(2 Tim 3:16-17) All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Paul was speaking of the Old Testament, and yet we treat the Old Testament as though it’s an worn-out, obsolete parchment. But I’ve found that the New Testament makes much better sense when we take the time to check the Old Testament roots — and see the New Testament as a continuation rather than replacement of the Old.
Before we get to the Spirit passages, we need to reflect a bit on the word “Spirit” or ruwach. Ruwach can also mean breath or wind, and this multiple meaning (also found in the Greek) helps explain much of the usage of “Spirit.”
The Spirit gives life, just as does the breath. Genesis 6:17 speaks of the “breath of life,” which could also be translated “spirit of life.”
God speaks through his Spirit, just as man speaks with his breath. Thus, prophets speak for God by the power of the Spirit of God.
As we look at some of the scriptures, we’ll see the meaning expanded, but it never gets far from the obvious metaphor. There’s a reason God chose to refer to this member of the Godhead as “Spirit.”
The use of “Spirit” in Torah
We first read of God’s Spirit’s involvement with mankind shortly before the Flood —
(Gen 6:3) Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
We don’t know in what way God’s Spirit contended (“strives” KJV) with man in those days. Perhaps it was through prophets or perhaps by some direct effect on the hearts of man. But we see God seeking to rescue mankind from its separation from God through the Spirit — a pattern that has never ended.
In Exodus, we read of the Spirit giving unusual powers or gifts to God’s special servants. The chief artisan over the Tabernacle was given God’s Spirit to have “skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts” (Exo. 31:3).
When Moses appointed men as elders to judge disputes, God them his Spirit and they prophesied (Num 11:24-25). Significantly for our New Testament study, they only prophesied when they first received the Spirit. Thereafter, they continued to have the Spirit but no longer prophesied. Evidently, the power of prophecy was only briefly given to show the people that these men had God’s Spirit, but having the Spirit and having the power of prophecy were two different things.
Now, it’s less than clear just what prophecy involved, on this occasion as it was evident to outside observers that these men has special powers (vv. 26-27), which would not be true if prophecy were simply the ability to speak spiritual truths, as a preacher or teacher does today.
We learn from the same passage that Moses had God’s Spirit, and we learn from Deuteronomy 34:9 that Joshua was given the same spirit (the “Spirit of wisdom”) from the laying on of hands by Moses.
While we’re in the Torah, we should also consider the use of “prophet.” The term is first used of Abraham in Genesis 20:7. We have no record of Abraham doing miracles or speaking God’s words. God himself told the king Abimelech this —
(Gen 20:7) “Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die.”
The meaning seems to be that God will do miracles if requested by this man, a prophet.
In Exo. 7:1, God refers to Aaron as Moses’ “prophet,” that is, spokesman.
God contrasted Moses to an ordinary prophet —
(Num 12:6-8) he said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. 7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. 8 With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
And God tells the Israelites that the test of a true prophet is whether his predictions come true —
(Deu 18:21-22) You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
Judges and Kings
The book of Judges routinely describes the judges as having “the Spirit of the LORD” (e.g., 3:10; 13:25; 14:6; 14:19; 15:14). The Spirit “stirred” or “came … in power” and so moved the judge to action. Of the judges, only Deborah is said to have been a prophet (“prophetess,” actually)(4:4).
We also read of Saul and David being given God’s Spirit. We associate the Spirit with inspired writings, which is true, but the emphasis we see at this time is on being equipped for leadership. Military and political leaders are given God’s Spirit, not to prophesy so much as to win battles and rule wisely. The gift of prophecy was certainly present; it just doesn’t seem to have been the primary purpose of the giving of the Spirit.
Consider this very typical passages from Judges,
(Judg 3:10) The Spirit of the LORD came upon [Othniel], so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.
Saul’s receipt of the Spirit is particularly intriguing —
(1 Sam 10:5-6, 9) “After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines, flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. 6 The Spirit of the LORD will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.” …
9 As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day.
We see that the Spirit can change someone into “a different person,” changing that person’s heart. We further see that prophesy was given as a sign of the receipt of the Spirit. But as was the case when God gave the Spirit to the elders under Moses, just what does “prophesy” mean in this context? Does it mean to be speaking the words of God? How would people know that Saul’s words were prophecy? Would he speak in poetic couplets? What was it about his speech that observers would take to be prophetic? Certainly not that his predictions were coming true — they saw the prophecy in him immediately.
And if the prophets were prophesying while being led by a band of musicians, who could have heard them well enough to distinguish prophetic speech from ordinary speech? Was it their eloquence? Their poetry?
And it gets weirder …
(1 Sam 19:19-24) Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; 20 so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men and they also prophesied. 21 Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied. 22 Finally, he himself left for Ramah and went to the great cistern at Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” “Over in Naioth at Ramah,” they said.
23 So Saul went to Naioth at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. 24 He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Evidently, this form of prophecy was entirely involuntary. The Spirit so overcame these men that they spoke prophecy for hours — and were so overcome by the experience that they couldn’t carry out the king’s order to capture David.
Therefore, prophecy can be much more than speaking for God. The Spirit can take over a man’s body and compel him to speak words involuntarily. And there is something about this kind of speech that is immediately recognizable as prophecy and not ordinary speech.
On the other hand, sometimes the “word of the LORD” comes to prophet before he is to speak, and he then goes and delivers the message (2 Sam 7:4 ff; 12:25; 24:11 ff).
There’s one other passage that speaks of prophesying to the accompaniment of music —
(1 Chr 25:1-3) David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals. Here is the list of the men who performed this service: 2 From the sons of Asaph: Zaccur, Joseph, Nethaniah and Asarelah. The sons of Asaph were under the supervision of Asaph, who prophesied under the king’s supervision. 3 As for Jeduthun, from his sons: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah and Mattithiah, six in all, under the supervision of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied, using the harp in thanking and praising the LORD.
A number of the Psalms were written by the sons of Asaph, and so it appears that some prophecies were sung. Of course, the Psalms are not only inspired but contain some of the most important prophecies concerning the Messiah.
Another role we see assigned to prophets in the Old Testament is the anointing of kings. Samuel anointed Saul and David. Nathan anointed Solomon. Elijah anointed Jehu. Clearly, the people recognized that the prophets acted for God and so had authority even over kings.
But not all prophets had equal shares of the Spirit. In 2 Kings 2:15, the company of the prophets, fifty men, bowed before Elisha when they saw that he’d inherited the Spirit of Elijah. Clearly, they saw these men as their superiors.