The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

Author: Dr. George M. Flattery


Our focus in this chapter is on the Old Testament believer’s experience of the Spirit. Many studies of the Holy Spirit give a few comments about the Old Testament and pass quickly to the New. Because the New Testament experience of the Spirit is greater than in the Old Testament, we may overlook the great values in the Old Testament. The roots of the New Testament doctrine of the Spirit are in the Old Testament. The Old Testament sheds light on and enriches our understanding of the New Testament.

Author’s Purpose

          As we study the Old Testament, we will see that the Spirit is related to the work that is being presented by the authors. That is, when the Bible speaks of creation, the Spirit’s work in creation is mentioned. When conquest is being described, His work in empowering men for battle is recorded. When the tabernacle is being built, His impartation of wisdom to craftsmen is presented. The Holy Spirit is very much involved with life!

Dimensions of the Spirit

            The Holy Spirit is a person, and He expresses His personality in various dimensions. In both Testaments there is a variety of dimensions emphasized. In this chapter we cannot discuss them all. Moreover, every organization of the emphases of the Testaments will be imperfect. However, in this study, we come to the Old Testament with an inquiry about specific dimensions.

Our special interest is in several key dimensions. These include life, maturity, ministry, and worship. The Holy Spirit is a life giver; He gives both physical and spiritual life. The Spirit helps us mature in our spiritual experience; He changes and transforms us. The Spirit empowers us in vocation and ministry; He enables us to be witnesses and speaks through us. In addition He inspires us to worship.

To what extent was the Spirit working in these dimensions in the Old Testament? Were Old Testament saints regenerated? Did the Holy Spirit perform an inner work of sanctification and maturation? Were the saints empowered for service? What does the Old Testament say prophetically about New Testament experience in these dimensions? What role do the prophets have in all this? These are the questions that concern us.

Christ Is Central

            The Old Testament points us to Christ. We will discover that the “big” difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament experience centers in Him. Thus, our doctrine of the Spirit is Christ-centered. Our study also puts due emphasis on the Father. We worship and serve the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Life and Maturity Dimensions

Much debate about spiritual experience in the Old Testament turns on key words such as regeneration and indwelling. Some believe Old Testament saints were renewed but hesitate to use such terms as regeneration to describe their experience. Others believe that New Testament experience is much greater, but do not hesitate to use these terms.

The term regeneration refers to the impartation of divine life; whereas indwelling refers to the presence of the Holy Spirit, or divine presence. Some confusion arises because indwelling is frequently, whether purposefully or not, equated with life and maturity. Although the term indwelling is normally used this way, the Spirit within also gives power for service. This does not preclude the Spirit coming upon individuals with greater measures of power. Nor does it preclude the Spirit who comes upon us from doing an inner work.

No one disputes that the Old Testament saints possessed divine life. Thus, I see no reason for not using the term regeneration, though it is a New Testament (Titus 3:5) term. Similarly, the Old Testament saints did mature in God. Surely the Holy Spirit was involved; thus, we can use the term indwelling in this connection. We can do this without claiming that Old Testament saints used these terms.

Explicit Connection

            Does the Old Testament explicitly connect the Holy Spirit with the impartation of divine life and the divine presence in the maturation process? To answer this question, we have to think both of contemporary experience and what the Old Testament says prophetically.

First, with regard to contemporary experience, the key passages are I Samuel 10:6-10Psalm 51:10-12Psalm 143:10Isaiah 63:11Nehemiah 9:2030; and Malachi 2:15. Through some of these passages, at least, we will see that the Spirit is explicitly connected to divine life and maturity.

One, in I Samuel 10:6-10 we read the fascinating story of Saul. Samuel anointed Saul to be king and told him that when he departed he would meet a group of prophets. Samuel said (verse 6), “‘Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man.'” Then, when Saul turned his back to leave Samuel (verse 9), “God changed his heart.” When he met the prophets (verse 10), “the Spirit of God came upon him mightily, so that he prophesied among them.”

As verses 6 and 10 indicate, the work of the Spirit in this passage has to do with Saul being empowered to prophesy. Verse 10 is the fulfillment of Samuel’s prediction in verse 6–Saul prophesied. Samuel predicted, also, that Saul would be changed into another man. This, too, will be a result of the Spirit coming upon Saul. The context (verses 7-8) suggests that Saul would not only prophesy, but also would be empowered for his new role as king.

Then, verse 9 tells us that “God changed his heart.” At first glance this seems to be the equivalent of “changed into another man.” However, the two statements are not totally synonymous. “Changed his heart” suggests an inner change. Here, the record does not say that the Holy Spirit worked the change in Saul’s heart, but we can assume that He was involved. This action, too, would be necessary for Saul to be an effective leader and king. The two statements are not contradictory. Perhaps we can regard them as two sides of the change that was to take place in Saul’s life.

Two, the life of David yields a high point of inward experience with the Holy Spirit. He did many mighty things, but he sinned with Bathsheba.  Because of his sin, David came in repentance to God and prayed for spiritual renewal. He knows that without a gracious reply from God, he will be without the sustaining presence of the Spirit. In Psalm 51:10-12, he makes this petition.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit.

