The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (2)

Were The Old Testament Prophets “Ecstatics”?

There is one more topic that should be addressed before moving on. The topic concerns the matter of whether or not the early Old Testament prophets ever lapsed into an ecstatic frenzy or trance-state when the Holy Spirit overcame them. From studies that have been done on prophets and seers in other ancient cultures we know that part of the seer’s routine was to go into a trance or stupor, in which he or she would then “prophesy,” that is to say, “act like a prophet.”

Old Testament critics stress that the prophets of Israel were ecstatics, as were the prophets of Canaan and those throughout the Near East. The ecstatic behavior of the prophets of Baal, who in frenzied dances cut and mutilated themselves on Mount Carmel, as well as the peculiar conduct of Saul, who stripped himself naked as he prophesied, and the unusual behavior of Balaam are usually cited as evidence of the characteristic abnormal behavior of the prophets of Israel when prophesying under the influence of the Spirit.

Or, again, Freeman states:

The idea and pursuit of ecstaticism is believed to have originated in Asia Minor. It is thought to have moved from there westward into Greece and eastward into Syria and Palestine toward the end of the second millennium B.C. Thus the Canaanites came to accept the practice, and the thinking is that Israel became influenced by them.

That said, what is one to make of the verses cited above by Freeman? Is it any surprise that even at some evangelical seminaries, this view that the early Hebrew prophets were also ecstatics is propounded?

Without going into the subject in detail, we shall briefly examine the examples Freeman has the critics make, but, let it be noticed; only the case of Saul is important to us. We shall then add a few remarks of our own.

We are quite ready to accept that both the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, and the false seer Balaam in the book of Numbers did indeed go into some kind of frenzy in the midst of their soothsayings. In Balaam’s case, although it is true that he spoke the words God wanted him to speak (e.g. Num. 24:13), there is no mention of the activity of the Spirit insofar as his prophesying is concerned. It is true that Balaam heard the voice of God (Num. 22:12, 20), and saw the Angel of the LORD (Num. 22:31-36), but it is clear that he was not a willing party in the blessing he heaped upon the children of Israel. We believe, therefore, that in his case we have an instance of God turning a man’s wicked devices against him.

The incidents in the life of Saul are a different matter. In 1 Samuel 10:5-6 Samuel tells Saul:

After that you shall come to the hill of God where the garrison of the Philistines is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city [i.e. Gibeah], that you will meet a company of the prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying. Then the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man.

This, as the narrative carries on to say, is exactly what occurred (see vv. 10-13). Commenting on this passage Edward J. Young first advises, “If we employ the word “ecstasy” to describe the prophets, we must use the word with care.” Then he states:

“It is without doubt true that when the Spirit of God thus came upon a man, that man was in an abnormal condition. There was resting upon him a Divinely imposed compulsion so that he could not but speak forth and sing the wondrous works of God. To this extent we may agree the prophet [and Saul] was in a state of ecstasy.”

The second episode happened in 1 Samuel 19:18-24. The circumstances were quite different than those in chapter 10. Saul has been rejected as king of Israel (1 Sam. 16:14), and is in pursuit of David. He receives intelligence that David is with Samuel at Naioth, so he sent men to apprehend David, but when they arrived, “they saw the group of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as leader over them, [and] the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.” (v. 20). The same thing happens to two more bands of messengers (v. 21), and so Saul himself went. Then we read: “Then the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on and prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he also stripped off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night.” (vv. 23-24).

What was happening here? At first sight it may appear that if indeed the Spirit of God had been the cause of this bizarre behavior, there is little to distinguish the prophetism of Israel from that of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. However, it should be emphasized that, unlike his messengers, Saul began prophesying before arriving at where Samuel and David were, and he went on prophesying as he journeyed and when he got to Naioth. Leon Wood suggests that Saul’s strange behavior in verse 24 (which neither the messengers nor the prophets shared in) can be put down to Saul’s abject despair at again being shown up as God’s reject. “That David now enjoyed Samuel’s favor spelled out unmistakably the end of Saul’s hopes for a continuing rule for his family.” Saul’s action is thus attributed to his being, “drained of all emotional and physical strength.”

Although there is some merit in Wood’s explanation, he seems to read more into the text than it warrants. Both Young (pp. 89-90), and Freeman (p.65), think that this happened to Saul to humble him. In either scenario it is obvious that this occurrence prevented David from being captured by Saul.

