What is Meant by Insiration?

Bert Cargill, St. Monans, Scotland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Precious Seed

The word inspiration

The word ‘inspiration’ can have different meanings depending on its context, as is the case with many other words. Its root is a Latin word, spirare, which means ‘to breathe’, with different prefixes making it more specific.1

In a physiological context, inspire originally meant ‘to breathe in’, and its opposite is expire, literally meaning ‘to breathe out’, although now it commonly means to breathe out for the last time and has become a synonym for dying. Nowadays, inhale and exhale are more often used in the context of breathing; respiration is the inclusive term for it all. Related words include ‘transpire’, a botanical term for transmission of moisture through leaf surfaces; ‘perspire’, an everyday process whereby moisture moves through the skin; and ‘aspire’, a mental process, literally to breathe towards and hence to reach forward to some goal.

Our context here is different from all of these, but nevertheless related as we shall see. The question we have to answer is really, ‘What is inspiration in the context of our Bible which is said to be “given by inspiration of God”?’. 

Inspiration of the scriptures

Before we reach the answer we are looking for, there is one more use of the word we need to examine, for it is very common, but it is not the meaning we seek. It is when someone is undertaking a new or challenging task, such as an author writing a book or a poem (or even a magazine article like this), or an artist creating a painting, or a gardener designing a flower bed or a landscape. The delay in getting such tasks begun is often said to be due to the lack of inspiration. But when this inspiration comes, the task takes off and, when it is finished, you might hear about the inspiration behind it. Such inspiration may well have led to the creation of great works like John Milton’s Paradise Lost (350th anniversary in 2017) or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These authors got the subject matter, the idea, out of their fertile minds and imaginations. With great skill they wrote words to suit their readership, using their own vocabularies. Within a relatively short time their tasks were finished.

But the Psalms of King David, or the Revelation written by the Apostle John, did not come about in that way. It was something deeper and more radical than that. This time the subject matter, the ‘idea’, was put into their minds by the Spirit of God who also controlled the words they used, whilst their writing styles and vocabularies were their own. Here is what King David wrote, ‘The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue’, 2 Sam. 23. 2. Later the Apostle Peter wrote about it as follows, ‘Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’, 2 Pet. 1. 21.

But how precisely did this happen? It was by the ‘inspiration of God’.

‘Inspiration of God’

This key phrase is found in 2 Timothy chapter 3 verse 16, where we read, ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God’. In the Bible this phrase is found only here, apart from one other reference, Job 32. 8, which is related but in a different context. To understand this key phrase we go back to where we began in this article. It has to do with breathing, in fact the literal translation of ‘given by inspiration of God’, is ‘God-breathed’, Gk. theopneustos. So we are told that the holy scriptures came to us by means of the breath of God. That makes them uniquely different!

We may perhaps explain or illustrate it this way. When we speak, our breath is necessarily involved. Breath leaves our lungs and when a particular valve is open, the breath passes through our larynx (voice-box). There, when our brain passes signals to the tiny chords it contains, in a marvellously intricate way, that breath is modulated into sound patterns by the tongue and teeth to make it into speech that we recognize or tunes we sing, and others listening get the meaning when they know the language we are using. Information is transferred from one person to another by means of these patterns of sounds generated in the larynx and modulated in the mouth. But it is all propelled and propagated by the breath. Without the breath no words will come, no information will be transmitted. The breath is the necessary energizing vehicle which produces our words.

Apply this now to the way in which scripture was produced. It was the ‘breath of God’ which energized it. The ‘holy men’ who wrote it were ‘moved by the Holy Ghost’, that is, their minds and pens were made available to God for Him to use to transmit His word to us. They did not, could not, do it by themselves – it ‘came not in old time by the will of man’, 2 Peter chapter 1 verse 21 again. Necessarily, it required the breath of God, the action of the Holy Spirit, to produce the words which would convey what He wanted to tell us. Inspiration ensured that the right words were used so that these ancient scriptures were kept free from the human errors and misconceptions common to the age in which the writers lived. Without divine inspiration the writing might be interesting but it would not be authoritative.