David prays that the Lord (verse10) will renew a “steadfast spirit within me.” The prayer for renewal means that he previously had a steadfast spirit. Here in Psalm 51, Montague (p. 75) says, “the word has a strong moral sense because of its parallelism with ‘a clean heart,’ suggesting sincerity and fidelity to the covenant union with the Lord (Ps. 78:37119:55:10).” The term willing spirit may mean a generous spirit. Here, a willing spirit, says Barnes (p. 89), is a “state of mind in which he [David] would be willing and ready to obey all the commands of God, and to serve him faithfully.”

From verse 11 we know that the Holy Spirit was in David. He would not have prayed “do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me” unless the Holy Spirit were present. Wood (Holy Spirit, p. 51), who defends eternal security, holds that David was concerned about losing his empowerment as king, not his personal salvation. Taking a different view, Schweizer (p. 26) states, “this is perhaps the only place in the Old Testament which states that God will give his Spirit, not just for some specific need but as an abiding presence, to everyone who asks for it.” Although we need not limit the purpose for which the Spirit was present, the main emphasis is upon David’s inward spiritual condition. His concern was not so much empowerment for kingly duties as for the inner presence of the Spirit and fellowship with God.

The steadfast spirit (verse 10) and the willing (verse12) spirit can be David’s own spirit. However, in view of his recognition of the importance of not being bereft of the Holy Spirit, it seems likely that his spirit influenced by the Holy Spirit is meant. The human Spirit must be inspired and empowered by the divine Spirit.

Three, in Psalm 143:10 David asks God for the leadership of “Thy good Spirit.” Many scholars believe that Psalm 143:7-12 is only an appeal by David for deliverance from his enemies. However, David not only appeals for deliverance from his enemies but also for spiritual help. We will see the comprehensiveness of the prayer in verses 10-12:

10 Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; let Thy good Spirit lead me on level ground.
11 For the sake of Thy name, O LORD, revive me. In Thy righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
12 And in Thy lovingkindness cut off my enemies, and destroy all those who afflict my soul; for I am Thy servant.

The Hebrew word (miyshowr) for level ground in verse 10, according to BDD, can mean either “level place” or “uprightness.” According to Barnes (p. 314), it means “land of evenness.” This land, David means, is the “ground where I may walk without the dangers to which I am exposed.” He holds that David did not pray a prayer “that he might lead an upright life.” However, others hold that “an even place” is an image for spiritual steadfastness, as distinguished from a land or footing beset with difficulties and pitfalls.

Actually, there is no reason to reject either view. Verses 11 and 12 lead us to more of a “both-and” approach with level ground referring both to spiritual experience and to protection from opponents. David’s prayer in verse 11 is for spiritual renewal, and in verse 12 he prays for deliverance from his enemies.

Four, writing about the days of Moses, the prophet Isaiah (63:11) cites the people who remember the days of old and ask, “Where is He who put His Holy Spirit in the midst of them [him, it]?” Many hold that this refers to the Spirit which was upon (Numbers 11:17) Moses. True enough, the Spirit was among them in the sense of being upon Moses. However, this passage suggests a more inclusive corporate presence. Commenting on “in the midst of them,” Skinner (p. 223) writes: “Rather: within it, i.e. His flock, the community.” Actually, the Holy Spirit was present in particular people, including Moses, and in the community as a whole, but the latter truth stands out here.

Five, on a day of fasting, the Levites uttered a prayer. According to Nehemiah 9:20, the Levites said to the Lord, “And Thou didst give [natan] Thy good Spirit to instruct them, Thy manna Thou didst not withhold from their mouth, and Thou didst give them water for their thirst.” NAU The Hebrew verb natan is properly translated give in this verse. The same verb, when translated with prepositions is translated put upon (Numbers 11:25Isaiah 42:1) and put within (Ezekiel 36:2636:17; and 37:14). The Spirit was given to the people to instruct them. Some of the instruction came through Spirit-empowered prophets, as Nehemiah 9:30 makes clear, but there was a presence within all of the people as well.

Six, Malachi was the last of the Hebrew prophets. Although Malachi does not date his ministry, Hailey (p. 401) places it in the 445-432 B.C. period. The prophet writes about the Spirit and the people. The children of Israel were sinning by divorcing their wives and marrying foreign women. Because of this, he (2:10-16) condemned those who were doing this and warned that they would be cut off from the tents of Jacob.

Verse 15 deals with the Spirit. Hailey, along with many others, acknowledges (p. 416) that verse 15 is difficult to translate. However, he favors the alternate reading of the American Standard Version which is “not one has done so who had a residue of the spirit.” The NASV says, “But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit.” According to this translation, those in whom a remnant of the Spirit dwells have not divorced their wives and married heathen women. Using this translation, the Spirit helps the people avoid a sinful practice and be submissive to the will of God.