Our conclusion is that the early prophets of Israel were not ecstatics in the sense usually ascribed to shaman-like the soothsayers and oracles of ancient times. The oft-cited examples like 1 Samuel 10 and 19 are to be understood as neither normative for Old Testament prophets, nor as comparative to the “whipped-up” self-induced madness of the pagans. For one thing, there is a world of difference between an individual who is possessed of the Holy Spirit of prophecy, and someone who is deluded, or, what is worse, possessed by a demonic spirit. What has the one to do with the other? While we do read of people like Isaiah and Ezekiel performing strange actions, they are always instructed to do so by the Lord, and, in any case, they are in command of their mental and emotional faculties at all times – something that is to be expected of men who are Spirit-directed (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7). As Williams reminds us, “The strange behavior involved with the symbolic acts performed by the prophets is certainly abnormal, but hardly the result of an ecstatic state.” Thus, whether or not one uses the word “ecstatic” in a cautious way (like Young, Freeman, and Williams), or prefers to use another term, any connection between the true inspired prophets of the Old Testament and their foreign contemporaries is simply non-existent. Was not the absence of this very sort of thing one of the reasons why the Syrian general Naaman was so annoyed at Elisha (2 Kings 5:11!)? But the prophet of God is not a trance-induced maniac. Much less is he possessed of a Spirit that impels him to perform antics in order to impress the on-looker. The Spirit’s work in the prophet is “a divinely induced revelatory condition of a more or less restrained nature which was not on a continuum with pagan prophetism.”


Another high-profile ministry of the Holy Spirit was the empowerment of chosen individuals for some office, normally that of judge or of regent. In the class of the former we read of the Spirit coming upon Othniel, the first judge (Judg. 3:10). As the text makes clear, the coming of the Spirit of the LORD upon Othniel (as also upon some of the other judges or deliverers), is what transformed them into men with the requisite gifts to do the task. Goslinga makes the adroit observation that the author of the book of Judges, in referring to the Spirit as “the Spirit of the LORD” (i.e. Yahweh) instead of “the Spirit of God,” is stressing that the deliverances under the judges were expressive of the ties that the twelve tribes had to the God of the covenant. Walvoord thinks that this enabling, which was particular to a handful of individuals in the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 41:38-40; Num. 27:18; Judg. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25, etc), paralleled, “to some degree the sovereign bestowal of gifts in the New Testament period.” The majority of these “endowment” passages are concerned with strengthening for battle with Israel’s foes. One interesting passage in Isaiah predicts a day when “the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard” against God’s enemies (Isa. 59:19). There are other verses, which refer to a special temporary enabling given to Bezaleel of Judah and Aholiab of Dan to make the instruments of the Tabernacle (Exod. 31:1-11; 35:30-39:43. Cf. Exod. 28:3). Then there is the singular incident when the Spirit uses Amasai, the chief of the captains, to assure David that those men who had come to him were true (1 Chron. 12:18).

Although not every reference has been covered in the above remarks, enough has been said to give a good overview of the Holy Spirit’s multifaceted activity during the Old Testament period. We shall lastly address the question about the salvation of saints in Old Testament times.

Old Testament Salvation.

The question of the salvation of the Old Testament saints is made more complicated by the fact that there are not the kinds of detailed descriptions and definitions relating to conversion that one finds, say, in Paul’s epistles. One might ask, therefore, whether the matter is just one of a lack of terminology? Or, to put it more bluntly, were the Old Testament believers “born-again”? We will begin our inquiry by turning to J. Dwight Pentecost’s book on the Holy Spirit, where he cites John 14:17 and says that Jesus there “divided the Holy Spirit’s ministry into two parts.” The verse reads as follows: “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you [the disciples] know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.” Pentecost draws our attention to the difference between “He abides with you” and “He…will be in you.” He allows that some certain Old Testament people had encounters with the Spirit, but he argues that one should recognize “three essential features of the Spirit’s indwelling in the Old Testament.”

Though the quotation is fairly lengthy, it is worth reproducing his words below.

In the first place, the indwelling was not universal; it was not for everyone who was rightly related to God. A few of the Old Testament saints had this experience, but only a few. There were multitudes…who knew God in a personal relationship, whose sins had been forgiven, who never had one day of consciously being under the control of the Spirit of God, assured of the indwelling presence and the empowerment of the Spirit of God because the Spirit had come upon them and dwelt within them…
The second thing that we would observe, …is that the Holy Spirit came upon men to empower them to some special service…A third thing we notice in the Old Testament is that the indwelling was temporary.

Here, then, Pentecost sets out three features of the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament; features that might appear to preclude His work of regeneration in those saints. But Pentecost does not think so. He is adamant that, “The one fact that we perhaps would overlook is given to us in the third chapter of John’s Gospel – that the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament was, as He is today, the agent in the new birth.”

