Understanding the Activity of the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

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The subject of the Holy Spirit has been one of controversy and confusion. Some religious groups teach that the Holy Spirit is still imparting miraculous gifts to those who have enough faith. Other religious groups believe the Holy Spirit will overwhelm you, causing you to have a variety of joyful emotions. Even among our brethren there are disagreements about whether the Holy Spirit personally dwells within the Christian, and about the extent of His influence over the Christian. Many arguments made concerning the Holy Spirit are less than convincing. I believe the failure in clearly understanding the work and person of the Holy Spirit is because of our lack of study on the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. We often begin our studies of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, as if the audience on the day of Pentecost had no prior knowledge of the Holy Spirit. But the Old Testament is full of information concerning the Holy Spirit, and ignorance of these texts is causing a misunderstanding of His work.

The Seventy Elders (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-26)

In Numbers 11, Moses explained to the Lord that the burden of leading the people of Israel was too great. To alleviate the burden, the Lord had the seventy elders of Israel come before Him. “Then I will come down and speak with you there. I will take some of the Spirit who is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you bear the burden of the people, so that you do not have to bear it by yourself” (Numbers 11:17, HCSB). “Then the LORD descended in the cloud and spoke to him. He took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and placed the Spirit on the 70 elders. As the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they never did it again” (Numbers 11:25, HCSB).

This is an important event to consider in our study. When the Lord placed the Holy Spirit on the seventy elders, the elders prophesied, but only for one day. Why would they prophesy for only one day? What would be the point of this miracle? The reason for the miracle was to reveal to the congregation of Israel that the seventy elders carried the authority of God. The miracle proved to the people that the seventy elders were being designated as God’s leaders and representatives. The miracle of prophecy only served the purpose of proving that God’s authority rested upon these men.

Throughout the Old Testament we also see the Spirit of the Lord resting upon the judges, King Saul, and King David. The purpose of the Spirit of the Lord resting upon these men was to show Israel that these men were God’s designated leaders and indicate the military victory the Lord would give.

Old Testament Prophecies

Understanding the prophecies concerning the Holy Spirit is very important if we are going to understand what the Jews expected when the pouring out of the Holy Spirit took place.

Isaiah 32:14-18. “For the palace will be forsaken, the busy city abandoned. The hill and the watchtower will become barren places forever, the joy of wild asses, and a pasture for flocks, until the Spirit from heaven is poured out on us. Then the desert will become an orchard, and the orchard will seem like a forest. Then justice will inhabit the wilderness, and righteousness will dwell in the orchard. The result of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quiet confidence forever. Then my people will dwell in a peaceful place, and in safe and restful dwellings.”

Notice how the people would have understood the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Verses 13-14 describe the barrenness of the nation of Israel. The palace is forsaken, the city is abandoned, and the pasture is barren until the Spirit is poured out. However, when the Spirit is poured out, the desert would become an orchard. There would also be righteousness, peace, and safety. Nothing in this prophecy suggests or even hints at a personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the prophecy about miraculous gifts or spiritual gifts. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, in this context, simply meant the restoration of the nation of Israel and the blessings of God being restored to the people.

Isaiah 44:3-5. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your descendants and My blessing on your offspring. They will sprout among the grass like poplars by the streambeds. This one will say: I am the LORD’S; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand: The LORD’S, and name himself by the name of Israel.”

The pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Isaiah 44 has the same meaning as in Isaiah 32. The picture Isaiah paints is of God’s blessings returning to the people of Israel. The nation that is a thirsty land and dry ground will become fertile. Isaiah is describing the restoration of the nation as God pours out His blessings on the people.

Ezekiel 37:13-14. “And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”

This prophecy is the vision of the valley of dry bones. The vision shows Israel as a broken, shattered nation. God says that He would put His Spirit within them. Ezekiel foresaw the restoration of the nation of Israel (giving new life to the nation) and blessings of God returning to the people.

Ezekiel 39:28-29. “‘Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord GOD.”

This prophecy makes the same point as Ezekiel 37. The pouring out of the Spirit is the same as God no longer hiding His face from the people. Israel is depicted as having a favorable relationship with God again. God will not have His back turned, but the people will have God’s favor and God’s blessings restored.

Joel 2:28-3:1. “After this I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity; then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams, and your young men will see visions. I will even pour out My Spirit on the male and female slaves in those days. I will display wonders in the heavens and on the earth: blood, fire, and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and awe–inspiring Day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved, for there will be an escape for those on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, as the LORD promised, among the survivors the LORD calls. Yes, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem….”

This is the first prophecy that I can find that speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit in terms of a miraculous outpouring. Therefore, Joel is prophesying about how Israel would know when the Spirit had been poured out. The sign that the nation/kingdom had been restored and God’s blessings were being offered to the people was through the miracles that would be performed. The point is clearer in Joel 3:1, where Joel says when these signs happen the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem will be restored. These signs were to be a warning to the people that the “great and awe-inspiring Day of the Lord” was about to come. Judgment was going to follow the restoration of the kingdom of God and the return of God’s blessings. We will look more closely at the fulfillment of this prophecy when we study Acts 2 and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.


The prophets promised the arrival of the Holy Spirit. But many have made that promise to mean something different than what the prophets spoke. The prophets declared the restoration of the kingdom which had been destroyed because of the people’s sins. The prophets preached that the blessings of God would return, though they had fallen out of God’s favor because of their wickedness. The hope of Israel was that the covenant relationship with God would one day be restored at the coming of the Messiah (Jer. 31:31-34). These are the ideas that the prophets captured in the phrase, “the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the promise of the Holy Spirit is the restoration of the kingdom, the restoration of the covenant, and the restoration of God’s blessings.

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