The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
This chapter of the present dissertation will concern itself with the specific roles of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament according to the Scriptures themselves as well as major writers in this important but neglected field. The Spirit serves to counterbalance the sterility of the Law.
In this chapter, the often neglected elements of the Spirit’s presence in the Old Testament will be discussed. It is clear from the Scriptures, as well as the literature cited here, that the Holy Spirit was active in the Old Testament and acted as an autonomous element, or “aspect,” of God the father. Hence, the later Christian development of the Trinity derives, not from Greek metaphysics as some hold, but from the presence of the Spirit in the Old Testament.
Numerous times in the Old testament is the Spirit of God referred to as his “breath,” as in Psalm 18. The Hebrew ruach is the same word for “wind,” a “divine wind” that gives life and manipulates the natural environment in the interests of God’s people, Israel. Edmund Jacobs, in is Theology of the Old Testament, holds that it is precisely this ruach, the Spirit of God, that “blew” to part the Red Sea, both to give life to the Israelites and to destroy the malice of the Egyptians (Jacob, 1958, 120-121). This spirit is shown to “fall” on people, to possess them, even to manifest the very power and presence of God, as in Psalm 68 (Jacob, 1958, 122) Of course, it is this same ruach that Christ breathes upon the Apostles, showing a parallel that is unmistakable.
In passages such as Isaiah 31, the Spirit is an active, yet autonomous element of the Godhead, of Yahweh. It is precisely this Spirit that motivated Isaiah to preach, to confront the elite society that he was closely bound up with. In addition, it is clear that this same Spirit is what gives Samson his strength and courage (cf. Jg 14). The prophets too, the clearest manifesting of the Spirit, are “possessed” by the Spirit of God, and preach accordingly. Micah is very explicit that he preaches at the behest of the Spirit (3:8) and Ezekiel says the same (Jacob, 1958, 126). Indeed, writers such as J.W. McGarvey hold that David spoke and acted in his reign at the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit (McGarvey, 1891, 41).
Therefore, it is clear that the Spirit is divine, not an angel or some other created being. That the Spirit is God, and acts to bring messages to human beings, He is clearly the “speech” of God the Father. He is force, both for death, in destroying the enemies of the Israelites, as well as for inspiration to preach, and even the granting of strength and courage to fight for the Truth of God. Alexander Campbell’s work shows that one of the more powerful manifestations of the Spirit in the Old Testament will have a long future ahead of it, the “water of regeneration.” The point is that the water in the Red Sea represented both death, for the sinners, and life and deliverance, for the Israelites (Campbell, 1840, 264). The central sacrament of baptism is prefigured in the working of the ruach on the waters of the Red Sea, no different that its work in the waters of baptism, that “waters of regeneration.”
But it is the prophetic message where the Spirit is clearly manifest. In the work of William Merrill, the thesis here is that the prophets are the link between the Law of Moses and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. In other words, it was the peaching of the Spiritual life, rather than the Law bound life, that makes the prophets so centrally important to the Old Testament manifestation of the Spirit. Mankind was slowly being weaned from the Law and brought into the light of the Spirit that was the prophetic message that Christ so closely imitated. The prophets found their central ministry in this transition. Merrill holds that there are five specific ways that this movement can be understood, and hence, the Spirit manifested on earth (cf. Merrill, 1927, 161-163).
First, the realism of the prophetic message: Apparently, the Law was not sufficient to motivate the devotion or purity of the Israelites. The Law must contain the Spirit Himself if it is to be functional, otherwise it is a dead letter and serves to place external worship over and above truly Spiritual and ethical life. But throughout the long reign of the writing prophets, it was the constant confrontation between the Spirit bearing prophets and the Law worshiping elites at the Temple or at the royal court. The Spirit, in taking control of the prophets (as Isaiah holds), forced the prophet to confront the facts as they were. The Law was becoming mere ritualism, a dead letter devoid of the Spirit. Hence, the Spirit moved away from the Law and onto those prophets that were to condemn the behavior of the Israelite people in the name of ethical truths rather than Law-based rhetoric.
Secondly, the spirit manifested itself to the prophets in the sense of strict ethical rectitude. The Law, again was not enough. The primary thrust of the prophetic teaching was precisely Spiritual, that is, apart from and sometimes against the Law of Moses, as Christ was later to be condemned for. Ethical rectitude is more important than the literal attachment to the Law and to temple worship. But this kind of rectitude is the manifestation of the Spirit of God, rather than the literal following of the Law. Even in the work of James Walker, the Spirit is seen in the Old Testament basically as an ethical force (Walker, 1870, 20-21). The Spirit almost “fills in” in its early stages of manifestation, what that Law does not mention or properly regulate, but this regulation is now internally manifest. While the Law provides a worthwhile regulation of social life and individual ethics, it does not give joy, or perseverance. The Spirit and the Spirit alone has the competence to provide this. The Law is a list of regulations, but love and the voluntary submission to the will of God is another matter, and is the matter that the Sprit must slowly manifest himself to finally teach.
Third, there is a strong distrust not only of the Law, but also of ritual itself. Though the prophets worshiped at the temple, the mere act of the ritual meant nothing. The prophets often say that the Spirit is saying that God will not listen to their prayers and ignore their sacrifices. The ritual is nothing without both the Sprit and the ethical basis upon which the Law and the Temple are built. Walker holds that the presence of God is actually the manifestation of the Spirit. In other words, the Spirit can provide more directly what the Temple rituals provide indirectly. The presence of God among his people is the actual energy of the Spirit Himself (Walker, 1870, 21).
