The Ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament

The importance of the subject

Many believers today do not fully understand that the ministry of God’s Holy Spirit in Old Testament times was in many ways somewhat different from His ministry in the present age of grace and the church. They tend to assume that it must always have been the same as it is now. The truth is that Christians today enjoy far greater blessing than most believers did in Old Testament times. Ever since the Holy Spirit came down on the Day of Pentecost to unite all believers in one body in Christ, He has permanently indwelt their bodies and blessed them with spiritual gifts to use for the upbuilding of the church in a way that was not known in the Old Testament. Truly, we are far more privileged than were Old Testament saints. For this fact we should be eternally grateful to our gracious God and Father. In this article we shall aim to explain the various ways in which the Holy Spirit operated during the days covered by the Old Testament record. From this study we shall be able to understand just how His ministry then differed from that which He exercises today. Yet we shall also come to understand that in a few significant respects His ministry has not completely changed since Pentecost.

The proof of the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit’s present ministry

John’s inspired explanation of the words of the Lord Jesus is helpful here. He says: ‘But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified’, 7. 39, which is a clear reference to the day of Pentecost. In His Upper Room ministry to the disciples, the Lord Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit who had been with them would, henceforth, be in them, and that forever, 14. 16-17. Acts chapter 2 records the remarkable events of that day, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to exercise the miraculous sign gifts. The apostle Paul explains this event further, when he says, ‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and were all made to drink of one Spirit’, 1 Cor. 12. 13 ESV. The New Testament church was formed then of all true believers indwelt by the Holy Spirit, so that it is true to say today, in the words of Romans chapter 8 verse 9, ‘Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his’. The permanent possession of the Holy Spirit is an essential mark of a Christian. This was not always so in Old Testament days, or David, the saint who was called ‘the man after God’s own heart’, could not have meaningfully prayed after his great sin in ‘the matter of Uriah the Hittite’, ‘take not thy Holy Spirit from me’, Ps. 51. 11.

The limitations of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in the Old Testament

First, there was only selective indwelling of particular individuals in Old Testament times. Pharaoh recognized that the Holy Spirit was indwelling Joseph, Gen. 41. 38. The Holy Spirit was clearly said to be in Joshua, and this was why God chose him for special service, Num. 27. 18. Again, the Spirit of God was said to be in Daniel several times, see Dan. 4. 8; 5. 11-14; 6. 3. In all these verses the preposition used is ‘in’.

Second, the Holy Spirit is said to have come upon some Old Testament people. This is found particularly in the historical books of Judges and 1 Samuel.1 Samson’s strength was produced by the Holy Spirit coming upon him. When David was anointed king by Samuel, ‘the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward’. The idea of the Holy Spirit coming upon particular people seems to imply the temporary and limited character of His relationship to Old Testament believers.

Third, the Holy Spirit is said to have filled some Old Testament believers in order to accomplish a particular task. Exodus chapter 31 verse 3 and chapter 35 verse 31 record this concerning Bezaleel in relation to his leadership of the craftsmen working on the tabernacle. This supernatural ability did not exclude or replace his natural ability, but was in addition to it.

The Holy Spirit’s ministry towards Old Testament believers could sometimes be limited in its duration, not forever, as in New Testament times. He could be withdrawn from men, as He was from Samson after he had revealed the secret of his strength to Delilah and she had cut off his long hair. Again, the Holy Spirit came upon Saul mightily in 1 Samuel chapter 10 verse 10, but after he had disobeyed the Lord’s commands twice, chapter 16 verse 14 says that the Spirit departed from him. Furthermore, David would not have pleaded with God not to take His Holy Spirit from him if that had not been a possibility in those days.2 This prayer is never found in the New Testament.

There was no ministry of the Holy Spirit guaranteed universally to all individual Israelites, but all Israel benefitted from His ministry in a general way.3 Gentile nations around Israel did not enjoy such a general ministry.

Ministries of the Holy Spirit common to both Testaments

Creation. Not a great deal is said in either Testament concerning the activity of the Holy Spirit in creation, but He was evidently involved as part of the Godhead. Genesis chapter 1 verse 2 states that, ‘the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’, on the unformed and unfinished earth. Job chapter 26 verse 13 says that He ‘garnished the heavens’, that is, He adorned them. In Job chapter 33 verse 4, Elihu asserts that, ‘the Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life’. Further, Psalm 104 verse 30 says that, ‘Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth’. The Holy Spirit has an essential part in the maintenance of life on earth. What was true in Old Testament days must also be true in New Testament days.

Revelation and inspiration. The Holy Spirit had an essential part to play in God’s self-revelation in both Testaments, and in the formation of the record of that self-revelation in the verbally inspired scriptures of truth. 2 Peter chapter 1 verse 21 declares concerning Old Testament prophecy, ‘For the 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’. The word ‘moved’ means that the Holy Spirit carried the human writers along, like a sailing ship by the wind, as He directed and controlled their writings. The latter are, therefore, without error. 1 Peter chapter 1 verses 10-12 further explains the effect of this upon the writing prophets: ‘Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of God, which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven’. The Old Testament prophets were not as privileged or enlightened as the New Testament preachers of the gospel since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but the same Spirit of God used them in His service. The apostle Paul reminded Timothy that all scripture is ‘God-breathed’,4 that is, breathed out to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, and is therefore profitable for all spiritual purposes. In his day, this referred primarily to the Old Testament scriptures. Now they have been supplemented by the New Testament scriptures with similar power and authority.

Restraint of sin. One of the Holy Spirit’s ministries in both Testaments is the restraint of the development of sin in the world. Genesis chapter 6 verse 3 reveals that the Holy Spirit had been striving with men to restrain them from sinning before the judgement of the flood became inevitable. In a similar way, in the present age of grace, Paul reveals that there is both a restraint upon the development of the mystery of iniquity, and a Restrainer, before He is taken out of the way.5 The most plausible explanation of these verses is that the Holy Spirit is the Restrainer acting through the members of Christ’s body on earth, the New Testament church, until the rapture takes place, when the church will be translated to heaven.

Regeneration. Finally, the Holy Spirit has been instrumental throughout both Testaments in bringing believers to new birth. This was not very clearly revealed before the days of the ministry of the Lord Jesus on earth, but He confirmed in His conversation with Nicodemus that this had always been the case.6 Speaking nearly three years before His crucifixion took place, Christ said that the Spirit’s work in the Old Testament was to bring men to a new birth, to a regeneration. This aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry did not change after Pentecost. Every believer in the family of God has always been born of the Spirit through faith in God’s inspired word.


Although the present age of grace is pre-eminently the age of the Holy Spirit’s gracious workings, we should not forget that He has been operating in this world from the beginning of creation, and will continue to do so after the church has been called home to heaven. Like God the Father and God the Son, God the Holy Spirit has always been at work in men’s hearts, leading them to Christ, and sanctifying those who have believed in God. We should not underestimate the enormous contribution which the Spirit of God has made in accomplishing the plan of redemption. Therefore, as the risen Lord Jesus said to the church of the Laodiceans, ‘He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches’, Rev. 3. 22. We ignore His ‘still small voice’ at our peril!



Judg. 3. 10; 6. 34; 11. 29; 13. 25; 1 Sam. 10. 9-10; 16. 13


Ps. 51. 11.


Neh. 9. 20; Isa. 63. 10-11 and 14.


2 Tim. 3. 16.


2 Thess. 2. 6-7.


John 3. 5-6.