Second, when the Old Testament speaks prophetically of New Testament experience, the connection of the Spirit with life and maturity is quite direct (Ezekiel 11:19 20). To some extent, though not in the full New Testament sense, this work of the Spirit may have been realized in Old Testament times. The Bible tells the story of how the Spirit increasingly breaks into life. The power and victory of the Spirit is progressively realized. We will examine the prophetic evidence more fully below.

Implicit Connection

            First, the spiritual fruit that we see in the Old Testament is at least implicit evidence of the work of the Spirit. I say implicit because the work of the Spirit is obvious even though the Spirit is not named. The entire Old Testament records the devotion and deeds of God’s people. The Psalms, for example, reflect the spirituality of the saints. Speaking historically, the writer of Hebrews 11 in the New Testament gives us a record of outstanding examples of people of faith in the Old Testament. The existence of spiritual fruit cannot be denied.

Moreover, the New Testament enlightens us about spiritual life in the Old Testament. With fuller light we see that the Holy Spirit is fully involved in salvation and maturation. Such great spiritual fruit could not have been produced without divine assistance and presence. To the extent of their knowledge, the Old Testament saints believed in God and obeyed. The death of Christ ultimately atoned for them as well.

Second, another line of evidence has to do with the prophets. The prophets taught and admonished the (Nehemiah 9:30) people of God. David (Acts 2:30) was a prophet. He said (II Samuel 23:2), “‘The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue.'” The Spirit and the Word are always closely connected. Furthermore, to respond to the message of the prophet is to respond to the Spirit who inspires him. This would suggest an inner work of the Spirit.

Third, the fact that some opposed the prophets and grieved the Spirit presupposes a work of the Spirit. As early as Genesis 6:3 we have the Spirit dealing with rebellious men. There, God declares, “‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever.'” According to Horton (p. 22), “Strive” is variously interpreted as “rule, judge, shield, abide in, or act on.” The NIV says “contend with.”

Concerning the children of Israel in the wilderness, Isaiah (63:10) writes: “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit.” It was possible for the people, including kings, to reject the counsel of men such as Asa (II Chronicles 15:1-2) and Zechariah (II Chronicles 24:20) whom the Spirit inspired to speak. The response of the people to God’s inspired speakers in, in a sense, a response to the Spirit Himself.


            The Old Testament does not use the word regeneration. Wood (Holy Spirit, p. 68), says, “The truth is clearly illustrated in lives, but not declared in writing.” The implicit evidence is considerable. In a few cases the Holy Spirit is explicitly connected with the spiritual life and maturity of the Old Testament saints. Speaking prophetically, the connection is clearly made.

The New Testament sheds light on the Old. We should not deprive ourselves of New Testament understanding. Let us accept the revelation that we now have and interpret the past in the light of what we now know.

Vocational and Ministry Dimensions

As we have said, the Old Testament authors related the Holy Spirit to their purposes in writing. In the Pentateuch and Historical Books we find the Holy Spirit coming upon the leaders of the nation. The Holy Spirit helped them in their leadership of the people, their nation building. The Wisdom and Poetic literature exalts God. There, we find an emphasis upon the Holy Spirit and creation. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is with the prophets in speaking God’s word to men.


            The Old Testament sometimes uses the preposition “in” to describe an inner presence of the Spirit. Pharaoh recognized that the Spirit was “in” Joseph (Genesis 41:38). The Lord told Moses (Numbers 27:18) to commission Joshua, “a man in whom is the Spirit.” Both are known for their exploits under the inspiration of the Spirit. Joseph interpreted a dream, and Joshua was a “servant” of Moses (Exodus 24:13). His exploits were many. Although this inward terminology is used, it relates primarily to the vocational and ministry dimensions.

More external language, however, is commonly used. One preposition that stands out is “upon.” Terms such as “came upon,” “came upon mightily,” “filled,” “is upon,” “fell upon,” “put upon,” “pour out,” and “will pour out,” express the dynamism of the Old Testament experience. These terms are particularly fitting for vocational and ministry empowerment.

A high point in Old Testament terminology is the use of the term labash. It means “was clothed with or clothed Himself with.” The term labash is used in Judges 6:34I Chronicles 12:18; and II Chronicles 24:20.  We might say that when the Spirit clothes Himself with believers, the believers are filled with the Spirit.

According to the NAU, the Spirit of the Lord (Judges 6:34) “came upon” Gideon. However, a literal interpretation is that the Spirit of the Lord “clothed Himself with” Gideon. He blew his trumpet and called the Abiezerites together to follow him. Later God gave him the victory over the Midianites. According to Horton (p. 39), “the Hebrew can only mean that the Spirit filled Gideon.” Although Walvoord (Holy Spirit, p. 71) uses the term “filled, he classifies this as an instance of indwelling.

On one occasion David was doubtful of the loyalty of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. The Spirit “clothed Himself with” Amasai (I Chronicles 12:18) who then reassured David with a prophetic word of encouragement. Amasai was a man of war! During the reign of Joash (II Chronicles 24:20) the Spirit of God “clothed Himself with” Zechariah to prophetically rebuke the people. At the command of the king they stoned him to death.

