The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament Part 1

From beginning to end, the Scriptures show God working through His Spirit. We see the Spirit in the opening verses of Scripture, actively involved in the creation of the cosmos (Genesis 1:2). We see Him in the closing verses of Scripture, inviting all who will to come to Christ for salvation (Revelation 22:17). Most of our discussion of the Spirit, His person, and His work centers around the New Testament. This is only natural since it is the New Testament under which we live today. It is also the New Testament where we learn the most about the Spirit. However, before we jump into a study of what those inspired writers who followed Christ reveal, it is important to gather the same background of understanding that would have colored their own thoughts. For that, we must turn to the Old Testament Scriptures.

While the Old Testament does not give the same prominence to the Spirit as the New Testament, we can still find Him mentioned either directly or indirectly in over half of those thirty-nine books, leaving just sixteen Old Testament books that make no specific mention of the Spirit. Perhaps the most common term used to describe the Spirit in the Old Testament is “Spirit of God.” We can be comfortable in identifying this as the third person of the Godhead since the New Testament cites many of these passages, and in so doing identify the Holy Spirit of the New Testament with the Spirit of God in the Old.

Consider the following examples:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.

Isaiah 61:1-3 

And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

Luke 4:17-21 


And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the LORD come.  And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, as the LORD hath said, and in the remnant whom the LORD shall call.

Joel 2:28-32 

But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Acts 2:16-21 

Here, in Acts 2, Peter makes a direct connection between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that occurred at the beginning of that chapter to this prophecy from Joel. Later in Acts 10-11, as the same thing happens to Cornelius and his household, Peter specifically identifies this as the Holy Spirit.

Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?

Acts 10:47

And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning.

Acts 11:15

Broadly speaking, in the Old Testament we can see the Spirit’s work and relationship first, with the material world and creation, then with mankind as a whole, and finally with the individual man.

The Spirit in Relation to The Material

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

Genesis 1:2

Genesis 1:1 is well known and often quoted. The verse that immediately follows it seems to be more obscure in our thoughts. Here we see the Spirit in a caring and organizing role involved in the creation. The word here that is translated “moved”  or in some translations “hovered” could also properly be rendered as “brooded”. We see it used in that sense ner the end of Moses’ writings.

For the LORD’S portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance. He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: So the LORD alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him.

Deuteronomy 32:9-12 

Job characterizes the thoughtful care of the Spirit in creation:

By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.

Job 26:13

It was God’s Spirit that breathed life into man, making him distinct from the animals.

All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils;

Job 27:3

The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.

Job 33:4

The Spirit in Relation to Man

After the creation and subsequent fall into sin, the next direct mention of the Spirit that we find is in the opening verses of the account of Noah and the flood. 

And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.

Genesis 6:3

Here we see a significant change in the way that the Spirit moved. While working in the creation, the Spirit imposed His will on the things benign created, cared for, and organized according to His desires. Yet, now we see Him no longer imposing His will on the creation, but instead pleading with man to do His will. In this instance, it was done through the preaching of Noah (2 Peter 2:5).

From this time forward the Spirit comes to men in various ways, giving them supernatural powers appropriate for the job to which He calls them.

In the wilderness, He gave wisdom and discretion to the seventy elders who would help Moses judge the nation of Israel.

And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.

Numbers 11:25

In the book of Judges, we see Him giving that same wisdom to some of the judges, and also giving them courage and strength (sometimes literal strength) to fight the battles of Israel.

And when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim. And the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died.

Judges 3:9-11 

One point that is significant to note is that nowhere in the Old Testament do we see the Spirit falling on a man to cleanse him from sin or to give him some special blessing. The Spirit’s involvement with individuals in this way was always tied to His overall mission.

The Spirit in Relation to The Individual Man

One note that comes as a bit of a surprise is that the concept of holiness is rarely associated with the Spirit and His work in the Old Testament. This is not to say that He was not holy, or that His work was not holy. Rather, the close association to holiness as an idea that He finds in the New Testament does not seem to be developed by the Old Testament writers, who were, of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writings. As such, we only find the term “Holy Spirit” occurring three times in the Old Testament. 

Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

Psalms 51:11

But they rebelled, and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them. Then he remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people, saying, Where is he that brought them up out of the sea with the shepherd of his flock? where is he that put his holy Spirit within him?

Isaiah 63:10-11 

Twice in the Old Testament He is called “Good Spirit.”

Thou gavest also thy good spirit to instruct them, and withheldest not thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst.

Nehemiah 9:20

Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.

Psalms 143:10

This has certainly not been an exhaustive list of the Spirit’s relationships found in the Old Testament. However, it is comprehensive in that it covers with broad strokes the progressive development of God’s relation to man and the Spirit’s role in that. It falls into harmony with God’s law of progressive development in the world. He works first on a chaotic material universe, then upon society as a whole, and finally upon the character of the individual.

In the universe, the Spirit makes a fit dwelling for man. 

In society, the Spirit makes man fit to dwell in the universe.

In the individual, the Spirit makes man fit for a righteous and holy fellowship.

About Justin Hopkins

Justin is a Texas native, a coffee lover, and a Christian. He is the lucky husband of an amazing wife, and father to three growing boys.

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