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When you want to get to know someone, you ask questions, like where do they live? Work? Are they married or have children? What do they do for fun—sports, music, mountain biking? But to really know what makes a person tick, you need more than just current information. You’ll want to know where they grew up, went to school, if they had siblings, where else they’ve lived—that is, you want to know where they come from as well.
Now meeting a divine person like the Holy Spirit is surely different in lots of ways, but not in this one. The Spirit has a long history with God’s people. And if we want to know about the Spirit’s work in us today (which is the ultimate goal), we need some sense of what this Spirit has been up to in the past. In short, we need to consider who the Spirit was to the first people of God—the ancient Jews. What does the Older Testament have to say about the Spirit of the Lord?
Welcome to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
The idea of covering everything the Old Testament says about the Spirit in a 20 minute homily is ludicrous. By definition this can only be an introduction. But if it serves to give us even a general flavor of what the Spirit was up to back then, then it will be enough to help us compare and contrast it with what is coming in future homilies. So two questions present themselves today. First, how did ancient Judaism understand the idea of God’s Spirit in general? And second, how is the Spirit specifically represented in the actual stories of the Old Testament?
First, what did the Jewish people think the Spirit of God was? Well, it’s hard to know exactly what the most ancient Israelites like Moses or Samuel thought, but a couple of things become clear in the intertestamental period—that 400 year space between Malachi and Matthew— which would be the first period in which thinkers would have possessed all of the material we now call the Old Testament.
Jewish scholars of that day had begun to recognize that a certain formula was often used when speaking of God’s actions. The phrase “the [blank] of God” or “the [blank] of the Lord” was often used as a kind formula for expressing God’s actual presence—a way of God’s going forth into the world. Five of them seemed to be of particular significance…the Wisdom of God, the Spirit of God, the Word of God, the Glory of God, and a complex of terms—the Power, Might, Hand, or Arm of the Lord. These phrases did not indicate just divine attribute like love or holiness, but were meant to communicate that God was present in the distinct form of Spirit, Word, or Wisdom, and that these ideas represented some real personal distinction within God.
When they combined this with other language such as the Angel of the Lord or the Cloud-rider from Daniel 7 and elsewhere, who seemed both to be God and also to be a representative of God, they began to muse on the possibility of, as they called it, “Two-Yahweh’s within a Godhead.”
Now in modern Judaism such a thought is considered blasphemy. What changed? Well, oddly enough, Jesus of Nazareth. The early church had to wrestle with all the same passages plus the fact that they had watched Jesus’ ministry from cradle to cross, and had to figure out how such a very human Messiah could also be God, and their answer was the doctrine of the Trinity. But of course, Judaism, then as now, would have nothing of that and so the idea was scrubbed as blasphemous, and has been every since.
But realize what I just said. Two independent streams of thought—intertestamental Judaism and early Christianity, without consultation—looked at the documents and both moved toward what they thought was the only answer—that the Divine Word and the Divine Spirit of the Old Testament were God, and yet somehow distinct from the Divine Father.
With that sort of “permission” to see the references to the Spirit in the Old Testament as personal and divine, let’s look at the second question—how is this Spirit actually seen working in the older covenant. We discussed the Spirit’s general work in creation and the natural world in a previous homily, so we’ll move past that to a another great moment where the Spirit’s work is patently spoken of. In Exodus 31, God gives Moses the instructions for the tabernacle and its accoutrement…
Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel…of the tribe of Judah. 3 I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, 5 and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. 6 And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab… and in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you…”
Here is a group of men, who are given an extraordinary level of gifting in order to complete the tabernacle. The text is vague on exactly how that “filling” took place, but it doesn’t seem to have been an instantaneous thing—that is, up till now Bezalel was all thumbs, but woke up one morning suddenly knowing how to smelt gold and cut diamonds. Such a thing is possible with God, but it sounds more like Moses is being reminded of something he already knows, “remember how good Bezalel is with craftsmanship. Well, I, God of Israel, did that by my Spirit.” So it sounds more like Bezalel and all these others have worked on their craft their whole life, and God’s Spirit has, in that labor, made them skilled and knowledgeable to an extraordinary degree. Why? Because God has something for them to do. God has an agenda here, and the Spirit has prepared the means for its fulfillment. How like the Spirit!
This Spirit is interested in even the humblest and earthiest human activities when God’s agenda requires it.