The Empowered Persons

The Old Testament presents many people who were empowered by the Spirit. The role of the Spirit was clearly recognized and highly regarded. It is interesting to observe the people upon whom the Spirit came.

First, the Spirit “was in”, “came upon,” or “filled” God’s servants. Among the leaders touched by the Spirit were the patriarch Joseph (Genesis 41:38Acts 7:8 9); God’s great administrator and prophet, Moses (Numbers 11:17Isaiah 63:11 12Deuteronomy 34:10 12Psalm 106:33); and Moses’ successor, Joshua (Numbers 27:18Deuteronomy 34:9). Also, God’s servants included the craftsmen in the wilderness. They were filled with the Spirit to do their work (Ex. 28:331:335:31).

Second, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Balaam. In Numbers 24:2 we read, “The Spirit of God came upon him.” According to Horton (p. 29), Balaam was “really a heathen fortune teller and adviser who used various means to conjure up spirits or find omens or make incantations for a price.” Later, he sold his services to the Midianites and died fighting against Israel. Nevertheless, God used Balaam to achieve His purpose. The Lord (Numbers 22:28) even opened the mouth of Balaam’s donkey to speak to Balaam.

Third, the Spirit came upon the judges: Othniel (Judges 3:10), Jephthah (Judges 11:29), and Gideon (Judges 6:34). When the Spirit came upon Samson, he was stirred (Judges 13:25), tore asunder a lion (Judges 14:6), and killed thirty Philistines (Judges 14:19). On one occasion the Spirit made the ropes around him as flax (Judges 15:14). Later, the Spirit departed from Samson (Judges 16:20).

Fourth, the Spirit came upon kings. Saul was Israel’s first king. The Spirit came upon him, and he prophesied (I Samuel 10:610:10). On one occasion (I Samuel (11:6) Saul became angry and led the people against the Ammonites. Because of Saul’s disobedience, the Spirit departed (I Samuel 16:14) from him. Later, the Spirit (I Samuel 19:23) came upon Saul again and empowered him to prophesy. When Samuel anointed David as king, the Spirit (I Samuel 16:13) came upon him mightily “from that day forward.” The presence of the Spirit was evident in all his life and leadership (II Samuel 23:2I Chronicles 28:12Psalm 51:11Psalm 143:10Mark 12:36; and Acts 1:164:25).

Fifth, the Spirit anointed the prophets (Psalm 105:15). According to this verse, the patriarchs were prophets. The patriarchs included Abraham (Hebrews 7:4), Isaac, Jacob, the 12 sons of Jacob (Acts 7:8 9), and David (Acts 2:29). Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) and David (Acts 2:30) were prophets. Twice (I Samuel 10:1219:24) the question was asked, “‘Is Saul also among the prophets?'”

Other prophets also arose who were inspired by the Spirit. The Spirit empowered Micaiah (I Kings 22:24), Azariah (II Chronicles 15:1 8), Jehaziel (II Chronicles 20:14), and Zechariah (II Chron. 24:20). The Spirit came upon Amasai, who was a man of war, and inspired him to speak (I Chronicles 12:18). The Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah (Acts 28:25) and, indeed, all the prophets (II Peter 1:19-21). Implicitly, the Spirit was upon Elijah (II Kings 2:15) and Elisha (II Kings 2:9). Ezekiel abundantly experienced the Spirit (2:2; 3:12, 14, 24: 8:3; 11:1, 5, 24; 37:1). Micah (3:8) said, “I am filled with power–With the Spirit of the Lord.”

Sixth, God even used a heathen king for His glory. This reminds us of the way God used Balaam. Isaiah called Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1) God’s “anointed.” God promised to use King Cyrus to subdue the nations before him. God will use whom He chooses to achieve His purposes.

Activities of the Spirit

            Our attention above has focused on the people who were inspired by the Spirit. We mentioned some of the things they did as a result. Here, we will expand on the various types of activities of the Spirit.

First, empowerment obviously is stressed. The judges, for example, were enabled to judge Israel, to successfully wage war, and to perform feats of strength. Saul and David were empowered as kings. The prophets were inspired by the Spirit to speak; their words contained rebuke, comfort, and revelation.

Second, attestation was important. The Spirit was “in” Joshua (Numbers 27:18). When Moses commissioned him as his successor, Joshua (Deuteronomy 34:9) was “filled with the spirit of wisdom.” The Spirit came upon David (I Samuel 16:13) and Saul (I Samuel. 10:610). In all these cases the Spirit established their leadership. The presence of the Spirit spoke powerfully to the people.

Third, another emphasis is on guidance. Joseph was able to interpret Pharoah’s dream. David received the plan of the temple (I Chronicles 28:12) from the Spirit (NIV). The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel (II Chronicles 20:14) and revealed the plan of battle. He said (verse 15) to King Jehoshaphat, “for the battle is not yours but God’s.” The Spirit sent and guided Ezekiel (2:1-3) in his ministry. He became a powerful prophetic witness to Israel.

