Him endued with a rational faculty that ought to be always in compliance with the will of our Creator.

B. Redemption (Particularly under the New Covenant)

When we come to the crucial subject of redemption we discover that all the references to do with the work of the Holy Spirit are forward looking (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 12:10), centering on the inception of the Messianic Kingdom. As a matter of fact, there is no single instance within the Old Testament record that shows that saints before Christ were spiritually renewed. This does not necessarily lead us to conclude that Old Testament believers were not regenerated, but we should proceed carefully. We do not want to run the risk of reading New Testament regeneration, with all its concomitants, back into the Old Testament situation. As this question will be the focus of more in-depth attention than we can give it here, we shall wait until the end of the paper to weigh the pros and cons of the matter in an effort to come to a possible solution. Our thoughts at this juncture are on the “Spirit-passages” which speak about the Millennium. Let us turn our attention to them one by one.

First, in Isaiah 32:15 there is the promise of a miraculous intervention by the Spirit upon both the people of Israel and upon their land. Chapter 32 is prophetic of the coming Messiah-King (v.1), and of the preceding desolations that must come (esp. vv. 9-14). Then come these words of hope: “Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field is considered as a forest.” (v. 15). What is this if it is not a prediction of the utter restoration of both people and land to God in a future day? Here, then, is an indication of the regenerative and rejuvenating power of the Spirit, as it will be experienced in the Kingdom (cf. Isa. 35:1-10; 65:8-10; Amos 9:13-15; Mic. 4:1-8).

This theme of the regeneration of the natural realm along with that of God’s people is seen in Joel 2:21-29 (cf. Rom. 8:19-23; Acts 3:19-21). There will come a day when there will be no more blight upon the land, and no more reproach upon Israel. Verses 28 and 29 make it plain that the spiritual renewal of the people will be by the Spirit. Can anyone argue that the fulfillment of the regeneration of the land is not achieved by the same divine Source?

Ezekiel supplies us with three particularly good passages on the ministry of the Spirit in the Millennium. In Ezekiel 36, after saying He will regather Israel (in unbelief! – v.24), and purify them (v.25), the Lord promises, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe my ordinances.” (vv.26-27). This is nothing less than a national conversion that is described (cf. Jn. 3:3-10; Rom. 11:26-27). Then, in Chapter 37:13-14 Ezekiel prophesies:

Thus says the LORD God, ‘Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it’, declares the LORD.

The passage is similar to the one in the previous chapter that we have quoted above, but here the focus is the physical resurrection of Israelites and then their regeneration by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s power is necessary to make the people obey God’s ordinances. That this is both a Millennial and a New Covenant promise is seen in verses 24-28. The third passage in Ezekiel 39:29 is a compliment to the other two. The Lord promises, “I will not hide My face from them any longer, for I will have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel.” The outpouring of the Spirit means that God can dwell in the midst of His people forever. “All Israel’s covenants would be fulfilled. She would live secure forever under the peace covenant administered by her king, the Messiah!”

The final Old Testament passage that speaks of the Spirit’s redemptive ministry is found in the post-exilic prophecy of Zechariah. This text supplies an important, hitherto missing ingredient in the chronology of the institution of the Kingdom – and that is, repentance. After predicting the deliverance of Jerusalem in the End Times, the prophet continues by saying:

And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn. In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem, as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the valley of Meggiddon. And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart. – (Zechariah 12:10-13).

Before the glad day of the restitution of the elect of Israel takes place, there has to be national mourning for the rejection of the Messiah by the nation as a whole. Notice that the prophet distinguishes between the Royal house or family: the house of David (v.12), a prophetic family: the house of Nathan (v.12), the priestly family: the house of Levi (v.13), and, interestingly, the family (but not the “house”!) of Shimei: a rebel family (v.13). That these are expressly stipulated confirms to us at least that the one who causes this repentance is none other than “the Spirit of grace and of supplications” in verse 10, who is being poured forth. Gromacki comments: “This outpouring of the Holy Spirit will be on the nation of Israel only. It will result in national mourning and repentance, for it will cause them to see the crucified, resurrected, and returning Christ. It will lead to the conversion of Israel, thus preparing the nation for entering the messianic kingdom.”

What this means is that the Spirit of conversion is first the Spirit of conviction. On the singular title given to the Spirit in this place Unger writes:

The Spirit of grace is God’s covenant favor and promised graciousness toward His people Israel in the day they turn to their Messiah and have their sin and unbelief removed…The Spirit of grace (hen), moreover, produces supplication (tahanumim, from the same root hanan),…The Lord’s gracious movement toward His repentant people in that day will eventuate in their gracious movement toward Him in supplicating prayer.

In sum we can see that the work of the Holy Spirit in redemption is insolubly connected with the eschatological New Covenant.