So we see that this Spirit is interested in even the humblest and earthiest human activities when God’s agenda requires it. You get the idea that if the tabernacle were being built today, the Spirit would have prepared plumbers and electricians. And if this, why not cooking, music, athletics, or poetry? Well, if the agenda of God required it, I’m guessing such gifts would be present. Such is apparently one of the Spirit’s works—preparing people from birth and blessing their efforts as they seek to fulfill what God’s agenda will require of them.
That said, let’s move to a another variety of gift that the Spirit is credited with dispensing—governance, authority, leadership. Leadership in Israel was clearly enabled and upheld by the empowering work of the Spirit. Consider the book of Judges. How often it says, the Spirit of the Lord came upon them—Othniel in chapter 3, Gideon in chapter 6, Jephthah in chapter 11. This seems to indicate by corollary that the Spirit was the one responsible for raising up and empowering all the judges in Israel.
But this exceedingly clear of one in particular—Sampson. Unlike the slow steady blessing of Bezalel’s growing skills, we are told specifically four times that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Sampson, giving him supernatural strength that he apparently did not possess at other times—to battle the lion, to carry off city gates, to slay 300 enemies. From this we must also conclude that his Spirit-derived strength goes away in the between times, and most certainly disappears when he allows Delilah to cut his hair.
And further it doesn’t seem like Sampson was a built like the Rock either, or Delilah would have felt pretty foolish asking him, “Sampson, wherein lies your strength.” In the hands of the Spirit, Sampson’s strength was supernatural, beyond mortal man, as his final act of pushing apart the temple pillars demonstrates.
A little later, Saul, Israel’s first king, is likewise the recipient of, not great strength this time, but great valor and courage. When we first find Saul in I Samuel 10, he is hiding amid the mules with the luggage, afraid of even making a public appearance. Not a man you would expect to lead Israel in power and strength, but when the Ammonites invade in chapter 11, the Spirit comes upon him and…well, listen for yourself…
5 Now behold, Saul was coming from the field behind the oxen, and he said, “What is the matter with the people that they weep?” So they related to him [how the Ammonites has besieged Jabesh-gilead]. 6 Then the Spirit of God came upon Saul mightily when he heard these words, and he became very angry. 7 He took a yoke of oxen and cut them in pieces, and sent them throughout the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying, “Whoever does not come out after Saul and after Samuel, so shall it be done to his oxen.” Then the dread of the Lord fell on the people, and they came out as one man.
Where did this Saul come from? Answer: the Spirit of God. But you probably know that after becoming King, Saul becomes rather lazy about following God, and we find that the Spirit later leaves him, and what happens to his great leadership ability? It vanishes and he becomes a fretful, jealous tyrant of a king, who loses the respect of the nation as well as his dynasty. You get the impression that without the Spirit, leaders of the nation become simply people with a chips on their shoulders and regrets in their heart.
Without the Spirit, leaders of nations become simply people with a chips on their shoulders and regrets in their heart.
From this, I would conclude the Spirit does not forfeit authority over gifts once given. They can be revoked. And this is exactly how the prophets speak when the nation of Israel spurned the good gifts of God, and it resulted in the departure of God’s presence and exile. It should be no surprise to discover that the one credited with giving such words to the prophets was the same Spirit.
They did not, however, speak only of lament and loss. The prophets also anticipated a coming of God’s Spirit upon God’s people in acts of great restoration and hope. Consider Isaiah in chapter 32—14 “The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever… 15 till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field….”
Or later in chapter 44—3 “For I will pour 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.”
Remember also Ezekiel standing in the valley filled with dry bones—“Then you, my people, will know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live…”
And perhaps best known of all, Joel 2—28 “And afterward, 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. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth…”
Clearly all the good that Yahweh wishes to do for Israel in the promised days of restoration is understood as a gift from God’s own Spirit. And because of this Spirit’s dramatic work in their midst, they will know that Yahweh is their God.
Often these promises have a wide national flavor to them—the whole People of God, but other times they are specific to an individual who is coming—one who would enact justice and peace, a coming Messiah.
Consider Isaiah 11…
1 Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and strength,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And He will delight in the fear of the Lord,
And He will not judge by what His eyes see,
Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;
4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor,
And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;
And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,
And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.