Fourth, the Spirit gave wisdom to the craftsmen in the wilderness (Ex. 28:331:335:31). Bezelel (Exodus 35:32) was “filled” with “the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding and in knowledge and in all craftsmanship.” Through the Spirit, God revealed His plan to the workers and empowered them to build the tabernacle. We can expect that God will do similar things today!

Fifth, not much is said to directly connect the Spirit with miracles. However, Moses was sent to the Pharoah to perform “signs and wonders.” This was done (Deuteronomy 34:9 12) with “mighty power.” In Isaiah 63:12 we read that God “caused His glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses.” As a result he divided the waters. Many miracles were worked through Elijah. Elisha asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit. Upon receiving this, God worked miraculously through him (II Kings 2:9 15). Unmistakably the Spirit was empowering.

The prophets were used of the Spirit to teach and admonish (Nehemiah 9:2030II Samuel 23:2). Many (Nehemiah 9:30) would not “give ear” to the prophets, and the prophets admonished them to turn to God. Azariah (II Chronicles 15:1) and Zechariah (II Chronicles 24:20) are examples. Today, again, we need to hear prophetic voices. Let us fill our pulpits with strong teaching and stirring words.


We have already touched on the ministry of the prophets. Some who were not “vocational” prophets prophesied. Horton (p. 55) says, “The entire Old Testament looks on prophecy as the chief activity of the Spirit among His people.” Here, we will highlight the prophets and prophetic ministry.


As we have noted, the patriarchs were prophets. Moses, the great wilderness leader, was a prophet. The seventy elders who worked with him prophesied. Samuel (I Samuel 9:919) was a prophet. Saul (I Samuel 10:10: 19:18 24) prophesied. David (Acts 2:30) is identified as a prophet.

At Ramah there was a school of prophets (I Samuel 19:19-20) under Samuel’s leadership. Young (My Servants, p. 92), states: “After the death of Samuel the prophetical bodies seem to have died out, not to reappear until the time of Elijah and Elisha.” During this time the “sons of prophets” appeared. There were schools of prophets at Bethel (II Kings 2:3), Jericho (II Kings 2:5), Gilgal (II Kings 4:38), and elsewhere (II Kings 6:1). Then, Young (My Servants, p. 94) says: “When the great writing prophets appear upon the scene, the ‘sons of the prophets’ largely disappear.”

Some writers hold that many of the early prophets were ecstatics. This, in their view, caused the empowerment of the Spirit to fall into disrepute. Consequently, the eighth century writing prophets do not claim this empowerment. Over against this, others maintain that the prophets were not ecstatics. Moreover, the fact that Amos, Hosea, and Jonah do not claim the inspiration of the Spirit does not prove the “disrepute” theory. Micah (3:8) does mention the Spirit. Isaiah may have referred to himself in 48:16 (note Acts 28:25). From others, of course, we know that the prophets were inspired (Zechariah 7:12) by the Spirit.


            The terms “prophet,” “prophecy,” and “to prophesy” are flexible. Sometimes the precise meaning can only be determined by the context. Several issues arise concerning these terms. Is prophecy a message from God to man, praise to God, or both? Must a prophetic message be based on revelation? Is prophecy ecstatic utterance? Is the delivery of the message empowered by the Spirit? Does the prophet exhibit abnormal behavior in the delivery of his speech?

God’s Message to Man

Obviously, the prophets did receive messages from God and deliver them to men. Young (My Servants, pp. 65-66) writes:

1. The principal word used to designate the prophets was nabhi. Its precise etymology cannot be ascertained with certainty, but its usage shows that its primary meaning was one who declared the message which God had given to him.
2. Two other words are also used, namely ro’eh and hozeh, which are practical synonyms. Both stress the method of receiving revelation, namely, seeing. At the same time, the function of those who are designated by these terms is that of declaring the word of God.

God revealed His message to the prophets in a variety of ways. In Numbers 12:6 we read of His revelation through dreams and visions. The message may be one of prediction, encouragement, rebuke, or admonishment. The Old Testament prophets spoke stern messages of judgment upon rebellious people, as well as messages of comfort.

No doubt revelation is central to this form of prophecy. However, some revelation was more authoritative than other. The Scriptures, for example, have a higher level of revelation. Further, Wood (Holy Spirit, p. 117) states: “This is not to say that all prophets received revelation. No doubt many did not, but found the information they were to proclaim either in the revealed law or from what had been revealed to other prophets.” Underlying this “other information,” of course, was previous revelation.

Were the prophets empowered in their speech? A message received is not prophecy until it is delivered. No doubt messages were sometimes delivered without any particular show of dynamism. At other times, the prophet was filled with power. The message was delivered, as well as received, in a prophetic manner. Without an immediate revelation, this would be similar to inspired preaching. The most characteristic aspect of this type of prophecy, however, is revelation.

Man’s Praise to God

In some cases of prophesying the idea of God’s message to man does not seem to fit. According to Grudem (pp. 33-37), the idea of speech prompted by an external spiritual influence fits better. When this results in praise, it is “man-to-God” communication.

