The Spirit and the Old Testament
Often when the person and work of the Holy Spirit comes up for discussion there seems to be this assumption that while the Spirit is very active in the New Testament, his presence and power in the Old Testament was very limited. Some would even go so far as to say that the Spirit was largely absent from the Old Testament.
Is such an assumption correct? Is this what the Old Testament teaches? Is the Holy Spirit really a New Testament Spirit?
An in-depth look at the Old Testament proves that such a conclusion misses the mark. Indeed, there is ample indication from the Old Testament itself to indicate that the Holy Spirit was very much present then and active in the world and in the life of God's people.
To support such a contention we will consider the Spirit in relation to five important areas: the world, the people of God, the Word of God, the offices in the church, and the future.
The Spirit and the World
Upon turning to the opening pages of the Old Testament, it does not take long before the reader comes face to face with the Holy Spirit. Genesis 1:1-2 states majestically, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."
What these verses tell us is that the Spirit of God was active already at the beginning of time and very much involved in God's great work of creation. The writer of Genesis describes him as "hovering over the waters." In other words, he is compared to a bird hovering over its prey or watching over its young. He is very much present, active, and attentive when it comes to the creation of the world.
Still, we are told about the Spirit's involvement with creation not only in the book of Genesis, but also in the book of Psalms. In particular Psalm 104, that great Psalm on creation, comes to mind. It states,
These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.Psalm 104:27-30
Here we cannot escape the impression that the Holy Spirit is also the creating Spirit. It is not just God the Father who fashions the created realm, the Spirit does so as well.
In addition, notice that Psalm 104 describes the Spirit as doing more. He is also very much involved with the work of renewal. He is said to "renew the face of the earth." This must mean that he is also the sustaining Spirit. He insures that all created things continue to exist, to receive their food, and to thrive. Creatures everywhere and of every kind look to God to supply their daily needs and it is the Spirit who makes it happen.
As further support for all this, one may also think of Psalm 33. Although the Spirit is not mentioned there by name, his involvement is surely being alluded to when the psalmist states,
By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth ... For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.Psalm 33:6, 9
The Spirit and the People of God
From dealing with the Spirit's role in the world, we move on to his role with respect to the people of God. Before we zero in on that, however, we should first consider the Spirit's role with respect to man as such.
Genesis 2:7 speaks about this when it says, The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now there has been considerable controversy about this verse and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the King James Version translation renders the last part of this verse as "man became a living soul." Such a translation, however, is questionable and a more accurate wording is "a living being" or "a living creature."
Only this in turn raises the question, "What is it that makes man a living being?" According to Genesis, it has everything to do with "the breath of life" that man received from God who "breathed into his nostrils."
But what is this breath and where does it come from? Job 33:4 gives us the answer when it states, "The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life." This identification of life with breath and breath with the Spirit is further supported by Genesis 6:3, where God is quoted as saying, "My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years." Hence the Spirit is mankind's life-giver.
Yet he also gives more, for as well as life, the Spirit also gives ability to man. One can think here of special artistic ability, as in the case of Bezalel and Oholiab. When it came to properly decorating and adorning the tabernacle, these men were "filled with the Spirit of God" (Exodus 35:31) and they received the skill needed to "do all kinds of work as craftsmen, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen and weavers – all of them master craftsmen and designers" (Exodus 35:35). Beauty, skill, and artistry are all linked to the Spirit.
Another ability that the Spirit bestows is leadership ability. This becomes evident as one reads through the book of Judges. Who empowers Othniel (3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and Samson (13:24, 25; 14:6, 19; 15:14-15)? Their bravery, courage, and determination are all connected to the Holy Spirit. The same goes for king Saul. Both before and during his kingship, the Spirit plays a prominent and enabling role (1 Samuel 10:1, 6, 9, 10). Conversely, when Saul's kingship goes into decline, it is directly linked to the withdrawal of the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10-11).
As a counterpart to Saul, one can look too at Moses. He too receives leadership gifts from the Holy Spirit; however, in his case leadership is coated with humility (Numbers 12:3). Such humility was not home grown. Rather, it too was Spirit given (Numbers 11:16-17).
Thus it can be said that not only does the Spirit give life to all people, He especially gives life (new life) to God's people and fills some among them with special abilities and gifts.
The Spirit and the Word of God
From the New Testament we know that the Spirit is also active when it comes to the Word of God. After all, 2 Peter 1:20, 21 states forcefully,
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Here the Apostle Peter is not so much presenting a new truth as he is reflecting on an old truth. Indeed, his case is largely built on what took place in the Old Testament.
