The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

The Holy Spirit is active during the Old Testament. At creation, we find that the Spirit of God is hovering above the waters. During the exodus from Egypt, the time of the first kings, and most notably during the ministry of the prophets, the Holy Spirit is active. But despite the wide ministry of the Holy Spirit during all of this period, what the Old Testament believers saw was just a small deposit of what was to come.

For example, in Numbers 11:17 we read that “God will take of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put the spirit on them.” (The “them” are Israel’s elders.) God did exactly what he promised, and “when the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again.” (11:25) The narrator goes on to tell us that two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not with the others. “Yet the spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp.” Moses, brushing aside Joshua’s concerns, exclaimed, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (11:29)

This vignette from the Pentateuch illustrates perfectly the nature of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Old Testament. 1) The event is exceptional: the Holy Spirit came on little more than a few hundred men in the thousands of years than encompass the Old Testament. 2) The event is transitory: the Holy Spirit came, then went.

And yet there was a hope (you might say a prophecy), that one day all of the Lord’s people would be prophets and the Lord would put His Spirit on them.

Here today, gone tomorrow

The historical books continue these themes. We read of the Spirit of the Lord coming up on selected leaders of God’s people, such as Othniel (Judges 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and others. Each time the spirit came, it came on just one man who immediately went on to complete a mighty act requiring power or wisdom, or to speak a prophetic word. Occasionally the spirit would come on the same individual on more than one occasion. Samson had such an experience on at least three occasions (Judges 14:6, 14:19, 15:14), as did Saul (1 Samuel 10:10, 11:6, 19:23).

In the Psalms, the Holy Spirit is just fleetingly described. But we learn that the Spirit is synonymous with the presence of God (51:11, 139:7), and His work involves re-creation (104:30) and guidance (143:10).

It’s not until we get to the major prophets that we start to discover more. Isaiah speaks of the Spirit resting on Messiah (11:2). God confirms “I will put my Spirit on him” (42:1, cf. 61:1), and later “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth…” (59:21). The Spirit also linked to the end of judgement and the beginning of blessing, as Isaiah prophesies of judgement which will continue “till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” (32:15, cf. 44:3). All this is a far cry from what’s gone before. Just look at the terrifically powerful verbs Isaiah uses. The Spirit who came and went from a handful of Israel’s leaders will rest on Messiah, and be poured out on God’s people.

Ezekiel tells us that under the new covenant God’s people will have a new spirit (11:19, 36:26). We soon find out this is actually God’s Spirit (36:27) who will bring holiness, and even life itself (37:14). Again God promises that “I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel” (39:29).

This cry is taken up by Joel (2:28-9) who adds more detail. This pouring out will produce prophecy, and will impact young and old, and even both male and female. Again, this is a long way from what has been experienced until then – tiny drops of the Spirit’s blessing impacting men (no women are explictly said to have experienced the Spirit in the Old Testament), and only elders and leaders.

Clearly, God is going to do something big. But not yet. We must not rush into the New Testament without reminding ourselves that there is a four hundred year gap between Malachi and Matthew. Four hundred years characterised by one thing above all others: the complete absence of the Spirit. In the words of the Jewish Midrash “With the death of the last prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the holy spirit departed from Israel”.

Articles in this series:

  1. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament <-- This article
  2. The Promised Holy Spirit – arrived!


  1. its interesting that you took the side that the holy spirit left! Unless you believe you save yourself and could loose your salvation! This happens from a poor understanding of sin! A man is dead in his sins and trespasses! This is a result of the curse! A man must have the spirit to be regenerate the divine spark! The great work of God known as grace! Paul establishes this and teaches even the true jew is one who is circumcised in the heart. Men who had a heart of stone need a heart of flesh. Men are blind, without hope and without peace. In truth Jesus taught this to peter when he pointed out flesh and blood didn’t reveal the fact that Jesus is Lord. Jesus also taught that you must be born again and that is something Nicodemus should have known being a teacher in Israel. Oh lets not forget how zacharias, john, simeon and Anna all had the holy spirit if He left why was he with them? God forbid if men should ever save themselves!
    love in the spirit

  2. Larry, you misunderstand me, largely because you only read this first half of the post, and not the second half where I specifically deal with Simeon, Anna, etc. That second part is called The Holy Spirit – arrived! which makes it quite clear that we are fully reliant on the Spirit in all things.

  3. I really loved this. Learned a lot from it. I was wondering about that 400 year gap between Malachi and Matthew. Why was this? Why did the Spirit leave? Was it a COMPLETE abscense? Thanks so much!

  4. No-one is quite sure why God chose such a long delay. I suppose all we can say is that He had already said enough (hence no more prophetic activity), but the time was not yet right for the Messiah to come.

    You’re right that the Spirit wasn’t completely absent. I should have phrased this better! There were certainly tiny drops of the Spirit’s blessing over that time. But He was completely absent in terms of His prophetic activity.

  5. Phumi Mabokela says

    i really loved this – though i am still a little confused. dont we need to be saved first through Jesus in order for us to receive the Holy Spirit – is it not the gift that only believers can enjoy. Did Jesus not say that through the power of the Holy Spirit we shall cast out demons, heal the sick etc. i dont remember any mention of the Old Testament people possessing the power to heal and cast out bad spirits.
    am i correct if i say that the Holy Spirit was only active or present in the Prophets that God used because the Israelites did not have a relationship with God.

    Did the Holy Spirit not descend the first time when Jesus was being paptised – did He not have to ascend to Heaven first for us to receive the Holy Spirit

    thank you

  6. j’ai beaucoup appris et je me dis que Dieu sait ce qu’il fait qu’il ne se presse pas pour donner de bonne chose a ses enfants que nous sommes

  7. Neh. 9:30 was this God Spirit in them?

  8. god is good

  9. I especially find it powerful and humbling to read in the Bible that to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is the very worst you can do. there is no forgiveness for such a thing. I’m sorry, I don’t remember exactly what verse it is written but this is the very worst darkness. Finding the current times to be very challenging when so much sin is happening. The breaking down of the moral fibers of our society, the pushing of boundries and new progressive ‘ideologies’ that have nothing in regarding the Mind of God. In shame and petulance committing sins and living in a very sinful world. We need all the help in getting people’s hearts to soften. All the things we must go through could never be done without the trinity. The Holy Spirit is the loveliest, most beautiful thing. Excellent article!!!! Thank you for so much insight!

  10. Last one to utilize this is a rttoen egg!