The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
Jewish people react to the topic of the Holy Spirit much like Gentiles react to gefilte fish—with a rolling of the eyes and contortion of the face. Gentiles react that way because gefilte fish is completely foreign to their experience. It’s a culinary leap of faith for them to sample the somewhat strange-looking (but, in my opinion, wonderful-tasting) boiled fish balls.
The Jewish reaction stems from the incorrect impression that the Holy Spirit is the exclusive property of Christianity. Most Jewish people would be surprised to learn the Spirit is frequently mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Unfortunately, His role there often goes unnoticed by many Gentiles and even by some Christians. Like the Ephesian believers in Acts 19:2, many “have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” in the Old Testament. Yet He was extremely active in ancient days, and His work was exceedingly important.
In the Jewish Scriptures the Hebrew word ruach is translated three ways: “wind,” “breath,” or “Spirit” (depending on context and usage). Ruach Elohim (“Spirit of God”) literally means “breath” or “wind of God.” Wrote noted Bible scholar Dr. Charles Ryrie: “The approximately 100 references to the Spirit of God in the Old Testament give evidence of His working during that period.”1
People who lived in Old Testament times would not have known the doctrine of the triune God as we do today because there was little understanding of Him that way. However, they would have understood the power, wisdom, and strength of the Spirit of God (Ps. 104:30; Isa. 48:16). God worked in those days through the Spirit as His agent:
You send forth Your Spirit, they [living creatures] are created; and You renew the face of the earth (Ps. 104:30).
Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord Gᴏᴅ and His Spirit have sent Me (Isa. 48:16).
His Work in Creation
From the beginning of the implementation of time, the Holy Spirit was involved. Genesis 1:2 records, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
Job wrote, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). Job also recognized, “By His Spirit He adorned the heavens; His hand pierced the fleeing serpent” (26:13).
His Work With Creation
The Spirit of God instructs and gives understanding: “The breath of the Almighty gives him [man] understanding” (32:8). King David wrote, “Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God; Your Spirit is good. Lead me in the land of uprightness” (Ps. 143:10).
Nehemiah declared, “You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them” (Neh. 9:20). Nehemiah understood that God had removed the Israelites from their land because they had not listened to the Holy Spirit: “For many years You had patience with them, and testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands” (v. 30).
Indeed, God said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever” (Gen. 6:3).
His Work for His Chosen Ones
Before being sent to believers as the Comforter (Acts 1:8), the Spirit of God did not permanently indwell people. First Samuel 16:14 says, “The Spirit of the Lᴏʀᴅ departed from Saul.” Later David expressed concern that he would suffer the same fate and implored God, “Do not take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11).
In those days the Holy Spirit filled people to accomplish God’s purpose. The patriarch Joseph was filled with the Spirit, causing Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt, to realize there was no one like Joseph (Gen. 41:38).
When the Jewish people were in the desert with Moses and had to build the Tabernacle, Bezalel and Aholiab became filled with the Spirit of God and received “wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works” (Ex. 31:3–4; cf. 35:31—36:1). They worked with others who were Spirit-filled to “do all manner of work of the engraver and the designer and the tapestry maker, in blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine linen, and of the weaver—those who do every work and those who design artistic works” (35:35).
When the prophet Samuel anointed David to be king, “the Spirit of the Lᴏʀᴅ came upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13); and the Spirit led him in designing the Temple (1 Chr. 28:12).
All the judges of Israel were filled by the Spirit to accomplish a specific task, usually one that involved rescuing the Jewish people from their enemies. This type of filling provided supernatural ability often marked by great courage and strength. Some examples are Othniel (Jud. 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and Samson (13:25; 14: 6, 19; 15:14).
The prophets were filled by the Spirit, enabling them to minister. The Spirit entered Ezekiel and told him, “I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me” (Ezek. 2:3). The Spirit’s presence was so evident in the prophet Daniel’s life that others even recognized it and called on him to interpret dreams (Dan. 5:11, 14).
Isaiah had a glimpse of the unknown essence of the triune God when the Second Person of the Godhead told him, “From the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord Gᴏᴅ and His Spirit have sent Me” (Isa. 48:16).
His Work to Cleanse His People and Unite Them to Their Land
The prophet Zechariah declared that, in the future, God will pour out His Spirit on the nation of Israel, resulting in its conviction of sin (Zech. 12:10).
Ezekiel prophesied that God will cleanse His people by performing spiritual surgery on them. He will replace their stony hearts with a new one, put His Spirit in them, transform their behavior, and cause them to live in the land He gave to their fathers (Ezek. 36:25–28).
It was the Holy Spirit who carried Ezekiel to see a valley of dry, parched bones (37:1). God asked him, “Can these bones live?” to which Ezekiel wisely replied, “You know” (v. 3). God showed Ezekiel that the bones were “the whole house of Israel” (v. 11) and that Israel would first arise from the dead without breath (v. 12, a reference to the modern Jewish state). Then, God told His people, “I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land” (v. 14).
His Work Points to the Messiah
Isaiah spoke much about the Messiah, giving great details concerning His person and work. Through Isaiah, God said, “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him” (Isa. 42:1).
In the New Testament, Luke recorded that Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was His custom (Lk. 4:16–19). By God’s providence, the Scripture reading was from the prophet Isaiah. When Jesus went up to read the text, something profound took place. He took the scroll and read Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lᴏʀᴅ is upon Me.” In that moment it was clear that Jesus, the longtime citizen of Nazareth, was the Promised One of Israel.
I have seen Gentiles take the culinary leap of faith to try gefilte fish, and they enjoyed it. So, too, I have seen Jewish people take the biblical plunge to investigate the Hebrew Scriptures and find, to their surprise, that the Holy Spirit is not foreign to Judaism and that He worked mightily in the lives of their ancient ancestors. Today He stands ready to work in the lives of everyone who calls on the name of the Lord to be saved (Rom. 10:13).
- Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1999), 399.