10 Roles of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

As the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit’s nature is consistent in the Old and New Testaments. His role was only slightly different under the two covenants. He enabled believers to trust God, live holy lives, and serve the Lord in power.
Dawn Wilson
10 Roles of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

1. The Spirit Created and Sustained Life

We observe the initial work of the Holy Spirit in Genesis. The Spirit hovered over the waters that God made out of nothing (Genesis 1:1-2), bringing life and setting things in order.

Unlike people in contemporary culture who promote evolution and natural selection, Old Testament saints understood creation was a sovereign act of God. The Spirit of God was involved in creating and sustaining all natural life (Psalm 104:30).

In the book of Job, his friend Elihu illustrates this understanding of the faithful Jews: “The Spirit of God has made me and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (33:4).

2. The Spirit Spoke God’s Words

Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is connected to God’s words. The Lord said He would put His words in His people’s mouths (Isaiah 59:21). In 2 Samuel 23:2, David said the Spirit of the Lord spoke through him.

Old Testament saints received God’s words through their prophets and leaders. Moses told the Israelites, “The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

This thought is continued in the New Testament. The Spirit gives life, and the words Jesus spoke are “full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63).

3. The Spirit Promoted Holiness

The Spirit is holy. In the Old Testament, God contended with humans in their sinful nature, and Jehovah wisely limited man’s years (Genesis 6:3). The escalating evil (Genesis 6:5-6) proved Romans 3:23 is true: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God’s people “rebelled and grieved” His Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:7-10), and as a result, God in His holiness fought against them.

David—brokenhearted over his sins—asked God not to “cast” him from His presence or “remove” His Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:11). Keenly aware of how Saul was rejected from being king because of his disobedience (1 Samuel 15:23)—and it might be questioned whether Saul ever knew the Lord in a personal way (16:14)—David likely felt his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11) also merited God’s rejection.

Yet there was a spark of Spirit-motivated godliness in David. He responded in repentance at Nathan’s rebuke (2 Samuel 12:13a). The psalmist knew he could never be separated from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7), though he felt alienation in his unholiness and lack of fellowship with God.

4. The Spirit Addressed Evil

Genesis 6:3suggests the Holy Spirit restrains sin, and He motivates God’s people to confront it. The prophet Micah was bold to denounce evil and declare the righteousness of God, and he attributed this to filling by the Spirit of the Lord (Micah 3:8). Micah said the Spirit filled him with “justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.”

Before the crucifixion of Christ, the Holy Spirit gave John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin and His forerunner, that same powerful filling (Luke 1:15). John was bold to denounce evil, even though it cost him his life (Mark 6:14-29).

5. The Spirit Regenerated

Old Testament believers were regenerated by the Spirit, because all believers must be regenerated to overcome their natural hostility toward God and be able to please Him (Romans 8:7-9). The Bible teaches all humans are either born “in the flesh” or born “in the Spirit.” In this sense, Old Testament saints looked forward to the coming of their Redeemer Messiah, and by faith were regenerated by God’s Spirit (Romans 4:1-5).

When Nicodemus seemed confused after Jesus said new birth by the Spirit was necessary for salvation, Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?” (John 3:10) Jesus seemed to say Nicodemus, a religious teacher in Israel, should have understood the Spirit’s role in the “new birth” even in Old Testament times.

 Jesus said no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:3). This “circumcision” of the heart for spiritual life—receiving a “new heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6)—was the work of God’s Spirit even in Old Testament times (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-29).

6. The Spirit Indwelled

In regard to the indwelling or filling by the Spirit in the Old Testament, most scholars believe the indwelling was selective and temporary. This is in contrast to the New Testament where the Spirit permanently indwells believers (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19-20).

The Spirit was said to “come upon” Old Testament believers for God’s purposes. Joshua was filled with the Spirit and commissioned to lead Israel after Moses’ death (Numbers 27:12-23). Othniel (Numbers 27:18; Judges 3:10) was empowered by the Spirit to judge God’s people and lead them in war.

The Hebrews 11“Hall of Faith” is filled with Old Testament believers who were imperfect yet profoundly obedient, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit and enabled to stand firm in their faith in God.

7. The Spirit Empowered

As the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, the Lord encouraged them to build His temple. He wanted them to know He would protect them from threats and enable them to be courageous. God told His people through Haggai, “… my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear” (2:5). 

The Lord of Hosts told the prophet Zechariah that Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, would complete the temple, and it would be accomplished, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit…” (Zechariah 4:6). The Spirit would enable, encourage and strengthen Zerubbabel for the work God called him to do.

At times, the Holy Spirit empowered God’s people, helping them go beyond their own abilities. The Spirit of the Lord came “mightily” upon Sampson. In one instance, the Spirit took control and Sampson tore a lion apart; and another time—as Sampson took vengeance on the Philistines—ropes that bound him snapped like burned flax (Judges 14:5-6; 15:14).

8. The Spirit Taught and Led

Ezra said of God, “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them” (Nehemiah 9:20). Old Testament believers were enabled by the Spirit to understand what God said to them, especially through the words of the prophets—even if they refused to listen (Nehemiah 9:30).

In other instances, the Spirit gave instruction to individuals. For example, David gave his son Solomon the plans for the temple “that the Spirit had put in his mind” (1 Chronicles 28:10-12).

The Spirit gave God’s people understanding (Job 32:8). The psalmist wanted to know God’s will, and he asked the Lord to allow His “gracious Spirit” to lead him to firm footing (Psalm 143:10).  

9. The Spirit Granted Special Skills

The Holy Spirit gifted Old Testament individuals to accomplish God’s divine plans. When God told Israel how He wanted His tabernacle built, He also equipped craftsmen and artisans by His Spirit to do the work (Exodus 31:1-5).  

The Spirit enabled saints like Joseph (Genesis 41:1-38) to interpret God’s revelation through dreams, and He gave some believers a gift of prophecy. Seventy elders with Moses temporary received prophetic powers from the Spirit (Numbers 11:25).

The Spirit came upon and empowered God’s prophets, priests, and kings in special ways, gifting them for service. Prophets preached God’s word, the priests interceded for God’s people, and kings were anointed to lead Israel against God’s enemies (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Chronicles 24:20; 1 Samuel 16:13).

10. The Spirit Pointed to the Messiah

Isaiah prophesied about Israel’s coming Messiah, noting that the Spirit would rest upon Him (Isaiah 42:1). When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, Luke says “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22).

In Jesus’ early ministry, it was clear He was the promised mashiach—Messiah—the “anointed one.” He fulfilled the Old Testament types and offices—God anointed Him for special service by His Spirit—as Prophet (John 7:40), Priest (Hebrews 6:19-20), and future King (Mark 15:26; Revelation 19:16).

Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Brandon Matich


Originally published July 01, 2019.