Just here a new question arises. Does John 3 refer to knowledge that Nicodemus ought to have had about salvation in the past (Old Covenant), the present (the “Gospel age”), or in the future (New Covenant)? Robert Gromacki seems to indicate that the passage speaks of the future (from an Old Testament Jew’s perspective). He declares in connection with the pending national conversion through the New Covenant of Ezekiel 36:24-28 that it “will occur just before the messianic, millennial kingdom is established.” Then he continues by citing John 3:

Christ used that logic when he told Nicodemus that he had to be born again before he could see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-7). When Nicodemus expressed his ignorance of this truth, Christ responded, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these thing?” (3:10). Christ used the demonstrative pronoun tauta (“these things”) to refer to the truth of regeneration mentioned in the New Covenant promised to Israel in the Old Testament (Jer. 31:31-37; Ezek. 36:22-32).”

This does not imply that Gromacki thinks the passage is wholly future. Further on he relates John 3 to both the Gospel era and the Church-age. This is surely correct given the requirement of the Spirit’s work in both providence and redemption. Passages such as Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4; Psalm 104:29-30 show that the Spirit’s activity is essential to anything that lives, and the doctrine of total depravity demands that some kind of supernatural work is necessary to bring any person to God (e.g. Rom. 8:7; Eph. 2:1). So what was the Holy Spirit’s role in the mechanics of conversion as wrought upon Old Testament believers?

The French Dispensational scholar Rene Pache noted that before Christ the Spirit could “only act in accordance with the Old Covenant,” so that “the Spirit accomplished an incomplete work.” The majority of Dispensational scholars cited in the present study (e.g. Wood, Chafer, Walvoord, Pentecost, Ryrie, Gromacki, Feinberg), believe that before the Cross, regeneration was a separate phenomenon to the Spirit’s indwelling. This, of course, would have to be so because of the select company of individuals who temporarily enjoyed the Spirit’s presence. Certainly many more than they were made righteous by faith in God.

What this means is that, in profile with progressive revelation a certain amount of discontinuity between the Testaments must be catered for. It were wise if Bible students trod carefully on this subject, calling to mind the words of Chafer that, “The Old Testament will be searched in vain for record of Jews passing from an unsaved to a saved state, or for any declaration about the terms upon which such a change would be secured.” It is our opinion that Old Testament saints were made spiritually alive by the sovereign work of the Spirit, but that did not mean that they were baptized, sealed, or incorporated into the Body of Christ – the Church. “Israel’s position in the OT was already one of “nearness” to God in comparison to the Gentiles (cf. Ps 148:14, NASB). But this “nearness” is transcended by the new position of believers in Christ. He came to peace…so that they might gain new access in the Spirit to the Father.”
Still, some will point to what is said about Saul in 1 Samuel 10:9: “Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; so that he prophesied among them.” A recent article refers to this verse as an example of being born-again. But this is not the consensus among Old Testament scholars. For instance, even though he is a covenant theologian, Edward J. Young makes it quite clear that “It would be a grave mistake to equate this remarkable change with the work of God’s Spirit known as regeneration.” Saul’s altered condition was to fit him for his task, but it was not a work of salvation in his heart. Young puts the matter well when he writes: “The change remained, we may ay, upon natural ground. There was to be no passing away of old things. The heart, with its sinful, rebellious nature, would remain, and, alas did remain with Saul until his death.”

Summing up the subject of the Spirit’s work in the salvation of the saints of the Old Testament era, we can say that though salvation was by grace through faith, and while we think it a safe move to posit the regeneration of Old Testament men and women, we have to recognize important divergences in the concomitants of salvation between the two Testaments. Allen Ross maintains that,

“…the OT does not speak of the Holy Spirit baptizing and indwelling all who believe. The influence toward faith in the OT would come from the people’s being born into the covenant community (as the physical seed of Abraham) with God’s revelation as their rule of life and their spiritual heritage as a witness to the will of God. Of course, the Holy Spirit was active in all this to enable people to come to faith and to serve the Lord.”


In this short survey of the Holy Spirit and His ministry in the Old Testament we have shown: a) that the Spirit as Personal is taught clearly in the Old Testament (Isa. 40:13; 63:10); b) that He is pictured as working decisively in Creation (Gen. 1:2; Psa. 104:30), Redemption (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; 37:29; Zech. 12:10), the act of Prophesying (Ezek. 11:5; Amos 3:7-8), and in the Enabling of individuals to do their God-appointed tasks (Exod. 28:3; Judg. 3:10; 6:34). Then we looked at salvation in the Old Testament and concluded that while dispensational discontinuities must be understood, it is still the case that Old Testament believers were regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

It could not be said better than it is by the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD!” (Zech. 4:6).

4 thoughts on “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (2)”

  1. This was very helpfull in concluding my pentecost sermon for today
    thanks for the information
    Rev G.K.F

  2. I believe that the Old Testament believers were saved by faith. They were not born again,
    indwelt by the Holy Spirit on a permanent or eternal basis, or part of the Church of Jesus Christ
    that had its beginning in Acts. The New Birth, the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit did
    not occur in the Old Testament. God Bless.
    John Gregory

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