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Today's Study

Psalms 51:11-12: Who Is the Old Testament Holy Spirit?

Are we to suppose that the Holy Spirit of Psalm 51 is the same Holy Spirit to which the New Testament refers? Or is an understanding of the Holy Spirit too advanced for the state of revelation under the older covenant?

Few doctrines suffer more from neglect of the Old Testament data than the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Even those scholars who do consider some of the Old Testament evidence quickly summarize it and use it merely as a jumping-off point to address the main pieces of evidence, which are assumed to be in the New Testament.

However, if that is so, why is it that Jesus expected Nicodemus, in John 3, to know about the person and work of the Holy Spirit? Where could this "teacher of the Jews" have gained such a doctrine if the Old Testament has such a paucity of teaching on this theme? There are only three uses of the complete expression "Holy Spirit" in the Old Testament: Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 63:10 and 11. The most common Hebrew term is ruah, appearing 378 times and translated variously as "wind," "spirit," "direction," "side" and some half-dozen other words.

It is the three major prophets who use the word "spirit" most often. The term ruah appears fifty-two times in Ezekiel, fifty-one times in Isaiah and eighteen in Jeremiah. Particularly important is Ezekiel 37:1-14, which portrays the life-giving power of God's Spirit in the Valley of Dry Bones. Only the Spirit of God can put life and spirit back into a nation, such as Israel, that has passed out of existence.

What, then, was the operation of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament? Did the Spirit in the old covenant come upon persons for a short period of time for a special task, while in the New Testament he indwelt the believer, as some have argued? If so, this assumes that the saints of the older covenant became members of the family of God merely by observing the rules and regulations of the Torah. But how could that be true in light of Jesus's stern rebuke to Nicodemus before the cross, a rebuke that demanded a knowledge of the Spirit from the Old Testament alone? And how can that be made to square with the Old Testament's demand for a heart religion--Jeremiah's "circumcision of the heart" rather than a mere circumcision of the flesh?

What did Ezekiel mean when, in Ezekiel 36:24-28, he pressed the necessity of a new heart and a new spirit, which was probably the passage that Jesus held Nicodemus responsible for? The Old Testament does teach of a personal Holy Spirit who brought people to faith in the Man of Promise who was to come in the line of Abraham and David--and the Spirit indwelt those saints just as surely as he indwelt believers in the New Testament.

In Psalm 51:11 David confessed his sin with Bathsheba. His desire was to have a clean heart and spirit before God. He feared that God might withdraw the indwelling presence and work of his Holy Spirit from him. What David desired was a "steadfast spirit" (Ps 51:10) to be renewed within him. He feared the removal of God's Holy Spirit because he had drifted away from God as a result of his sin and decision to ride it out while Bathsheba's pregnancy was in progress. At last he had confessed his sin, and now he found himself in deep spiritual hunger and desiring to be reconciled with God.

Some will object, "If the Old Testament believer already possessed the Holy Spirit, why was Pentecost necessary?" George Smeaton gave the best answer to that question when he affirmed, "[The Holy Spirit] must have a coming in state, in a solemn and visible manner, accompanied with visible effects as well as Christ had and whereof all the Jews should be, and were, witnesses." Pentecost signaled a visible and mightier-than-ever manifestation of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. (See Joel 2:28; it was a "downpour" of the Spirit compared to the previous showers.) This was the inception of the full experience of the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit, like the Father and Son, had existed from all eternity. He did not remain bound and without assignment in the older era. But Pentecost did mark a fuller realization of what had been already in progress.

But certain New Testament texts do seem to imply that the Holy Spirit's coming to indwell the believer is a brand-new feature of the gospel era. Especially relevant are John 7:37-39, 14:16-17 and 16:7. However, most will agree that in John 3:5-10, Jesus himself suggested that the Holy Spirit was operating in bringing salvation prior to Christ's death on the cross. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he said, "If you . . . know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Lk 11:13). Apparently, that gift was already available, even before Pentecost.

Of all the texts cited in this debate, the most important is John 14:17: "You know him, for he lives with[para] you and is in you." There is a strong manuscript tradition for reading the present tense of the verb to be ("is") rather than the future tense ("will be"). The two forms, estai and esti, are very easily confused, but the present tense appears, as B. F. Westcott concludes, to be less like a correction and probably represents the more difficult reading. (Textual critics adhere to the principle of choosing the "more difficult" reading, since copiers of the text tended to "correct" the text to the simpler or more expected reading.) Thus the Holy Spirit already was with the Old Testament believer and present in all who believed.

The Holy Spirit did bring new life to those who believed under the old covenant and personally indwelt them. But just as Calvary was necessary even though Jesus' life and work were anticipated in the Old Testament, Pentecost was necessary even though the benefits of the Holy Spirit's work were already present in the Old Testament.

That is why David feared the possible loss of the Holy Spirit. Even if one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit was the gift of government--a gift that had been given to and then taken away from his predecessor King Saul--David appearsto have been worried about more than the loss of his ability to govern in Jerusalem. He feared losing the indwelling comfort and help of the Paraclete himself. That would be tantamount to standing outside the presence of God.


George Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1889), p. 49.

For a fuller discussion of this point, see Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1987), pp. 135-41.

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