The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament – Part 1

Although my book Heaven’s Muscle is structured around my own journey of spiritual discovery, the heart of the book is the biblical theology of the Holy Spirit. This series of blog posts allows me to spend a bit more time looking at each of the biblical texts and topics that contribute to a complete biblical understanding of the behavior of the third person of the Trinity.

While I was a campus minister, I decided to study every verse in the Bible that could be understood as a reference to the Spirit. I was completely shocked by the sheer quantity of biblical references to the Spirit—especially in the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament). I’ve read other bloggers say that the Spirit is “largely absent” from the Old Testament, but this is demonstrably untrue.

And one of the most interesting things I noticed was how the Spirit passages in the Hebrew Bible almost perfectly foreshadow what the Spirit will do through Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. The key difference is that, while being filled with the Spirit is rare in the Old Testament, it is ubiquitous in the New Testament.

To better convey in a digestible format what I’d found, I organized the fruits of my study into a series of topics that focuses on the functions of the Spirit as described in the biblical texts. My interest here is not on metaphysics, but on the Holy Spirit’s role in God’s story and his effects on the world and God’s people. This is a practical study, not a philosophical one.

I hope this will be interesting and inspiring.

I believe the Bible should be the starting point for all discussions of the Spirit. The Bible is a collection of texts spanning hundreds of years written by people with profound experiences of God’s Spirit. I believe that God providentially through his people compiled and preserved this collection of books because of their lasting value and spiritual authority. I therefore want to make sure that my views on the Holy Spirit conform to what the biblical writers tell us.

I also believe the Spirit is at work today, just as he was in biblical times, and that a thorough understanding of the bible’s spiritual teachings can inoculate God’s people against distorted expectations.

Let’s begin with a brief look at the word “spirit” itself. The basic meaning of the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek word pneuma—the words translated “spirit” in English Bibles—is “air in motion.” The NIV translates ruach as “spirit” 176 times, “wind” 79 times, and “breath” 31 times. Ruach is also sometimes used metaphorically for the heart, the mind, and various emotional states. I suggest the biblical writers seized this idea of air in motion to conveys the mysteriousness of God, of other supernatural beings, of the human intellect, and of the animating life force (the “breath of life”). Like the wind, these invisible forces that can be called “spirit” are immaterial, yet powerful.

The Hebrew Bible also describes the Holy Spirit as a divine presence to some degree distinguishable from YHWH (YHWH is the Hebrew Bible’s name for God, typically translated in English Bibles as “LORD”). Generally, YHWH dwells in heaven, or in his temple, while the Spirit is poured into or on people. The first category for this study is thus the Spirit as YHWH’s presence on earth. Here are some key passages that convey this function of the Spirit, i.e., spreading or mediating the presence of the Creator:

  • Many readers notice that, at the beginning of creation, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2).
  • Before the Flood, God says his Spirit will not contend with men forever, for they are mortal (Genesis 6:3).
  • Where can one hide from YHWH’s Spirit, the psalmist rhetorically asks (Psalm 139:7)? The answer is nowhere.
  • YHWH’s Spirit will gather the animals that live in the ruins of Edom (Isaiah 34:16). Isaiah observed that God’s Holy Spirit was set among the Israelites, yet they grieved the Holy Spirit in their rebellion (Isaiah 63:10-11).
  • “My Spirit remains among you,” YHWH says to the remnant of the Jewish exiles who are rebuilding the temple (Haggai 2:5).

Thus, while biblical authors often felt a physical distance between themselves and YHWH, the presence of YHWH’s Spirit (his breeze, his breath) meant that mankind had not been abandoned. His Spirit was everywhere. And yet, the Spirit also had its own personality. It could be grieved. It wrestled with humans. Through his Spirit, YHWH (whom the Hebrew Bible typically depicted as an ancient near eastern monarch) moved over the earth and settled among his chosen ones.

Second, also from the beginning we see the Spirit’s Association with Water. Here are some examples:

  • During the creation of the earth, the Spirit of God hovers over the primeval waters (Genesis 1:2).
  • In the future kingdom (or perhaps post-exile), Isaiah prophecies that the Spirit will be poured upon the people from on high, bringing fertility to the land (Isaiah 32:15).
  • Employing a parallelism between spirit and water, God says, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground. I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams” (Isaiah 44:3).
  • For references to the Spirit being “poured out” on all Israel, see also Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; and perhaps Zechariah 12:10.
  • Ezekiel 36:25-27 also speaks of a cleansing water which precedes the reception of the Spirit.

Air and water are both liquid. They move, they fill spaces, the can act unpredictably. The Bible uses both metaphors to describe the Spirit’s behavior.

Third, in a related matter, we find the Spirit’s Association with the act of Creation.

  • The Spirit of God hovers over the primeval waters (Genesis 1:2).
  • A psalm observes that God’s creatures come into being when he sends his Spirit (Psalm 104:30).
  • Elihu remarks to Job that “The Spirit of God has made me” (Job 33:4).

Just like the Father and Son, the Spirit is depicted as a Creator.

Even with these first three observations, we can see how the Hebrew Bible’s Spirit texts prefigure what we find in the New Testament, where the Holy Spirit is God’s presence among his people, and where the Spirit is associated with water baptism and with creating new life, specifically God’s process of making Christ’s followers into new creations.

May the Spirit be profoundly present in your life. May he cleanse you, quench your thirst, and continually make you a new person.

We’ll find out more in the next post! Feel free to share and leave comments.

Bren Hughes
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