C. Prophesying

Next we come to the role of the Holy Spirit in the prophetic office. The first mentions of the Spirit’s work in relation to prophecy are to do with Saul (1 Samuel 10 & 19). These will be dealt with later in due course. We may say by way of introduction, that all true prophecy is by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:13; 2 Pet. 1:21). It is also helpful to notice that in contradistinction to the ideas of some more Liberal scholarship, the relation of prophetism to the Old Testament Levitical priesthood was one of both compliment and contrast. The priests were to instruct the people in the ways of their God. The prophets would issue exhortations based upon that instruction, although, that said, it must be qualified by the fact that often the prophets spoke when the priests had failed in their instructional tasks (e.g. 1 Sam. 3:1,19; Isa. 1:2-20; Mal. 2:7-9). But in contrast to the priestly office, the prophet would often preach judgment, in addition to predicting both short-term and longer-term events. Hence the true prophet acted as the nation’s conscience, often falling foul of the people in the process (e.g. Jer. 36-38; Ezek. 33:30-33).

Our purpose is not to define the prophetic task as much as to enquire into the role of the Spirit in the ministry of the Old Testament prophet. The ministry of the Spirit is particularly evident in the Book of Ezekiel. In some places the Spirit is said to lift the prophet up from a prostrate position to that of standing upright (Ezek. 2:2; 3:24), while in others the prophet is transported from one geographical location to another (Ezek. 3:14; 8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1. Cf. 1 Kings 18:12; Acts 8:39). Perhaps Ezekiel just saw these places as in a vision (11:24), though in some sense, whether physically or not, he really seems to have been taken from one place to another. These are unusual incidents to be sure. More typical is the coming of the Spirit “upon” a prophet. Striking expressions of this are to be found in such Scriptures as these:

“Then the Spirit of the LORD fell upon me, and said unto me, Speak! Thus says the LORD…”“ – (Ezekiel 11:5).

“The Spirit of God spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue.” – David in 2 Samuel 23:2.

“Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah…in the midst of the assembly, and he said…” – (2 Chronicles 20:14-15).

Notice that there is a vital connection between the Spirit coming upon a person and them speaking forth God’s words (cf. Exod. 7:1-2; 44:26; Jer. 1:7; Amos 3:8; Hag. 1:13). The Amos passage is of particular note:

“Surely the LORD does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets…The LORD God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” – (Amos 3:7-8).

We might include Amos’s words later on in his book:

“I was no prophet, nor was I the son of a prophet, but I was a sheepbreeder, and a tender of sycamore fruit. Then the LORD took me as I followed the flock, And the LORD said unto me, Go, prophesy to My people Israel. Now therefore, hear the word of the LORD…” – (Amos 7:15-16).

On the basis of what has already been said we feel justified in saying that it is God the Holy Spirit who both calls and who reveals His mind to His prophets. When God speaks through a prophet, it is by the Spirit that He speaks. Another good illustration of this is found in the prophecy of Micah. Micah makes bold to claim that the reason he can speak against the false prophets is that he is “filled with power by the Spirit of the LORD…to declare to Jacob his transgression…” (Mic. 3:8).

These passages (i.e. Amos 7:15-16 & Micah 3:8) introduce the subject of false prophets and what was the distinguishing feature between God’s true men and those fraudulent Seers who opposed them. Leon Wood, who has a helpful section on the subject, writes that:

[T]rue prophets were those who received their messages from God, while the false prophets did not. The false were those who would say, ‘Thus saith the LORD God, when the LORD had not spoken’ (Ezek. 22:28)…The issue is not whether a prophet only thought he heard from God,…but whether he really did have a communication from heaven. True prophets had such communication and therefore had a message of divine origin and authenticity; false prophets did not have this. They may have thought they did and claimed to have it, but actually they did not. They were those who ‘followed their own spirit’ and had seen ‘nothing’ (Ezek. 13:3).

The Scripture cited in the above quotation is noteworthy because it sets forth the contrast between the prophet who has heard from God and the false prophet who has invented a lie in his own spirit. We witness Ezekiel blasting the false prophets with: “Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing.” – (Ezek. 13:3). The clear inference is that the Holy Spirit is not given them. That the Spirit’s attendant power was necessary for true prophesying is shown by the false prophet Zedekiah’s remark to Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:24 where the audacious fakir sarcastically baits the man of God by asking him, “Which way went the Spirit of God from me over to you?” (cf. Jer. 28:1-17).

Much more could be said about the Spirit’s relation to Old Testament prophets and prophecy, but there are other questions we need to explore. Several fine evangelical treatments of this subject are available to anyone interested in further study.

Part Two

5 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (1)”

  1. I’d really like this part of the article but it seems missing.

    >>Lastly, we shall examine the question of the regeneration of Old Testament saints. Our specific inquiry will be to seek to understand whether the New Testament doctrine of regeneration can be predicated of Old Testament believers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s