The Spirit of God in the Old Testament

The Old and New Testament (Covenant) Scriptures command their reader to treat them as two distinct wholes inseparably and organically united. Yes, what is truly in the OT, yet somewhat concealed, is more fully revealed in the NT. Yes, the NT interprets the OT. But in affirming these truths we have hardly grasped and expressed the fullness of the relation between the testaments. It is no less true that the OT informs a correct interpretation of the NT, and it is likely not going too far to say that to the degree that we misunderstand the OT to that degree we will distort the NT. This is perhaps demonstrated most clearly in what we believe regarding what is revealed in the OT regarding God’s Spirit.

God’s Spirit meets us at the very beginning of the Bible as he participates with God’s Word in the act of creation (Gen. 1:1-5). Each of the three persons of the Trinity fulfills a distinct role in their one inseparably and organically united purpose. More detailed revelation regarding God’s Spirit’s role comes as God moves history forward governing the very time/space realm he created in order to accomplish his purpose in and through it. If we think about the Bible primarily (or worse yet, exclusively) from the perspective of what it directs us to think and do, we have a distorted view of it. God’s Word written is living and active and united to His Spirit, who is thereby no less living and active through the Word, and both glorify God the Father.

While every book of the OT does not explicitly mention God’s Spirit, he is active and present throughout its pages and the history to which they are united. When we read Isaiah and Ezekiel we are confronted with nearly enough explicit revelation regarding God’s Spirit to formulate the entire doctrine of God’s Spirit that the NT reveals.[1] Even Zechariah (7:12) and Nehemiah (9:20), no less than the Apostle Peter, tell us that the Lord of Hosts sent his word by his Spirit.[2] We are correct in regarding God’s Spirit as “the executive of the Godhead.[3] God works. And God works in, by and through His Spirit in union with the Father and the Son. From the realm of all creation, to the more exclusive spheres of God’s government of his redeemed people, Israel, to the inner recesses of the human soul, God’s Spirit is revealed at work in the Old Covenant Scriptures.[4]

On the plane of all creation, God’s Spirit is “the source of all order, life and light,” and is thereby God immanent, or present internally within the material substance of the created order.[5] He is the “originating cause of all movement and order and life” not merely directing us to think of God over the world but in it.[6] This is not to think of God in a pantheistic way so that creation itself is God, but rather to give proper weight to God’s presence everywhere. And so, the biblical doctrine of God’s providence over and in creation is inseparably joined to and gives fullest expression to its doctrine of creation.[7] Thus, God’s Spirit governs God’s redemption of his whole creation and in a unique way his covenant people. According to the Old Testament, then, God’s Spirit brings about the fulfillment of all God’s purpose in creation through the progress of redemption via the deliverance of God’s Word and uniquely given to and through his covenant people (Numbers 11:16-29; 1Sam. 16:13-23; 2Sam. 23:2; Ps. 51; 104:30; Job 33:4; Isa. 9:1-7; 11:1-10; 40:1-14; 42:1-8; 59; 61; 63; Ezek. 36:26-27; 37; Zech. 4:6).

Jesus and his NT writers set his gospel within the context of some of the aforementioned passages and explain more fully his work and their own as the fulfillment or further extension of them (Mk. 1:1-12; Mt. 1:18-20; 3:1-16; 4:1; 10:20; 12:1-21; 28:16-20; Luke 1; 3:3-6; 4; 10:21; John 1:32-33; 3; 6:53-63; 7:37-39; 14-16; Acts 1-2; 4-5; 6:1-10; 7:51; 10-11; 13; 28:25-28; Rom. 1:1-7; 8; 1Cro. 2; 12; Eph. 1; 1Pet. 1; 2Pet. 1:21). So, God’s Spirit was not only present and active during the OT era and through the OT Scriptures, but also working to express and extend the gospel of God’s Son in those scriptures and the whole life of God’s covenant people, Israel. Thus, God’s Spirit has been, continues to be and will always be at work extending the knowledge of God’s glory so that one day such knowledge will cover the earth like the water covers the sea (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9). Even as he, with God’s Word, brought light in the midst of darkness at the beginning of creation.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

[1]B. B. Warfield, “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament,” in Collected Works, vol. 2, (NY: Oxford UP, 1929; reprint Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 102.

[2]Ibid., 104.

[3]Ibid., 105.

[4]Ibid., 106.

[5]Ibid., 108.


[7]Note how the Westminster Confession of Faith frames all of God’s work in his decrees by his works of creation and providence (WCF Ch’s. 3-5; LC Q. & A. 14-20; SC Q. & A. 7-12).


David Smith