When trying to determine the actions of God one theological truth is important to remember; God is beyond comprehension therefore the knowledge of God is never fixed and determined, there is always more to learn and understand. This fact is especially true when considering the Holy Spirit. In both the Hebrew and Greek language the word that is translated as spirit in the bible can also be translated as wind or breath making for sometimes tricky translations. Understanding is further complicated due to the fact that even if it is determined that the word should be translated as spirit, one still has to determine if this is spirit with a lowercase “s” and thus a normal spirit or if this is Spirit with an uppercase “S” meaning the Holy Spirit. Because of these difficulties, as well as other factors, it is sometimes assumed that one can not speak definitively about the Spirit at all, there is too much that is beyond understanding. However a summary reading of Old Testament texts does lead to an interesting understanding of the early work of the Holy Spirit.
Early instances of experiences of the Spirit in the Old Testament usually revolve around moments of distress in which not only is there danger but there are no chances of escape. For instance, Israel finds themselves oppressed and enslaved by a foreign nation and cries out to God. A superpower is preparing to attack Israel and Israel has no escape. Or peaceful negotiations have ended and Israel is in danger. Typically in each of these situations the Spirit of God would come upon an individual whom God would then use to unite the people in relationship to God. The Spirit of God did not always cause the change directly, but through indirect means helped to bring about a change in the situation.
It’s important to note though that even though many of these stories revolved around war or battle in these early instances the Spirit is not a spirit of war and was not responsible for winning the battles. Instead the Spirit produced a new attitude within the people that freed them from the consequences of their own sin and raised them up to new life. As Michael Welker states in his book God The Spirit;
“The first reliable testimonies to the action of God’s Spirit report an unexpected, unforeseeable renewal of the people’s unanimity and capacity for action, a renewal of the people’s power of resistance in the midst of universal despair and a resulting change of fate…God’s Spirit lays hold of or comes upon a specific human being. This person succeeds in restoring loyalty, solidarity, and the capacity for communal action among the people.”
Some examples of this would be Gideon (Judges 6), Jephthah (Judges 11), Samson (Judges 13-16), and Saul (1 Samuel 11). Each of these men had the Spirit of God come upon them and they became the focal point that God used to pull the people out of fear, and complacency, and complaint. And while each of these situations ultimately led to war the Spirit was not the direct cause of the military conflict. Instead, the Spirit came upon these individuals and in a situation where everyone was being selfish and looking out for their own welfare and fearful of human powers the bearer of the Spirit helped to restore loyalty to God and loyalty to each other so that the people could rise up against those that were oppressing them and gain the victory.
But why was this recovery necessary in the first place? Why was Israel in a desperate situation? Because of sin. It was Israel’s sin that led to their enslavement. It was Israel’s sin that led to their falling away from God and into trouble. And in order to gain their freedom they had to come back to God. They did not need military victory, they needed to return their hearts to God. It was the Spirit of God who caused this change of heart. It was the Spirit of God who brought them out of fear and complaint and pointed them back towards the Father.
Therefore the early work of the Spirit was about bringing hope to the hopeless, strength to the weary, courage to the fearful. The Spirit helped a scattered people find unanimity with each other and with God and returned them to proper relationships. The Spirit’s work was centered around taking the broken and the hurting and returning them to life. In some ways, this role has never changed.
Editors Note: This is part 2 of 6 in a series on the Holy Spirit. The series is not meant to be exhaustive but to serve as a starting point for a fuller understanding of the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer and of the world.