God took the Spirit which was upon Moses and put Him upon the seventy elders (Numbers 11:1725 29) in the wilderness. The seventy prophesied. Two men, Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp. Joshua thought they should be restrained. Moses said, “‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!'” Though some think of teaching, it would appear here that inspired praise is intended. Young (My Servants, p. 69) suggests the possibility of speaking in tongues. The idea of praise would fit with Moses’ wish. Commenting on this instance, Young writes (My Servants, p. 70): “From this we learn that in certain cases, the word nabhi might have a wider connotation than that of declaring a message for God.”

With regard to Saul, Samuel predicted (I Samuel 10:6): “you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying.” Saul met the prophets (I Samuel 10:10; compare I Samuel 19:18-24) and “prophesied among them.” Here, because of the music and the movement of the prophets, there is even stronger suggestion of praise.

The best commentary on such passages is I Chronicles 25:1-7. Grudem (p. 36) writes:

Here there is no hint of anyone being commissioned to go and say to someone, “Thus says Yahweh.” Indeed, it is not God-to-man communication but man-to-God communication (vss.. 3, 7). The meaning “messenger who speaks words with absolute divine authority” is unsuitable. But the text could well imply songs of praise prompted by the Spirit of God (cf. the description of the glory of the Lord in 2 Chr. 5:14).

According to Wood (p. 111), “The meaning ‘to speak for God,’ then, does not apply.” He then says that (Holy Spirit, p. 111), the Levitic singers were “rendering praise to God, as they employed ‘harps,’ ‘psalteries,’ and ‘cymbals’, for accompaniment.” In my view this is the best interpretation. However, praise itself can be a strong witness. While addressed to God, the praise contains an indirect message to all who hear. Horton (p. 44) says that they were “speaking for God in song.”


Ecstasy is defined by some as a form of mad, irrational behavior. Implied is a total loss of self control. Others use the term more of a “supra-rational” state of mind inspired by the Holy Spirit. The prophets were not ecstatic in the former sense. They were endued by the Spirit. Sometimes they exhibited some “abnormal” forms of behavior. The behavior would appear to be abnormal to people around. Given the indefiniteness of the word, we should exercise some care in using it. The Greeks who coined the word understood “a state of trance.”

The Promised Spirit

            The promises of God to His people were very dear to them. Kaiser (Old Testament, p. 34-35) finds them at the “center” of Old Testament theology. As he points out, the promises were expressed in covenants, and the people looked forward to a new and better covenant. Among the promises were the prophecies concerning the Spirit. The Holy Spirit would help bring the fulfillment of all the promises.

When are the promises fulfilled? No doubt immediate fulfillment was desired and even expected. However, greater fulfillment would come in the ministry of Christ on earth. Still greater fulfillment would come after His death, burial, and resurrection. Some of the prophecies are yet to be fulfilled. Our desire is to experience as fully as possible the eschatological blessings promised.

The Messiah

            Christ is central to the fulfillment of the promises. The Old Testament foretells His empowerment with the Spirit. During His ministry on earth, Christ was empowered by the Spirit. Christ ministers through the Spirit now. Some aspects of the ministry of Christ will not be fulfilled until His second coming.

Several passages speak of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the anointed One of God. His Hebrew name is Messiah, which means Anointed. The Greek equivalent is Christos. Many believe that “His anointed” in Psalm 2:2 refers to Christ. In the light of Psalm 2:7 this is justified. Hannah (I Samuel 2:10) seems to refer to Christ in her prayer. She concludes her prayer with the comment that God will “exalt the horn of His anointed.” Although the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, we know from other Scriptures that Christ was anointed with the Spirit.

The main passages that name the Spirit are Isaiah11:242:161:1Isaiah 11:2 says, “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon Him.” This passage (Isaiah 11:1-10) is applied to Christ in Romans 15:12. In Isaiah 42:1 God speaks with regard to His Servant. He says, “‘I will put My Spirit upon Him.” Jesus applied this passage to Himself in Matthew 12:18-21Isaiah 61:1 says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” To some degree this passage may apply to Isaiah, but Christ (Luke 4:18) applied it to Himself.

Carter (p. 67) holds that there is a Messianic reference in Isaiah 48:16, which says “And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.” It is difficult to determine whether the speaker has been sent by or with the Spirit. Although the passage is difficult to interpret, one possible reading is that the Father has sent both Christ and the Spirit. Others identify the speaker as Cyrus, the servant, or the prophet.

Isaiah 59:21declares, “‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ says the LORD: ‘My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says the LORD, ‘from now and forever.'” NAU

Some scholars hold that this means the Spirit is upon Christ or Isaiah. However, according to Barnes (p. 355), this passage refers to the Spirit being upon “the pious Hebrew people.” Neve (p. 82) maintains that “the word placed in the mouth of the individual believer in Israel is inspired by the Spirit.”