So what did take place in the Old Testament? There the Holy Spirit often spoke through the ministry of men called prophets. Of these the first and, in some ways, the greatest was surely Moses. Numbers 11 relates how the Spirit rested on Moses and how it enabled him to prophesy.
It also tells us that some of the Spirit that was upon him was given to the seventy elders who are to lead the nation of Israel with him. Furthermore, Moses expresses a most fervent wish "that all of the LORD'S people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them" (v. 29). Moses would like nothing better than to see a whole nation of prophets; that is, he wants all of the people to be filled with the Spirit.
Did his wish come true? Not in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the LORD did continue to send prophets or men endowed with the Spirit to Israel. In and through them the people were instructed and heard the Word of the LORD.
Yet, what the people heard was often the Word of God in its condemning power. One thinks here of the prophet Micah who declares, "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, to Israel his sin" (3:8). Repeatedly, God raised up prophets and sent them to his people and he did so especially in times of apostasy and injustice. He sought their repentance and return to faithfulness.
Sadly, however, these prophets themselves often failed to function as good and faithful messengers. In various places in the Old Testament, these men are accused of being negligent in their duties because of their drunkenness (Isaiah 28:7-8), sexual immorality (Jeremiah 23:14), greed (Mica 3:11), weakness (Jeremiah 6:14-15), and compromising ways (Ezekiel 13:6-7).
At other times God takes men who are foreign to his people and uses them. In this category one is led to think in particular of Balaam, son of Beor and a Midianite. He is a man who has no desire to be the mouthpiece of the God of Israel and he certainly is not interested in being a mouthpiece of blessing upon Israel. Nevertheless, this is what the LORD turns him into. Using his sovereign and all powerful will, the LORD has Balaam bless the people of Israel not once but three times (see Numbers 22-24).
Overall, it becomes clear in the Old Testament that the LORD is in control when it comes to revelation and that nothing and no one can withstand him when he wants his will made known. He discards crooked prophets, uses foreign prophets, and instills strength in weak prophets, and in the end he causes his will to come to his people. Earlier we referred to Peter who writes about men being carried along by the Spirit. How apt an image! In some way the Holy Spirit is like a mighty river and the men whom God uses to reveal his will are like men in a boat that is being carried along by a strong, powerful, and unstoppable current.
The Spirit and the Offices in the Church
Although we have alluded to it already, more needs to be said about the Spirit's role in relation to the various offices in the Old Testament. What is an office? It is a special task or function that God assigns to certain people in his church. In other words, this is not a matter of someone volunteering or setting themselves apart. Neither is it a case of the community setting them apart. No, it is God who does the setting apart. He creates the particular office. He determines its character and its duties. He also insures that the appointed people receive the ability that they need to meet its requirements.
How does he do the latter? Again, here we need to think of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who equips kings, priests, prophets, and judges.
With respect to judges, we read about Othniel, "The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel's judge and went to war" (Judges 3:10). What applies to him applies as well to the other judges in Israel. The Spirit gave them courage, insight, zeal, and strength.
With respect to the prophets, we read about Jahaziel son of Zechariah, that "the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel..." (2 Chronicles 20:14). The LORD used him to prophesy victory over Moab and Ammon to King Jehoshaphat and to the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
With respect to priests, we read about Aaron being anointed when Moses is told, "Take the anointing oil and anoint him by pouring it on his head" (Exodus 29:7). And what is anointing? It is an outward ceremony pointing to an inner reality. As the olive oil is poured out and flows down upon Aaron's head and robe (cf. Psalm 133), so the Holy Spirit flows into his life and heart and equips him to serve the Lord.
With respect to kings, we read about many instances of their being anointed: Saul (1 Samuel 10:1), David (1 Samuel 16:13), Solomon (1 Kings 1:39), Joash (2 Kings 11:12), and others. Furthermore, we have a song which describes what this anointing is supposed to do for the king.
Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness ... He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor ... For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.Psalm 72:1, 4, 12-14.
Justice, safe-keeping, and compassion, all belong to the task and office of the king and it is the Holy Spirit who endows them.
Yet not only does the Holy Spirit endow the king, as well as the other offices in the Old Testament, he also promises to do the same and more for the coming Servant-King. Indeed, we can hear him speaking prophetically in the book of Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD'S favor...Isaiah 61:1-2
In the New Testament we meet the fulfillment of these words of Jubilee in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18-19). Furthermore, at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, we see Christ anointed by the Holy Spirit into his three-fold office as the greatest prophet, priest, and king.
