Not by Might but by My Spirit: The Spirit of God in the Old Testament

Not by Might but by My Spirit: The Spirit of God in the Old Testament

The Spirit of the Lord is revealed in special ways throughout the Old Testament.

The biblical stories of ordinary, feeble human beings who carry out divinely appointed tasks have captured the attention, imagination, and hope of the people of God for millennia. However, these stories do not intend to exalt heroic exploits or to focus upon superhuman strength.

Interwoven throughout the Old Testament is the deep conviction that the Lord Himself calls His people to participate with Him in carrying out the divine mission on earth.

But how can one even begin to speak about the mysterious reality in which the powerful, life-giving God is present with and active in the life of His people? Our biblical ancestors responded to this question by testifying to the activity of the Spirit of God in, among, and through God’s people in order to enliven, transform, and equip them to carry out the divine calling.

For our biblical ancestors, the word that we translate as spirit (ruach) conveyed the idea of “air in motion.” When this word appears in the Old Testament, it often refers to the creative, life-giving, and transforming presence and activity of God in the life of His people. While the word is translated as spirit in these instances, the same word can refer to wind or breath. Whether it be the blowing wind, the exhaling of breath, or the divine Spirit, this “air in motion” conveys the mystery of that which cannot be seen but has obvious life-giving, empowering, and transforming effects.

This three-fold meaning of spirit/breath/wind is most obvious in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). In this vision, the prophet illustrates the enlivening activity of the Lord’s Spirit. As the mighty wind blows from the north, south, east, and west, the breath of life resurrects the dry bones into a vast army. The prophet makes vividly clear that prophetic proclamation enables the bones to come together; however, until the life-giving Spirit/breath of God blows over the bones like a mighty wind, there is no life. For the exiled people who had lamented that their bones were dried up and their hope was gone, Ezekiel spoke a word of optimistic faith that the Spirit/breath/wind of God would blow resurrecting breath into their arid wasteland.

While Christians today are perhaps most familiar with the phrase Holy Spirit, the Old Testament most often uses the phrase Spirit of God or Spirit of the LORD (Yahweh). Over time, as the people of the Lord recognized that God’s Spirit was divine and set apart from mere human breath or natural wind, they applied the word that expresses the unique or set apart nature of a person or thing—“holy”—to the word “spirit.” By the time of the writing of the New Testament, the phrase “Holy Spirit” had become the common way to express the uniquely divine nature of God’s Spirit.

In order to understand more fully the nature and work of God’s Spirit, the Old Testament does not offer a neatly-arranged systematic presentation. Rather, it provides diverse stories testifying to the Spirit’s activity in the life of God’s people. Refusing to reduce the activity of the Spirit to a single phrase or word, the Old Testament uses diverse verbs such as rush upon, pour out, clothe, stir, come upon, and carry. The opening lines of Scripture depict the creative, life-giving Spirit of God as it hovers over the surface of the chaotic waters.

Just as the Old Testament is careful not to reduce the activity of God’s Spirit to a single word, it also refuses to limit the Spirit’s activity to a single category of people. The Lord’s Spirit is in active in persons as diverse as artisans and judges, kings and prophets. In the wilderness, the Lord calls Bezalel to lead in the construction of the tabernacle and its furnishings. Filling Bezalel with His Spirit, the Lord equips this artisan with “ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze…” (Exod. 31:1-5).

In multiple instances during the settlement period, the Spirit of God inspires and empowers ordinarily weak judges to carry out the Lord’s deliverance of His people. From Othniel to Gideon, Jephthah to Samson, the divinely-given task was never based upon human strength, wisdom, or ingenuity, but was initiated and carried out through the judge by the coming of God’s Spirit.

Throughout the story of God’s people, the Spirit of God also endowed Israel’s leaders with courage and wisdom to carry out their tasks.

As Moses became overwhelmed by his many responsibilities in the wilderness, the Spirit of God that guided Moses was also given to seventy elders so that Moses would no longer bear the burden alone. Similarly, as Moses’ life neared its end, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Joshua, so that he might continue the work of Moses. In the earliest days of Israel’s kingship, the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon both Saul and David. Many generations later, the scroll of Isaiah anticipated a future ruler upon whom the Lord’s Spirit would rest: a servant who would dispense justice as guided by God’s Spirit.

In the midst of widespread false prophets, the prophet Micah boldly declared that he himself was filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, to declare the word of God to Israel. Nearly two centuries later, the prophet Ezekiel testified to the activity of God’s Spirit in enlivening him and raising him to his feet when he fell weak, in lifting him up and carrying him to the Jews in exile, and in giving him a message to declare to the Lord’s people.

The activity of God’s Spirit was not merely Israel’s memory of the past, however.

In speaking of the homecoming from exile, Ezekiel vividly described a future in which the Lord would give His Spirit so that the people of God would indeed be enabled to obey God faithfully. In anticipation of the empowering and transforming work of the Lord’s Spirit, the prophet Joel anticipated a future outpouring of the Spirit of God so that the boundaries of gender, age, and social class would be broken and all flesh would participate in the mission of God.

Readers of the Old Testament might focus upon the extraordinary nature of what occurs when God’s Spirit comes upon His people, be we should not be distracted from the real significance of God’s Spirit as revealed in Scripture. The activity of the Spirit of the Lord was never intended to bring attention to human ingenuity or awe-inspiring human achievements. Rather, the activity of God’s Spirit testified to the reality that God calls His people to participate in His mission on earth, and He inspires, equips, and empowers them to carry out their tasks.

The Lord did not expect fragile mortals to do God’s work in place of God, but rather to participate with God in His work. Therefore, the Spirit of God was never to be manipulated, coerced, or co-opted by God’s people. The Spirit was given freely and graciously from God to His people. Ministering at a time of great challenge and transition, the prophet Zechariah perhaps most appropriately summarizes the testimony to the work of God’s Spirit in the Old Testament: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 4:6).

Tim Green is the dean of the Millard Reed School of Theology and Christian Ministry and professor of Old Testament theology and literature at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Holiness Today, May/Jun 2019