God will raise up an agent from the house of David, and the Spirit will rest on him. And look at the qualities it will bestow—wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge. This Spirit will empower him to do righteousness and judge wickedness. Sounds like the culmination of everything we’ve seen before. The work of the Spirit upon this one will be even more dramatic than Sampson, Saul, or the prophets. Now hear Isaiah a little later in chapter 42…
1“Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights.
I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 “He will not cry out or raise His voice, Nor make His voice heard in the street.
3 “A bruised reed He will not break And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
And finally Isaiah 61, written as if in the voice of the Messiah himself,
1“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;
2 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn…”
This Spirit will be the very means of the Messiah’s anointing and authority to preach the good news, heal the wounded, liberate prisoners, and bring vengeance and comfort on behalf of God. His will be a mission and work governed and guided by the spirit. So prepare yourself because we will meet this one in the next homily, and he will shock and surprise with just how far he is willing to depend upon this Spirit.
But all this brings us to the pointed question—how are we to fairly characterize the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament? Well, our survey has been too superficial to state things dogmatically, but a few significant things jump out.
We have already seen that this Spirit is the source of all richness, beauty, and life in a God-ordered world—that we and every living thing owes gratitude to this Spirit for our ongoing life and existence. But now we find that this Spirit is the agent who distributes divine gifts of great specificity as well—to particular individuals—acts of empowering, blessing, enablement, conviction, knowledge. The Spirit’s work is not just a general work over the whole world, but very particular even to named individuals to do very specific deeds in the plan of God.
I would suggest three words that seem to describe the general character of the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament. They are nothing like a “rule”—as if the Spirit were only allowed to do thing that fit my description. No, just an attempt to describe what we’ve actually seen the Spirit do in the Old Testament.
First, the word “occasional.” By this I do not me rare or infrequent. I mean on specific occasions where something was to be done. The Spirit’s arrival seems always to be followed by someone going out and doing some important work or task. Nor do I mean this word to suggest “instantaneous.” Sometimes, as with Sampson, it clearly was, but again the extraordinary gifts of the Tabernacle craftsmen seem to have a prolonged aspect to them, perhaps extending over their whole lives. But if it is occasional, in the sense I mean, then it also implies that the Spirit can and often does depart when the task is complete or the person in some way repudiates the task, as with Saul or Sampson.
Second, “supernatural.” This work the Spirit does cannot usually be explained according to natural human powers. We see the Spirit frequently granting great and miraculous physical powers or skills or knowledge to those who have need of them. Now this may be simply definitional, because any ordinary amount of power, knowledge, or skill would already be understood as a part of the universal work of the Spirit in nature.
Finally and most definitively—“missional”—that is, the Spirit shows up where the agenda of God demands it—wherever “the mission” requires it. It does not seem to be much a function of humans begging and pleading for superpowers, or merely a random act upon a person who is standing in the right place at the right time, or merely that some people simply deserve it more than others. No, we find the Spirit speaking through the pagan prophet Balaam very nearly against his wishes, empowering Sampson despite his dereliction, and refusing to abide with Saul despite his begging.
Wherever divine work needs to be accomplished, the Spirit is present to ensure that the agenda of God is carried out in the world.
The Mission of God seems to be both necessary and sufficient to make the Spirit move with power. Wherever there is divine work needing to be accomplished, the Spirit is present to ensure that the agenda of God is carried out in the world. But that should not surprise us. Is that not who the Spirit is—the one who brings the plans of God to their final perfection, into their final arrangement? Of course it is.
Now how this historical stuff intersects with the church or the life of the Christian is a question for another time. But for now, it is important to recognize that the first people of God found themselves in absolute dependence on this Spirit, and we should not be surprised to find out that we are as well. But therein lies a great comfort, for it means that their God is likewise our God. Their hope is now our hope. If Yahweh was faithful to work in them and fulfill all the divine purposes in them by this Spirit, what might not this same Spirit do through us? The ancient one of the Old Testament still sits upon the throne of heaven and earth. The changeless Spirit of Yahweh still gives gifts and mercifully brings the people of God home.
See you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled Saint.
The saintly mule would like to thank you for listening to these small rantings. If you would like to aid St. Asinus in the production of the Homilies, please visit his Patreon page. Also remember to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss any of the new things that will be arriving at the Homilies in the coming months. May the peace of Christ be with you.