In the Old Testament the Spirit operates in two spheres: in the realm of nature and in the life of man. In nature, the Spirit is depicted as an agent who creates (Gen. 1:2; Job 26:13; Isa. 32:15) and who sustains what has been created (Ps. 104:30; Job 34:14). This serves to remind us not only that God created the world, but that the principle that animates nature is not a blind, unreasoning force. The Spirit is not mere physical energy but is life-breathing, vitalizing what God the Father created through the Word (cf. John 1:1–3; Heb. 11:3).

The Old Testament presents this same Spirit as present in the life of man and active at four different levels of man’s personality.

“The Lord God … breathed into his [man’s] nostrils the breath of life,” and in virtue of this “man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33:4). The purely physical human organism is vitalized by the breath of God.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament the spirit of man appears as the animating principle, but this does not conflict with the Genesis account of man’s creation. For the vitalizing power that is the Spirit of God belonged to man, and could, therefore, properly be called the spirit of man (Job 27:3; Ps. 104:29 f.). Both views teach that the life that animates the physical organism results from God’s communication of his spirit.

Now it is this Spirit in man—or, if you will, it is man’s spirit—that distinguishes him from the beast and imparts a unique pre-eminence to man. This is the Old Testament explanation of a self-evident fact.

This Spirit in man is the special gift of God, and constitutes also the source of righteousness, wisdom and morality in man, placing him in a relation with God that is unshared by the animal world.

If it be argued that the terms in Genesis 2:7 are used also in Genesis 6:22, in reference to the animal world in general, it may be pointed out that Genesis 1:27 introduces a factor which distinguishes man absolutely from the rest of animate creation. In addition to his being animated by the Spirit of God, man is created “in the image of God.” These two phenomena—his being created in the image of God, and his being vitalized by the Spirit of God—are not, however, two distinct factors in the nature of man. This spiritual quality of man’s physical organism proclaims his original creation in the divine image.

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It may also be argued that some of man’s higher faculties manifest themselves in animals. But even there we find an unbridgeable gulf between man and animals. In man these faculties are conjoined with self-conscious reason; in animals this conjunction is absent. And the conjunction in man is not the result of an evolutionary process but of the inbreathing of God of his Spirit into man. It is this that makes man a spiritual, self-conscious being, capable of communing with God and reflecting something of the character of God. It is the root of man’s rationality and morality. It is man’s inmost self, the essence of his manhood. And this image of God in man did not disappear with the fall. It is handed on to posterity (Gen. 5:1, 3; 9:6) and is the possession of all men in varying degrees.

But this concept of man’s physical organism vitalized by the Spirit of God portrays but the beginning of the Spirit’s activity in the human personality. The Old Testament depicts the Spirit also as the source of man’s mental life, creative faculties, ineradicable moral sense and capacity for knowing and communing with God. Let us consider these elements in turn.

The Spirit And Man’s Mental Life

When God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, he not only vitalized the human organism but he made man a living soul. This implies not merely animation but intelligence. “There is a spirit in man; and the breath of the Almighty giveth them understanding” (Job 32:8). The Spirit is indissolubly linked, in the Old Testament, with the intellectual element in man (cf. Exod. 28:3; 31:3; 35:31; Deut. 34:9). This conjunction is even clearer in the Septuagint, which speaks of “a divine spirit of wisdom, and understanding and knowledge” (Exod. 31:3; 35:3) and of “the spirit of wisdom and perception” (Exod. 28:3). When this “divine spirit of wisdom” became operative in man, intellectual powers, unique among created beings, were manifested.

The Old Testament gives us several examples of such manifestation. Joseph’s discernment and wisdom and his ability to interpret dreams are said to be due to his being “a man in whom the Spirit of God is” (Gen. 41:38 f.). Moses was given the Spirit to help him bear “the burden of his people” (Num. 11:17), i.e., to enable him to dispense judgment at the tribunal (Exod. 18:22 f.), a task requiring the use of the critical faculties to an unusual degree. The seventy elders were also given the Spirit to enable them to assist Moses in guiding and governing the people (Num. 11:16 f.). Bezaleel, the chief artificer in constructing the Tabernacle, was also filled with the Spirit of God, in virtue of which he had the ability to devise complicated designs, execute work in various metals and carve in stone and wood (Exod. 31:2 ff.). Bezaleel’s chief assistant and all the workmen under their direction also shared in this artistic skill, which had its source in the Spirit of God (Exod. 35:30–36:2).

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Clearly then, the Old Testament teaches that the Spirit of God, who originated the personal life of man, is also the source of man’s intellectual life; and that where the Spirit is allowed to act in a special degree, outstanding powers manifest themselves. This means that our reason is not completely other than the divine reason. Reason in man is that which feels, wills and apprehends goodness; and God, not being pure reason, also wills, and feels and cares. But it is the Spirit of God which in the divine nature feels (Mic. 2:7), thinks (Isa. 40:13 f.) and acts ethically (Ps. 143:10); and it is this same Spirit in man who feels and thinks, and apprehends goodness.

The Spirit And Man’s Moral Life

In two passages in the Old Testament the Spirit is called the Holy Spirit, Psalm 51:11 and Isaiah 63:10 f. Now, if to this additional fact concerning the nature of the Spirit we conjoin the fact of the divine Spirit’s presence in man, then moral life in man becomes not merely a possibility but a human necessity.

