Behold my fourth and final post surveying the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible. The empowering indwelling of God’s Spirit is not just a New Testament thing!
In previous posts, we’ve already explored the Spirit as God’s presence on earth, the Spirit’s role in creation, the Spirit’s association with water, the Spirit’s association with prophecy, and the Spirit as a power source that equips people and frees them from fear. As I did in my spiritual empowerment book, Heaven’s Muscle, I am focusing on the activity and functionality of the Spirit. These posts aren’t concerned with metaphysical questions like the interrelatedness of the Trinity or the properly gendered pronoun for the Spirit. My goal is to illuminate what the Spirit does to and for you.
While studying the word “spirit” through the Old Testament, I developed a series of ad hoc categories for teaching purposes. We now come to the final three: the Spirit as a mode of transportation, the Spirit’s association with the Messiah, and the Spirit’s association with God’s future kingdom. Each of these topics paves the way for what the Spirit does in the New Testament.
One unusual feature of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is the Spirit’s employment as a mode of transportation.
Obadiah was a harborer of refugees. First Kings tells how he protected God’s prophets against the evil rulers Jezebel and Ahab. At one point, he plaintively tells his friend the prophet Elijah, “I don’t know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you.” (I Kings 18:12). Obadiah’s lament illustrates that being a prophet carries the possibility of spontaneous teleportation. And God does end up carrying Elijah away — all the way to heaven.
After Elijah departs the earth via a divine whirlwind, fifty prophets form a search party. “Perhaps,” they say, “the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain. . . .” (II Kings 2:16). These prophets were wrong about the mountain, but they were correct that the Spirit can move people across the earth like chess pieces.
Ezekiel is exhibit A. Ezekiel 3:12-15 shows how the Spirit lifted Ezekiel from the earth for a brief rendezvous with God’s flying throne-chariot. Later, the Spirit took the exiled prophet on a trip to Jerusalem from Babylon. (Ezekiel 8:3; 11:1, 24). By the Spirit of YHWH, Ezekiel was “brought out” and “set” in the valley where he had his famous vision of the dry bones (37:1). The Spirit later brought him into the inner court of the temple (43:5). We’ll see the Spirit as agent of teleportation again in Acts 8:39-40.
To move to the next topic, the Book of Isaiah posits a connection between the Spirit and the Messiah. The Spirit of YHWH, Isaiah says, will rest on the shoot from the stump of Jesse. (Isaiah 11:1-2). God will put his Spirit on his chosen one (42:1). In a passage that Jesus will apply to himself at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21), the prophet says,
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes,the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:1).
In a similar vein, the biblical prophets link the outpouring of the Spirit with the arrival of God’s future kingdom.
Isaiah says that Jerusalem will be punished until “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,” and that this outpouring will bring fertility to the land. (Isaiah 32:15; cf. 44:3). This new kingdom comes with a covenant renewal that has the Spirit as its centerpiece: “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on forever.” (Isaiah 59:21).
Joel delivers a message from God that Peter quotes in Acts 2:
“Afterward,” the Lord says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29).
With these texts in mind, we can easily read Ezekiel 47:1-12 as a prophecy of the Spirit and kingdom. In this passage, a river of water flows from the temple to the sea and heals sea, land, and people. The Spirit — again associated with water — cleanses and heals, bringing peace to both the natural world and humanity.
To summarize, In the Old Testament, the Spirit of YHWH only comes upon a few select people. The Spirit is often said to come “in power,” a condition that results in symptoms of prophetic activity and/or empowerment for a task. The Spirit can impart knowledge, strength, leadership ability, and other skills (as with several of the Judges). Spiritual empowerment usually comes in adulthood, and can be temporary (as with King Saul). Sometimes being filled with the Spirit leads to ecstatic activity (as when King Saul encounters a band of musical prophets). The Spirit may be given for a specific task or demonstration (as with the artisans who created the Tabernacle and its accouterments). We should also note that the Spirit can be grieved (Isaiah 63:10) and can be driven out by sin (Psalm 51:11).
The prophets speak of a future day when the Spirit will be “poured out” on all of Israel, ushering in a new age of peace and intimacy with YHWH. This outpouring comes after the people’s hearts are cleansed as if with clean water. The outpouring is also accompanied by prophetic activity, including visions and dreams. With these passages in mind, the Spirit’s arrival with power in the books of Acts becomes a beautiful cascade of prophecies falling into place. Everything the Spirit has done to the select few in the Old Testament begins to be experienced by all God’s children in the New Testament.
The saving work of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit to the masses. We Christians now live proleptically in the kingdom of peace and healing. The power of God is at our fingertips if we have the faith and character to accept it. In future posts, we’ll break it all down with a whirlwind tour through the New Testament.
Are there any other passages you wish I’d included? Let me know in the comments.
Bren Hughes (M.A., M.Div., J.D.), is a lawyer and former minister who blogs at BrenHughes.com and recently authored Heaven’s Muscle: Unleashing the Power of the Spirit Within You. If this post was meaningful, share it!