David W. Hegg
God the Spirit in the Old Testament
Introduction: Much is said today about the role of God the Spirit in the life of the church and individual believer. With the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, his role has been catapulted front and center, with controversy rising all around.
But, what about the presence and activity of God the Spirit in the Old Testament? Does he appear? Does he have an active part in the unfolding of redemptive history? The answers are found in the some 100 references to the Spirit in the Old Testament and we will see that he both appears and has a role in creation, regeneration, empowerment, and other essential activities.
1. Images of God the Spirit in the Old Testament
The invisible, omnipresent, triune God at times allows himself to be experienced as visibly present in two general ways throughout the Old Testament:
a) Human Form:
• The Angel of the Lord: There are many references to “the angel of the Lord” where God is encountered, and described having human form: hands, voice, legs, etc.h
- eg: to Hagar: Gen. 16.7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. … 9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction.
• Human on the throne: At times God is represented in visions as a human form sitting on a throne:
- eg: to Isaiah: Isaiah 6.1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.
- eg: to Ezekiel: Ezek. 1.26 And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance.
b) Moving Air or Fire:
Most often in the Old Testament the visible presence of the invisible, omnipresent, triune God is visibly experienced in some sort of nebulous form of moving air or fire.
• A shuddering of air; a hovering: Gen. 1.2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Note: The Hebrew word for hovering (merahepet) refers to a fluttering that is perceptible by the movement of air it creates. It is used in Deut. 32:11 and Jer. 23:9:
Deut. 32.11 Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions,
Jer. 23.9 Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones shake (flutter; tremble); I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
• Glory Cloud: Ex. 40.34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
1Kings 8.10 And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, 11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
• Fire: Ex. 40.38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
• Wind; Breath: Ezek. 37.9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army … 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
Note: It is likely that, when God is experienced as visibly present in human form, it is a pre-incarnate appearance of the second person of the Godhead whom we know as God the Son. When the appearance is that of moving air or fire it is an appearance of God the Spirit.
When, on the day of Pentecost, the disciples heard the sound of “rushing wind” and saw flames of fire “as tongues” resting on them, they must have understood these to be images of the Spirit, and therefore the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that they would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
2. Names used to describe God the Spirit in the Old Testament
While the Hebrew word for spirit (ruach; ™Ij…wr) is used numerous times in the Old Testament, it refers to God the Spirit approximately 100 times.
• Spirit of God: Genesis 1:2: The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Exodus 31:3
• My Spirit: Genesis 6:3: Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.”
•The Spirit: Num. 11.25 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.
• His Spirit: 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!”
• The Spirit of the Lord: Judg. 3.10 The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel.
• Your Good Spirit: Neh. 9.20 You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst.
• Holy Spirit: Psa. 51.11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Is. 63.10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.
•The Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding: Is. 11.2 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.
• The Spirit of counsel and might: Is. 11.2 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.
• The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord: Is. 11.2 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.
• The Spirit of the Lord God: Is. 61.1 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;
3. The Personhood of God the Spirit
If we only had the Old Testament, we might be tempted to think of “the Spirit” as merely an emanation or the spiritual power that flows from God rather than as an actual being with elements of personhood. Clearly, using the evidence of the New Testament we can conclude that God the Spirit is a person, and a divine one at that.
Yet, there are nuances in the Old Testament that speak to the personality of God the Spirit. Isaiah 11:2, which describes the Spirit as having and granting “wisdom and understanding … counsel and might … knowledge and the fear of the Lord” would indicate that intellect was involved in the activity of the Spirit. Likewise, when Israel’s grumblings “grieved the Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10) the presence of emotion is implied. Lastly, when the Spirit is said to empower and enable certain actions in humans, there is in the description of events the sense that the Spirit is acting on his own volition and not merely being the instrument of another’s will.
4. The Actions of God the Spirit in the Old Testament
While it is clear that the Old Testament is primarily the story of God the Father’s actions through his people Israel, there are still many activities assigned to God the Spirit. However, part of the nature of the Spirit is to be behind the scenes, never calling attention to himself, and always working to shine the light on God the Father and, in the New Testament era and today, primarily on God the Son.
Gen. 1.2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Job 33.4 (Elihu is speaking) The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
From the beginning we see God the Spirit involved in the work of God. Here, he is present at creation, hovering or shaking over the waters, perhaps to shape, energize and mold them although the precise reason is impossible to know. Whatever it was, God the Father thought it necessary for God the Spirit to be involved. And, given the testimony of John 1:1-3 and Col. 1:16, we find that all members of the one Godhead were present and active in creation.
John 1.1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Col. 1.16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
Providence is defined by Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, pg. 315) this way: God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes.