In Proverbs 20:27, “the spirit of man” (which means the Spirit of God in man) is described as “the lamp of the Lord,” whose function is to “search the innermost parts” of man. This is probably a reference to conscience, the inner mentor that tests a man’s motives and feelings, thoughts and actions by God’s law, approving some, condemning others, as they agree or disagree with that criterion. In other words, this divine Spirit who is the principle of life in man and the source of his intellectual gifts is also present as “a moral witness against sin.”

If the rendering of Genesis 6:3 in the Authorized Version—“My Spirit shall not always strive with man”—can be maintained, then here also the divine Spirit appears as a moral witness in man against his sin. Indeed, even if the Hebrew be rendered “rule,” or “judge,” in man, its ethical significance would still be apparent.

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What we today would describe as a guilty conscience was explained in the Old Testament in terms of the activity within man of an evil spirit from, or of, the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10; 19:9). In 1 Samuel 16:3, this spirit is spoken of as “a spirit of God.” These verses have particular reference to King Saul, and indicate that his guilty conscience had sprung into life through a divine agent that was tormenting his spirit through its accusations. A guilty conscience, a sense of sin, is somehow connected with the activity of a supernatural spiritual agency. This is another aspect of the Old Testament conviction that a moral sense in man is produced by the Spirit of God.

The divine Spirit’s connection with man’s moral life is further established in later Old Testament writings where the word “spirit” connotes in man a fixed state of mind, a permanent attitude of heart, a man’s character. The predominating feature of a man’s disposition may be pride (Eccles. 7:8), haughtiness (Prov. 16:18), quick temper (Eccles. 7:9), humility (Prov. 16:19), patience (Eccles. 7:8) or faithfulness (Prov. 11:13), but in every case the outstanding failure of the character is described as a spirit.

The Spirit And Man’s Religious Life

The presence of the Spirit in man must, of necessity, be significant for his religious life for two reasons. It is the Spirit in man that links him to God, and creates the capacity to know, and commune with, God (Isa. 26:9). And it is the Spirit in man that makes him a moral being, and enables God to lay moral demands upon him. But man as a sinful, fallen creature cannot fulfill these moral demands. He requires a power not native to himself to enable him to respond to moral demands from which he cannot escape.

This is what Ezekiel undoubtedly recognized when he gave God’s epoch-making promise: “I will put a new Spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh: that they may walk in my statues, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.… I have poured out my Spirit upon the house of Israel” (11:19 f.; 39:29; cf. 36:26 f.); Jeremiah’s reference to the New Covenant (31:33 f.) carries the same theme.

Here is something new in the Old Testament’s teaching on the relations between man and the Spirit in the religious life. It anticipates a revolutionary change in man’s nature involving such an invasion of spiritual power and such a renewal of character that it would amount to a rebirth in man’s experience. This conception had to wait till Pentecost for fulfillment. If Joel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were dealing with actual spiritual experience, then at best their words could have meaning only for a few choice souls in Israel.

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Even the change of heart promised to King Saul (1 Sam. 10:6, 9) was clearly not of this striking moral or spiritual nature. It was not yet the time of fulfillment of Moses’ yearning cry: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Moral reformation there was, but not spiritual regeneration. The Spirit was still only the source of moral goodness, not the Agent of the birth that is from above.

But this must not lead to undue depreciation of the conception of the Spirit’s activity in the religious life of man in the Old Testament. Sufficient justice must be done to the fact that in the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit. Why must the tide “Holy Spirit” (Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10 f.) be interpreted to mean that holiness is not to be predicated of the Spirit per se, that the Spirit is holy only because the Spirit is the Spirit of the God of holiness? Old Testament saints would be able to predicate holiness of the Spirit because in their experience, limited though it must have been, the Spirit produced holiness of life. It was the Spirit who implanted in the heart “the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2), “righteousness” (Isa. 32:15–17) and a penitent and prayerful spirit (Zech. 12:10).

In the Old Testament the most spectacular evidence of the Spirit in the religious life of man is seen in the experience of the prophets. Through them the Lord communicated his word (Zech. 7:12), and to them he revealed his secrets (Amos 3:7). The Spirit was the power in which the prophet proclaimed his message (Mic. 3:8). It was natural, therefore, that the prophet should be known in Israel as “the man that hath the Spirit” (Hos. 9:7).

It is significant too that one of the chief results of the universal outpouring of the Spirit in New Testament times would be that its recipients would prophesy (Joel 2:28). Obviously, then, the Spirit was the main factor in this phenomenon of Old Testament religious experience. What differentiated the true prophet from the false was precisely that the Spirit lifted up the former into fellowship with God, enabled him to understand, and then to communicate, the divine will to his fellows.

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This surely is the only adequate explanation of the genuine inspiration that characterize the prophet’s writings, and which makes them a divine revelation. How otherwise explain the habit of the prophets in attributing their message, spoken or written, to the Spirit of God (2 Sam. 23:22; Ezek. 2:2; 3:24, etc.), and of Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s constant use of the solemn phrase “thus saith the Lord”?

In A Greek New Testament

Language of high and laurelled Attic song,

Homer’s wide wings, and Plato’s cadences;

O trophied speech! Thy mightiest honor is

That God hath made of thee his human tongue.


Professor J. G. S. S. Thomson served with the staff at New College, Edinburgh, while completing doctoral studies at University of Edinburgh. He specialized in Old Testament and cognate studies and served for eight years in Algeria, French North Africa, as a missionary among Arabic-speaking Moslems. He returned to Scotland as assistant in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, University of Edinburgh. He is now visiting associate professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Ga.

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