This is the second installment of a multi-part series exploring the activity of the Holy Spirit through the Bible. You might consider it a study guide to chapter six of my first book, Heaven’s Muscle (which you should definitely order from Amazon and read right now).
Last “>time, we explored the idea of the Spirit as God’s presence on earth, the Spirit’s metaphorical association with water, and the Spirit as an agent of creation. Now, let’s turn to things the Spirit does for people.
One thing the Spirit causes people to do is prophesy. Topic number four is thus the Spirit’s association with prophetic activity. But what does that even mean, really? To get a handle on all the things prophecy entails, we need to examine what people in the biblical story do when they are said to prophesy by the Spirit.
Moses was a Spirit-filled leader, yet even he needed help. In Numbers, chapter 11, YHWH (that’s the Hebrew name for Israel’s God) gives Moses a break by helping Moses delegate his leadership responsibilities. God tells Moses to select seventy elders who have proven leadership ability. The group then assembles (with two of the elders missing). The text says:
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with [Moses], and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on [Moses] and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.
However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”
But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
Implicit in this passage is that the Spirit’s presence endows these seventy elders with authority and the ability to help Moses judge the people (Num. 11:17-29). The Spirit’s presence is manifested in a temporary outburst of prophecy, but the text does not tell us exactly what these elders did that was so striking to the people around them.
Numbers 11 may be the earliest text that explicitly links the Spirit to prophecy, but it is not alone. Let’s pause for a moment and think about what exactly these elders might have been doing when they prophesied.
Although prophecy sometimes entails proclaiming what the future holds (or rather, might hold), prophesy is not the same thing as future-telling. Biblical prophecy is usually an intelligible message from God, either in the form of statements, dreams, or visions. Prophets in other ancient near eastern cultures and in the Graeco-Roman world also experienced visions and dreams and announced divine messages, but being a “prophet” in these cultures could also mean that one has ecstatic experiences. Some linguists think the Semitic root word for prophet and prophecy means “bubbling over,” which is to suggest that prophecy involves (at least sometimes) wild, idiosyncratic behavior. There are touches of this in the Bible as well.
Let’s skip ahead to Saul, the first king of Israel. In 1 Samuel 10, after anointing Saul, Samuel the prophet sends him on a mission and tells him:
…you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you. . . .
As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. When he and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he joined in their prophesying. When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”…After Saul stopped prophesying, he went to the high place. (NIV)
The Spirit of God again comes upon Saul in the next chapter, as Saul burns with anger against the Ammonites and summons an army using severed ox parts (1 Sam. 11:6-7).
Unfortunately, the Spirit of YHWH later leaves Saul, and is replaced by “an evil spirit from YHWH” (1 Sam. 16:14; 19:9). By this time, Saul has become the enemy of David, God’s choice to be Saul’s successor as king.
1 Samuel 18 records an incident in which Saul sends three waves of soldiers to Ramah to capture David. Each band of soldiers runs into Samuel’s group of (musical?) prophets. And each time, the Spirit of God “came upon” the soldiers, and they all prophesied. Finally, Saul himself decides to travel to Ramah, and he meets the same fate:
So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even on him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. He stripped off his garments, and he too prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay naked all that day and all that night. This is why people say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Thus, in 1 Samuel, we see prophets that travel in groups, that play musical instruments, and that at least occasionally are publicly naked. This prophetic activity is incited by the Spirit, and the Spirit’s presence changes a person’s heart and makes him “a different person.” But for Saul, the prophecy was temporary and even his positive personality change ultimately did not last.
Much more common in the Bible, however, are episodes in which prophecy is equated with speech, and these divine messages are often explicitly linked with the Spirit. For example, King David’s last words begin with “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me; his word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2; cf. Matt. 22:43). Much later, the author of Nehemiah notes that YHWH admonished the Jews “by his Spirit” through his prophets (Neh. 9:30).
Having the Spirit of YHWH come upon someone is often a prelude to a prophetic announcement (1 Chron. 12:18; 2 Chron. 15:1; 20:14; 24:20) or a career of prophecy (Is. 61:1). As an example of a prophetic announcement associated with the Spirit, Isaiah proclaims, “And now the Sovereign Lord has sent me, with his Spirit. This is what the Lord says…” (Is. 48:16). When YHWH called Ezekiel, the Spirit came into him and raised him to his feet (Ez. 2:2, 3:24, 11:5).
The Spirit also gives visions (Ez. 11:24). And interpretations of visions and dreams. Even Pharaoh could see that Joseph the interpreter of dreams was “one in whom is the spirit of God” (Gen. 41:38).
These passages illustrate the common biblical connection between being filled with the Spirit and experiencing prophecy, whether that prophetic activity is defined as delivering a powerful verbal message from God, experiencing meaningful dreams and visions, foretelling the future, or—at least in one episode—joining a commune of ecstatic nude musicians. Prophecy can also manifest itself as a brief episode or as a lifelong avocation.
We should not be surprised, then, to see a direct link between the presence of the Spirit and the experience of prophecy in the New Testament, in early church history, and, I suggest, in the church today.
As a postscript, I note that several New Testament passages identify the Spirit as the source of Old Testament prophecy.
In Hebrews, quotations from the Old Testament are said to be words of the Holy Spirit (3:7; 9:8; 10:15).
1 Peter 1:10-12 says that “the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
Finally, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
I hope these glimpses of the Spirit’s prophetic activity in the Old Testament provide some useful context for understanding prophecy in the New Testament and even among God’s people today. Feel free to share and to leave comments. There’s more to come!