We naturally assume that God’s providence is facilitated through the work of the Spirit since we often think that it is by his Spirit that he keeps everything in order. There is one place in the Old Testament that affirms this:
Psa. 104.24-30 O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. 26 There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it. 27 These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 30 When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
C. Conviction of Sin
While the primary teaching on God the Spirit’s convicting work is found in John 16:8-11, it must also be the case that, wherever there is saving faith there will also be conviction of sin. And, it is logical to believe that this was the ministry of God the Spirit in the Old Testament as it turns out to be in the New Testament and today.
Unfortunately, the Old Testament evidence for this is sketchy. There is only one verse that, perhaps, details conviction as a work of God the Spirit:
Is. 59.19 So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives.
Here it appears that the “fear of the Lord” is preceded by a work of the “wind of the Lord” which may well be descriptive of God the Spirit. If so, then this follows the pattern we understand, where conviction of sin always precedes the “fear of the Lord”, which is another way of describing saving faith. However, even if this passage is understood this way, it clearly is related to the future promises of the New Covenant era, and would not speak directly to such activity on the part of the Spirit in Old Testament times.
D. Restraining Evil
Again, while the restraining ministry of God the Spirit can be seen in the New Testament, it is logical to assume that such has been the case since sin entered into God’s creation. John Walvoord sums it up this way:
Most of the restraining works of the Spirit are revealed as accomplished through various means. The work of the Spirit in revealing truth through the prophets, particularly the warning of judgment to come, and the work of the inspiration of the Scriptures with their power helped to restrain sin. The judgments which followed rejection of His striving against sin (Isa. 63:10-11) had their effect. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit by virtue of His holy character was conducive to restraint of sin. Throughout the Old Testament, then, the power of the Holy Spirit guided human events into the path of divine providence (John Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, pg 115).
Is. 63.10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. 11 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 …?
The New Testament teaching is very clear when it comes to the activity of God the Spirit as the agent of new life (see John 3:6,8 below).
John 3.6,8 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
It is also clear that the same activity was ongoing in the Old Testament, and that God the Spirit was the agent whereby new life was given.
In the writing of Ezekiel, as he is being taught by God as to the restoration of Israel, the following verses connect new life with the giving of the Spirit:
Ezek. 36.26 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.
Ezek. 37.9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”
David’s plea in Ps. 51:10 is for God to “create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. The parallelism here suggests that God had given David a new heart, and now it needs only to be renewed, purified, cleansed.
Psalm 24:3,4 also indicate the necessity of a pure, or new heart if one is to live with God:
Psa. 24.3, 4 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.
Certainly, these and other verses like them do not specifically speak to the idea of God the Spirit as the agent of regeneration in the Old Testament era, but there is one more important argument that makes the case certain.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, the ensuing conversation was all about being “born again” or regenerated. Jesus refers to Ezekiel 36, 37 in his mentioning of being born “of the water and spirit.” Then, he castigates Nicodemus saying “Are you a teacher in Israel and don’t understand these things?”
The clear assumption is that those who understood the Old Testament would certainly be aware of the connection between God the Spirit and the regenerating process necessary for salvation.
F. Indwelling and Empowering
Perhaps the most recognized activity of God the Spirit in the Old Testament is his ability to come upon leaders to empower them, guide them, or protect them. Some examples:
Joseph: Gen. 41.38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?”
Moses and the Elders: Num. 11.17 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.
Num. 11.25 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.
Bezaleel’s skill in building the Tabernacle: Ex. 31.3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship,
Ex. 35.31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship,
Joshua: Deut. 34.9 And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.
To these many more examples could be added.
The main difference between the “indwelling” in the Old Testament, and that of the New Testament and today, is the fact that OT indwelling was both uncommon and temporary. By uncommon is meant that only some were indwelt by God the Spirit, and then only for a time. By contrast, now that Jesus Christ has accomplished redemption, and sent God the Spirit to the world, all who follow Christ are permanently indwelt by God the Spirit who is the guarantee, or seal, of their eternal inheritance.
For most Christ-followers, God the Spirit is a great mystery, the “unknown” member of the Godhead. This is especially true regarding his presence and activity in the Old Testament. Yet, there is ample evidence both of his presence and his necessary role in both the superintendency of all creation, and in the application of salvation to those who love and fear God.
It is very important to remember, however, that no where is God the Spirit ever presented as a focal point for the Christ-follower. It is significant that he is never given a name (eg: Father, Son). Rather, in every case he is identified either by his sphere of existence (spirit) or his relationship to God and his will (eg. Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, Spirit of the knowledge of God, etc).
From this we would expect that, even when God the Spirit is active, it is not going to be highlighted. His task is to facilitate the redemptive plan, and – as we will see in the NT – to turn eyes and heart to God the Son.
Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976)
John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1954; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978)
Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976)
J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975)
Willard R. Simmons, The Biblical Anthology on the Spirit of God (Sacramento: Grace Publishing International)
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)