The ‘breath of God’

The Bible has some interesting mentions of the breath of God, especially in connection with creatorial and final events. It is clearly connected with acts of great power and significance. We must not think that God, who is spirit, actually breathes like we do, but in our Bible His ‘breath’ denotes His energizing power in the same way as His ‘hand’ denotes His creative and preserving power and His ‘heart’ denotes His affection. Note the following references to His breath:

  • God ‘breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’, Gen. 2. 7, cp. Job 33. 4 – the special creation of man;
  • ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth’, Ps. 33. 6, cp. Job 37. 10 – the creation of the universe;
  • ‘He breathed on them and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost’, John 20. 22 – the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit;
  • ‘The breath of the Lord . . . doth kindle it’, Isa. 30. 28, 33, cp. 2 Sam. 22. 16 – the judgement of the Day of the Lord.

It is no surprise therefore to discover that the breath of God is essentially involved in providing us with the holy scriptures full of all their treasures of wisdom and knowledge, another act of great power and significance. But what is the ‘breath of God’?

The Spirit of God

In the Bible the ‘breath of God’ and the ‘Spirit of God’ are intimately linked in many texts and contexts. In fact they are the same many times, for the Hebrew word ruach is translated sometimes as ‘breath’ and sometimes as ‘spirit’.

This links the key texts we have already noted. ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God’ can be read as ‘All scripture is given by the breath of God’. His breath is, in fact, the ‘moving of the Holy Spirit’ in the holy men who wrote what God wanted them to write. His breath is the ‘speaking of the Spirit of God’ in the tongues of such authors as King David, and it is the same when John exhorted his readers to have an ear to ‘hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’, Rev. 2. 7 etc.

There is something similar in Genesis chapter 1. The Spirit of God is described as ‘brooding’ (or ‘hovering’, NKJV) over the face of the deep, anticipating the great work of creation. Then ten times we read ‘God said’. Thus the energy of the Spirit of God in the spoken word of God created the universe. This is summarized in Psalm 33 verse 9 as, ‘he spake and it was done; he commanded and it stood fast’. It was, in fact, the living and eternal Word who brought creation into being, ‘In the beginning was the Word . . . all things were made by him: and without him was not anything made that was made’, John 1. 1, 3. All three persons of the triune God always work in harmony and in unison.

We see this again when ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, John 1. 14. He was filled with the Spirit and He was led by the Spirit.2 Led by the Spirit, the words that Christ spoke were His Father’s words, and the works that He did were His Father’s works.3,4 In all His ways He was revealing the Father, and doing His Father’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit. Can we not say that just as the Holy Spirit gave ‘inspiration’ to the written word, so did the Holy Spirit give ‘inspiration’ to the living Word? 

Does this Holy Spirit not give us inspiration also? Not the same inspiration as He gave to those who wrote the scriptures, for they are complete. But as we read these scriptures surely He will inspire us in the sense of motivating us, causing us to aspire to be more like Him of whom they speak. The Lord Jesus said to His listeners one day, ‘Search the scriptures . . . and they are they which testify of me’, John 5. 39. He also said that ‘in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms’ were written ‘things concerning Himself’, Luke 24. 27, 44. Thus Christ is revealed to us also, and as the Spirit of God who inspired the scriptures dwells within us He can make them real to us, John 16. 13, 14. We will find that they are still ‘warm with the breath of God’.


1 Oxford Universal Dictionary.

2 Luke 4. 1.

3 John 14. 10, 24.

4 John 9. 4; 10. 37.

AUTHOR PROFILE: BERT CARGILL was a chemistry lecturer for over thirty years, and has written several books and articles on this and other subjects. Married to Isobel, they have two daughters and a son, and six grandchildren. He has contributed to the work of the St. Monans assembly ever since his conversion as a teenager.