The People of God

            Next, let us consider what the Old Testament says prophetically about the Spirit and the people of God. Whether or not the prophecies had any immediate application is always a question to be discussed, but we do know that the prophecies foretold the work of the Spirit in the future.

First, we have Joel’s prophecy. According to Kaiser (Old Testament, p. 186), Obadiah and Joel “with a reasonable degree of assurance” were the first of the writing prophets. They ministered after the division of the kingdom of Israel. The future Day of the Lord was their theme.

Through Joel, God promised a future outpouring of His Spirit (Joel 2:28 29) upon all mankind. Joel declared (verse 28), “And your sons and daughters will prophesy.” Along with this would come the dreams and visions. This was followed by a promise of judgment (verses 30 31). Then verse 32 declares the promise of deliverance for those who call on the name of the Lord. This passage was cited by Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Peter expanded on Joel 2:29 by adding (Acts 2:18) “‘and they shall prophesy.'”

Joel’s prophecy belongs to the emphasis of the Old Testament on empowerment to speak and serve rather than on the inner transforming work of the Spirit. As Broadman (p. 75) says,

The promise was made against the background of exceptional anointing and endowments, as for judges, prophets, and kings (Judg. 11:29I Sam. 16:13Mic. 3:8). It was given in terms of the Spirit’s role in prophetic inspiration (cf. Neh. 9:30Zech. 7:12) rather than his functions in creating and sustaining the order and life of the world (cf. Gen. 1:2Job 33:4Ps. 104:30).

Isaiah 4:3 speaks prophetically of a day when everyone who is left in Zion will be called holy. This will happen (Isaiah 4:4) “When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning.” This passage refers to the future salvation for the remnant of Israel.

Two views with regard to this passage strike our attention. According to one view, the Spirit judges the unrighteous and morally cleanses the righteous. Thus, the nation is cleansed through the cleansing of individuals. Over against this view, Menzies (Empowered, p. 126) holds that the righteous remnant of Israel is cleansed by separation from the unrighteous. The moral cleansing of the righteous is not in view. As for the wicked, the Messiah (Isaiah 4:4) will slay them with “the breath [ruach] of his lips.” While this is true, the inner cleansing of the righteous cannot be entirely ruled out.

In Isaiah 32:15 the prophet foretells a future outpouring of the Spirit upon Israel. A comprehensive work of the Spirit is foretold. The ultimate fulfillment of this passage is still future. According to Broadman (p. 283):

The outpouring of the Spirit will result in the increased fertility of the earth (v. 15), and in the establishment of justice and righteousness throughout the world (v. 16: cf. 61:11; Ps. 85:10-12). The widespread practice of righteousness will in turn produce peace and tranquillity forevermore (v. 17; cf. 30:15; 54:14). An atmosphere of security and quiet restfulness will pervade the land (v. 18: cf. 33:20). Then men will sow their crops beside all streams, not fearing the failure or drying up of any (v. 20a). It will even be safe for them to let their stock range free (v. 20b).

Another passage is Isaiah 44:3 which says: “‘For I will pour out 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.'” The noun land is supplied by the translators. Young (Isaiah, Vol. 3, pp. 166-167) states, “The word thirsty is masculine, and probably refers to an individual rather than to a thirsty land.” The King James translation says “upon him that is thirsty.” Most translations, however, supply the word land.

In my view the best interpretation is that the first part of the verse speaks of pouring out water on the land, and that this is figurative of spiritual blessings to come. Even though the word thirsty is masculine, Young (Isaiah, Volume 3, p. 166) states: “By means of the figure of water in a waste and dry land He [the Lord] indicates the spiritual blessings to come. Stress falls upon the divine activity. Salvation by grace stands out in this verse.”

The Spirit is viewed as giving life. The offspring of Israel (v. 4) “will spring up among the grass.” The people will respond positively (verse 5) to the outpouring of the Spirit. And we note that the preposition “upon” is used of the life-giving activity of the Spirit.

Isaiah 59:21 comes at the conclusion of a passage dealing with the future redemption of Israel. Here, Isaiah records the Lord’s message. His covenant with the future remnant is in view. Young (Isaiah, Volume 3, p. 441), states: “Actually this is not a new covenant, but a new administration of the covenant once made with the fathers.” Then, he says, the “content of the promise is found in that the Spirit from on high and the words placed in Israel’s mouth will never depart from them.” Without doubt, this passage applies under the new covenant as well.

Third, although Jeremiah does not mention the Spirit in connection with the New covenant, he gives us the central passage. According to Jeremiah (31:33), the Lord declared, “‘I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.'” From other Scriptures we know that writing the law on hearts is a work of the Spirit.

Fourth, in Ezekiel 11:19-20 the prophet tells us that God will put a “new Spirit” within His people. After this, “‘they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances.'” From Ezekiel 36:26-27 it is clear that God will put His Spirit within them. Here is the inner renewal (verse 25) effected by the Spirit. The connection with the New covenant is clear. God Himself will enable men, by His Spirit, to obey His laws. Not only is this a work of the Spirit, but also it is only through the mediatorial work of Christ that the new covenant is made effective.

