The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament: Power and Precedent

As with many biblical subjects, our understanding of the Spirit of God cannot be filled by the New Testament alone. The NT provides much of our knowledge of the Holy Spirit, even giving light to help us interpret the Law and the prophets’ presentation of Him, but a foundation is laid in the Old Testament that serves as a pattern of His character and activities, and gives precedent for His role in this dispensation. Comprehensively handling the progressive revelation of the Spirit in the OT is impossible in an article this brief; however, a concise overview and a look at a few specific cases will help us.

Initially, we identify some general comparisons and contrasts between the Old and New Testaments. First, we see that in both Testaments the Spirit of God is an actual person (cf. Isa 6:9-10; Act 28:25-27). Since the previous article has proven the personhood of the Spirit, we note that the Hebrew word translated “Spirit” can sometimes mean “wind” or “breath.” While reminding us of the importance of context in determining word meaning, this does not diminish our confidence in the personhood of the Spirit, as we confirm that the Holy Spirit is indisputably an individual, from Genesis to Malachi. Knowing that His eternal attributes remain unchanged, we notice His operations in previous dispensations taking on a different character in some ways.

Consistent with NT revelation, His main focus in the OT was to equip individuals with the skills and power needed to accomplish things for God. He “came upon” people to enable them to do battle against the Lord’s enemies, judge the Lord’s people, unite them together, and to give a word from the Lord.[1] He was “in” Joseph and Joshua to equip them with wisdom for government (Gen 41:38; Num 27:18), and He “filled” others to give abilities useful in building for God (Exo 31:3). A later article in this issue shows how the Spirit is the Inspirer of Holy Scripture itself. The main distinction in the Spirit’s activity between the testaments is that rather than permanently indwelling people in the OT, He could remain temporarily. Saul’s and David’s experiences teach us that the Spirit of God left people after a time for different reasons (1Sa 16:13-14; Psa 51:11). This is contrasted with His permanent presence in us (Joh 14:16; Eph 4:30).

Life and Light

Using the above-mentioned principle of context, we point out that the Spirit in Genesis 1 is in fact the Person who makes up a part of the Trinity. Without denying the involvement of the Father and Son in creation,[2] we are taught that the Spirit Himself was active in the beginning, and in ongoing generation of life afterward. Of human life we read, “The Spirit of God hath made me” (Job 33:4),[3] and speaking of the animal kingdom the Psalmist wrote, “Thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created” (Psa 104:30). His presence in the beginning (when compared with Psalm 33:6 and Job 26:13) shows us His role in bringing order and beauty to a world that was otherwise “without form, and void” (Gen 1:2).

Genesis 1:2 more literally says that He “was fluttering over the surface of the waters.” This original word is also used of the eagle and would remind us of its tending to the nest to ensure that conditions were favorable to foster life and development in its young (Deu 32:11). Immediately following, we are introduced to light and are provided a precedent for the Spirit’s function throughout Scripture – that of life-giver and light-giver. According to the Scriptures, the Spirit of God is the imparter of eternal life (Joh 6:63), and God uses the light shining out of darkness as an analogy for “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Co 4:6).


In analyzing Gideon’s battle in the book of Judges, we can apply some relevant principles. The enemy of the day was Midian, who was oppressing the Lord’s people into fearfulness (6:2), fruitlessness (v4) and frailty (v6). The spiritual lessons are evident. Midian symbolizes strife and gives us insight into how the Lord’s people suffer when harmony is disrupted by discord. Note that God’s method of salvation from such a tyrant is a man who, in humility (v15), worships at the altar of the Lord’s peace (v24) and is clothed in the Spirit of the Lord (v34). He blows a trumpet, sends messengers to gather the Lord’s people together (vv34-35), and in battle uses both trumpet and lamp (7:20) while depending upon Jehovah for deliverance (7:2). The Ephesians letter comes to mind when we think of unity (see Eph 2:14). The epistle encourages us to be diligent in keeping the unity that the Spirit has made in the bond of peace (4:3), highlighting the fact that the Holy Spirit is interested in the unity of believers. Strife is of the flesh (Gal 5:20); unity is of the Spirit.


God’s desire to dwell with His people has never waned, as He always intended for them to be united together unto Him. For the tabernacle, there were instructions to build furniture with such intricate features that it would be almost impossible to assemble by natural ability. Enter Bezaleel, a man filled with the Spirit of God (Exo 35:31). His skillset involved wisdom, understanding and knowledge imparted by the Spirit to build (and teach others to build) for God. In the power of the Spirit, the materials, which speak of Christ, were incorporated into the structure that accommodated God’s presence. So it is with us today. The NT teaches that there is a place where God dwells on earth in this dispensation, the Church, both dispensational and local (Eph 2:22; 1Co 3:16). Putting work into God’s building involves a power beyond natural ability if things of value are to be built in, as we find in the teaching of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. The Spirit equips and empowers each believer for the edifying of all, thereby building for God in His assembly.

No matter what the Lord does in our lives, or what He expects us to do with our lives, as believers let us remember the words to a man charged with building for God in troublous times: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zec 4:6).

[1] Jdg 3:10; 6:34; 1Ch 12:18; 2Ch 24:20, etc.

[2] Joh 1:2; Col 1:16; Heb 1:10 (which applies Psa 102:25 to “the Son”)

[3] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.