Interestingly, the Heidelberg Catechism teaches that when someone is "a member of Christ by faith" he or she comes to "share in his anointing" and is thus enabled to function in his or her own right as a prophet, priest, and king in the service of the LORD (Q/A 32). The Spirit who equips his special servants in the Old Testament and who has equipped God's greatest Servant in the New Testament is still at work today equipping the servants and people of the LORD everywhere. His work continues and his work has expanded immeasurably.
The Spirit and the Future
There are at least three places in the Old Testament that also give prominence to the Holy Spirit with respect to the future.
The first place is to be found in the book of Isaiah. There we come across the following future prediction:
Till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high and the desert becomes a fertile field and the fertile field seems like a forest. Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.Isaiah 32:15-17
In this passage the prophet Isaiah is led to look into the future and what he sees is the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and along with it a restoration and revival in the created realm. Field and forest will both be rejuvenated.
Notice, however, that something else will happen as well. There will be a blossoming of justice and righteousness. In other words, a renewal of creation will be combined with a return of two of the most blessed values in the kingdom of God, namely justice and righteousness.
Obviously, this will be quite a development. Only it will not end there for together creational renewal and value renewal will lead to a most blessed result, which is peace. "Shalom" will return to the land.
Another place that speaks about the future and the work of the Spirit is found in the well-known chapters of Ezekiel 36 and 37. In chapter 36 there are the memorable words,
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.Ezekiel 36:27, 27
Here we move into a very personal application of the Spirit. If Isaiah directs his attention at the bigger picture having to do with creation and kingdom, then Ezekiel is more concerned with the actual renewal of the children of the kingdom. He envisages them receiving new spirits and new hearts, and all because the Spirit will live in them.
As for the next chapter in the book of Ezekiel, it takes this motif and works it out even more. There the children of Israel are likened to a cemetery, an exposed and well-weathered cemetery. The bones of the dead lie out in the open for all to see and they are very dry. In short, these people are far gone.
But then the Spirit of the Lord begins to work. The word of the LORD goes forth like a breath of the Spirit and infuses new life into this valley of bones. The bones begin to join, tendons and flesh appear, skin covers them and life is breathed into them. As the Lord says to Ezekiel,
I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.Ezekiel 37:14
Here Ezekiel has a message for the remnant who are in exile and the message is that there is hope for them. God has not forgotten them and the Spirit will revive them. They will have a future when the exile is over. Yet not only then, for there is a sense in which this prophecy about the Spirit extends far beyond the post exilic period and gives hope to God's people in the New Testament and beyond. No doubt it forms part of the background for Paul's words to the Romans,
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.Romans 8:11
The Spirit who gives life to Israel and who raised Christ will also give life to believers everywhere.
All of this leaves us with one final Old Testament passage to consider when it comes to the Spirit and the future and it can be found in the book of Joel. It too is a famous passage and reads,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.Joel 2:28
Joel originally directed his words at God's wayward covenant people and informs them about the coming locust plague as the judgment of God on their sins. Thereafter he calls on the people to "rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity" (Joel 2:13). Thus the announcement of judgment sets the stage for a call to repent, a call in which God appeals to his people as their covenant God ("return to the LORD your God") and pleads with them on the basis of his honour (v. 17b). Should the people respond in this way, God will lavish forgiveness and restoration on them (2:18-27).
Yet there is also something else that he will lavish on them and that is a wondrous and bounteous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. No longer will the presence and power of the Spirit be manifested in a few lives. In the future it will become manifested in many lives – young and old, male and female, servant and master. They will all prophesy and dream dreams.
But when will this happen? Scripture tells us that the fulfillment of these words of Joel happened during the latter days of the new covenant and more specifically on Pentecost day. Then and there the Apostle Peter quotes these words of Joel (Acts 2:17-21). At that time the church will be transformed and the Spirit will be the prime Transformer.
Together then Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Joel point forward to a fuller and richer coming of the Holy Spirit to the people of God. The future is rich with promise.
Now, there is much more that could be said about the Spirit in the Old Testament. Suffice it to say, however, that the little that has been passed along in the chapter should be sufficient to keep you from ignoring His presence and underestimating his impact during this span of time. Already then his work was great and glorious, essential and enormous, inspiring and influential.