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is recorded in chapter 37. Boyd (p. 164) sees a partial fulfillment of this passage now with ultimate fulfillment at the second coming of Christ. Concerning this chapter, Halley writes (p. 297) that it is:

A prediction of the national resurrection of scattered Israel, their return to their own land, the reunion of Judah and Israel, under the reign of an everlasting king called “David,” 24-26. It is a plain forecast of the Conversion of the Jews to Christ; as Paul also foretold in Rom. 11:152526.

Needless to say, the issue of the land is paramount. This issue is central in one’s views of eschatology. Our purpose here is not to deal extensively with that subject. However, in passing, we note these comments by Kaiser (Old Testament, pp. 268-269):

Our contention is not that the New covenant only fulfilled the spiritual promises made to Abraham’s seed. True, the middle wall of partition had been broken down between believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:13-18); but this again did not imply or explicitly teach that national identities or promises were likewise obviated any more than maleness and femaleness were dropped. . . . in the midst of this unity of the ‘people of God’ and the ‘household of faith’ there yet remains an expectation of a future inheritance which will also conclude God’s promise with a revived nation of Israel, the kingdom of God, and the renewed heavens and earth. Again, it is evident that we share already in some of the benefits of the age to come; yet the greater part of that same unified plan still awaits a future and everlasting fulfillment.

In chapters 38 and 39 Ezekiel deals with the battle against “Gog of the land of Magog.” Then, in 39:21-29 a reaffirmation of the theme of restoration is given. The pouring out of Spirit in verse 29 has a comprehensive impact. Here again is a promise for the future, yet which has some fulfillment now.

Fifth, Zechariah 12:10 speaks of Christ as the one “pierced.” God will pour out “on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication.” Their salvation, our salvation, is in Christ. Horton (p. 105-106) writes:

The Holy Spirit as the Spirit of grace pours out the grace (unmerited favor) of God in full measure. As the Spirit of supplications, He moves on the people to respond to that grace and seek the favor God offers them. Grace too, must be interpreted with respect to the One who was pierced, that is with respect to the redeeming love of God manifest in the death of Christ on Calvary. Surely, there is not greater love, and there will be no greater sorrow than that of Israel when they discover who it was they pierced.

The Old Testament promises concerning the Spirit are comprehensive. They include the land and national resurrection of Israel, prophetic inspiration and empowerment, inner spiritual renewal, and maturity in our walk. The New Testament fulfilment is solidly grounded in the prophetic word of the Old Testament.


            As we began this study of the Spirit in the Old Testament we expressed our interest in the dimensions of life, maturity, vocation, and ministry. we set out to explore both experience that was contemporarily to the saints and the prophesied Spirit. The role of the Spirit in connection with both Christ and the people of God have been studied.

With regard to contemporary experience, we have discovered that the Spirit is implicitly related to spiritual life and maturity and, in a few cases, is explicitly mentioned. Some New Testament terms, such as regeneration, are not used in the Old Testament. The main emphasis in the Old Testament is on the empowerment of the Spirit to achieve the purposes of God. The Spirit actively empowers the believers in vocational endeavors and in ministry. A central emphasis is the empowerment to prophesy.

Speaking prophetically, the Coming of the Spirit upon Christ is a pronounced theme. The prophecies were fulfilled in the life and ministry of Christ while He was on earth. Christ continues, even now, to relate to us through the Spirit. Christ is the giver of the Spirit.

As far as believers are concerned, the prophesied role of the Spirit is comprehensive. His presence and work will be evident in imparting new life, in developing the saints in the image of Christ, and in empowering for service. As we study the New Testament, all of these emphases will be present.

For Further Study

Barnes, Albert. Barnes Notes. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983.
Boyd, Frank M. Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House,
Carter, Charles W. The Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1974.
Grudem, Wayne A. The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today.
Westchester: Crossway Books, 1988.
Hailey, Homer. A Commentary of The Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1981.
Halley, Henry H. Pocket Bible Handbook. Chicago: Henry H. Halley, 1951.
Hildebrandt, Wilf. An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God. Peabody:
Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
Kaiser, Walter C, Jr. Toward an Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1978.
Montague, George T. The Holy Spirit: Growth of a Biblical Tradition. New York: Paulist
Press, 1976.
Menzies, Robert P. Empowered for Witness. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
Neve, Lloyd. The Spirit of God in the Old Testament. Tokyo: Seibunsha, 1972.
Schweizer, Eduard. The Holy Spirit. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.
Wood, Leon J. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1976.
Skinner, J. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Cambridge: The University Press, 1951.
Wood, Leon J. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan    Publishing House, 1976.
Young, Edward J. The Book of Isaiah, Volume 3.. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1984.
Young, Edward J. My Servants the Prophets. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1952.

© Copyright 2004. GMF.

The Spirit in the Old Testament by Dr. George Flattery. Dr. George Flattery’s complete book, “The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament”, published by Global University, Springfield MO, 2009,  is now  available to purchase. For pricing and delivery please send an e-mail enquiry to

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