Fourth, the emphasis from the Spirit from the prophets is to be found in social relations. The Law, nor the temple services, was significantly socially oriented in the sense that the literal adhering to the Law was apparently quite compatible with social inequality and the oppression of the poor so often condemned in the prophetic writings. More was needed than the literal attachment to the Law, and that was the inspiration of the Spirit.
Lastly, the Spirit manifested itself to the prophets in the powerful sense of universality that the prophets preached. The literal adherence to the Law justified a national chauvinism that was incompatible with the ethical rectitude so important to the writing prophets. The transition from the Law to the Spirit was also a transition from a merely tribal church to that of a universal dispensation. Here is another manner in which the Spirit manifested itself more and more powerfully thought the prophets: without this connecting link, Christ would not have been fully understood, since He Himself spoke in universalist terms and hence, the same “spirit,” that of bald legalism, that destroyed the prophets and sent them to their deaths, was the same “spirit” that led Christ to Calvary, that of the arrogant Pharisees and their self-righteousness. But the new form of security was the “seal,” the seal often spoken of by the prophetic teaching, the “seal about one’s lips” in the Psalms that represented the presence of the Sprit, the “internal Law” that was to fulfill (not replace per se) the ethical center of the Old Law (Jenkins, 1981, 19).
While in the New Testament, the Spirit is seen as he who binds, the creator of the community of faith, or rather, the sustainer of that community, in the Old Testament, the Spirit seems to be more individualized. In other words, in the Old Testament, the Spirit works on individuals, prophets and leaders, not in the community as a whole, still bound to the rules of the Law code (Everett, 1996, 105). Hence, the “partial” manifestation of the Spirit in the Old Testament can be found in its individualist manifestation, where the church of the New Testament, the church of Christ, the Spirit shows Himself as a builder of the community, the single, corporate individual in Christ prefigured by the prophets. The Law had been seen as a form of security, as a way of measuring one’s actions against that of a written code. But the “spirit” of the temple prophets and the corrupt leaders of both Israel and Judah showed that the Law needed to be supplemented, and this is the role of the spirit, the “seal” that is to justify those who approach God in peace and humility.
The prophet Joel, at 2:28, holds that there will come a new age of the Spirit in the future. What was once individualized will soon be the “spirit,” so to speak, of the new age, the Spirit of the church that Christ, the completion of the Law and the prophets, will manifest as the final word of prophetic teaching (Everett, 1996, 104). Even in Isaiah 59, the Spirit is held as that which is individual, to “create a new spirit within me”so common in the Psalms as well, as the principle of the internal reformation. Later, the Spirit will become the spirit of the Reformation of society, the church and the life of the community.
In John Walvoord’s work, the Holy Sprit is the central actor in the creation of Genesis as might be seen in Genesis 1:2 or even psalm 33:6. It was the “spirit of God” who moved on the “face of the waters” and brought God’s power to bear on the primeval Chaos, proving also that the Sprit, was Himself divine. Hence, it is the Spirit’s role to bring order out of Chaos, to bring what is broken into pieces, what is uncertain, what is fragmented, into wholeness and the certainty of Truth (Walvoord, 1991, 37-38). In Psalm 104, the phrase, “. . .and thou shalt send forth thy spirit and they shall be created” again brings the Spirits work to bear on creation, holding that it was the Spirit that did the actual “mechanics” of creating the world from nothing, overcoming he void both of the primeval “world” as well as the void in the souls of those who do not believe. The Spirit brings certainly and wholeness to the void, the primeval Chaos regardless of where or when it manifests itself. Even in Job, God says that “by the Sprit I have garnished the heavens,” again showing the Spirit’s role in creation. But just as the world, ordered and law-bound, is the work of the Spirit, so is the “new creation” of the New Testament church itself the production of this same Spirit of God.
Walvoord also holds, like Jacob and so many others, that it is the Spirit that is the “speaking” element of the divinity. In other words, the spirit is the mode of divine communication in the Old Testament. For him, dreams, so important in the Scriptures, as well as signs and other helping activities of God are in fact the domain of the Spirit (Walvoord, 1991, 50-52).
Hence, in conclusion one can summarize that the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, is a strongly autonomous, powerful force in the Old Testament. Scriptures, especially the prophets, are saturated with references to the spirit of God. This spirit is a creator as well as a destroyer. He is the fulfillment of the truly ethical basis of the Law, likely the most powerful purpose and mission of the Spirit in the Old Testament. The Sprit acts as the immediate presence of God among his people, and can be found immanently in the creation itself. The Spirit is bound, in other words, more closely to the created universe than any other member of the Trinity. The Spirit, finally, gives the internal reformation that the law cannot guarantee: it provides the joy, fortitude and love so necessary to serve God not as a slave to a Law, but as a son of God.
Campbell, Alexander. (1840) The Christian System Forrester and Campbell, 1840
Ferguson, Everett. The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Erdmans, 1996
Jenkins, Ferrell. The Finger of God: A Study of the Theology of the Holy Spirit. SLSN, 1981
McGarvey, J.W. The Old Faith Revisited. Christian Publishing Company, 1891
Merrell, William. Prophets of the Dawn. Revell, 1927
Jacob, Edmund. The Theology of the Old Testament. Harper and Brothers, 1958
Walvoord, John F. The Holy Spirit. Zondervan, 1991
Walker, James. The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Henry A. Sumner, 1870