We hear a lot about the the role of the Holy Spirit
in our lives, devotions, liturgies and ministry these days.
In fact, we even speak about "the decade of the Holy Spirit."
As individuals and as a Church, we have a much greater awareness
than ever before of the powerful role the Holy Spirit plays
in our daily lives.
The first major Church teachings on the Holy Spirit
did not take place until the great ecumenical councils of the
fourth century. In this Scripture From Scratch, we will
go back even further, asking how the Chosen People understood
the role of the Holy Spirit. We will find that their appreciation
grew over time as well, from the first hints of the spirit to
the profound celebration of the gift that the Holy Spirit is
to all the people.
A Breath of Fresh Air
The original meaning of "spirit" (ruah
in Hebrew) is simply "breath" and often means the breath of
life (Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4). So Job can say: "For the spirit
of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me
life" (Job 33:4).
Besides meaning an individual person's breath
of life, the word "spirit" sometimes means the world's breath,
in other words, the wind, understood as a mysterious power,
a noise like the voice of Yahweh, a messenger that can be powerful
and even destructive
19:11; 2 Samuel 22:11, 16; Psalm 18:15).
From this early simple understanding, the word
"spirit" comes to mean the source of life and vital activity,
because when people have breath in them they are alive and when
the breath leaves them they die (Genesis 6:3; Job 34:14; Psalm
Thus, "spirit" gradually means God's breath within
us, creative, renewing and life-giving; when we have it we are
alive, when we do not we die. "If he were to take back his spirit
to himself, withdraw to himself his breath, all flesh would
perish together, and man return to the dust" (Job 34:14-15).
Since "spirit" refers to a person's vital activity
it begins to mean the kind of spirit a person hasis a
person in a good spirit or a bad spirit? From this point it
is logical to understand "spirit" to refer to what is ethical
and unethicalthe spirit of God leading to good living
and its absence to immoral living (Isaiah 30:1; 11:2; Psalm
51:12-13; Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Thus, God says to Ezekiel: "I will put my spirit
within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to
observe my ordinances" (Ezekiel 36:27).
This sense of spirit is also applied on a world
scale to mean the spirit or presence of God directing world
history (Exodus 33:14-16; Psalm 139:7). We see good examples
of God's spirit directing Israel's history in the writings of
"This is the pact I made with you when you came
out of Egypt,/And my spirit continues in your midst; do not
fear" (Haggai 2:5).
"This is the Lord's message to Zerubbabel: Not
by an army, nor by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord of
hosts" (Zechariah 4:6).
Gifts of the Spirit
Once the Chosen People begin to think about the
kind of life the spirit brings they focus on the gifts or charisms
the spirit gives to individuals, whether leaders (Numbers 11:24-30),
judges (Judges 3:10; 6:4; 11:29; 13:25), kings (1 Samuel 11:6;
16:13), wise people (Job 32:8; Proverbs 1:23), craftspeople
(Exodus 31:3) and prophets (1 Samuel 11:6; Micah 3:8; Ezekiel
So the spirit is a force that has unique effects
on people, transforming them, challenging them to exceptional
deeds, urging them to act prophetically, strengthening them
in their vocation, sanctifying them, giving them wisdom and
Although the first references to the spirit in
the Old Testament are simple, they increase in importance and
the spirit's presence is seen as a sign of God's constant action
in the world.
Switching on the Power
The many blessings of God's spirit were seen
in a special way in the person of the anointed king. When a
king was unworthy, the people looked forward to a future king
who would be filled with the gifts of God's spirit.
The time of the future anointed oneMessiahwas
viewed as a time of fulfillment and of a particular presence
of God's spirit. In the future messianic times people believed
that there would be a collective outpouring of God's spirit
on all the messianic people and an individual outpouring of
God's spirit on the person of the Messiah.
For the prophet Isaiah the restoration of the
nation would begin with the purification of the people by the
spirit of God (Isaiah 4:4-6). Their future growth and salvation
would be the work of the same spirit, and so he urges the people
to wait "until the spirit from on high is poured out on us,
then will the desert become an orchard" (Isaiah 32:15).
With God's redemption come many gifts of the
spirit for the nation: "I will pour water upon the thirsty ground,
and streams upon the dry land; I will pour out my spirit upon
your offspring, and my blessing upon your descendants" (Isaiah
In fact, Isaiah sees a new covenant established
through the spirit and considers this same spirit as an everlasting
gift to the peoplea gift that is also a pledge of God's
"This is the covenant with them, which I myself
have made, says the Lord. My spirit which is upon you, and my
words that I have put in your mouth, shall never leave your
mouth, nor the mouths of your children, nor the mouths of your
children's children, from now on and forever, says the Lord"
Like Isaiah, Ezekiel also saw that the people's
purification would be through the gift of the spirit (Ezekiel
11:18-20), and that the spirit would lead the people to a spiritual
"I will give you a new heart, and place a new
spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts" (Ezekiel 36:26).
Moreover, he taught that the spirit would be
an abiding power among the people, leading them to live the
Lord's law and calling them on to the renewal and reconstruction
of the whole nation (Ezekiel 36:27; 37:1-14).
The prophets' conviction of a general outpouring
of the spirit on the messianic people is summed up by the prophecy
of Joel that we read on Pentecost, the day when these prophecies
"Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on
all mankind; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old
men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions"
The future times to which the people looked forward
would includein addition to the outpouring of the spirit
on all peoplea special individual pouring out of the spirit
on the person of the Messiah.
Three main prophecies emphasize this, all coming
from Isaiah. The prophet describes the spiritual reign of a
future king: "The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, a spirit
of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and might,
a spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord" (Isaiah 11:2).
Clearly, the gifts of the spirit are concentrated
in this future kingthe wisdom of kings like Solomon, the
counsel and might of David and others, and the religious attitudes
of leaders like Moses and Abraham.
Isaiah also sees the Messiah as God's servant,
filled with the spirit and sent to the people with a mission
of bringing justice to the world. "Here is my servant whom I
uphold,/my chosen one with whom I am pleased,/Upon whom I have
put my spirit;/he shall bring forth justice to the nations..."
Endowed with the spirit and sent to the people,
the Messiah becomes the source of the spirit's gifts to others.
"The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,/because the Lord has
anointed me..." (Isaiah 61:1-3).
The spirit brings power and blessings to the
Messiah, to the messianic people, and nowadays to us. In Baptism
we are anointed with this same spirit and sent on mission to
serve others, endowed with the gifts God sees we need.
Starting Over Every Day
A third characteristic of the spirit in the Old
Testament is that the spirit is the creative source of new life.
Present at the first creation as "a wind from
God [that] swept over the face of the waters" (Genesis 1:2),
the spirit appears as a dove in the re-creation after the time
of Noah (Genesis 8:6-13), and finally as a cloud, representing
the presence of God, during the Exodus (Exodus 14:15).
In the New Testament this image of the spirit
reappears in the stories that surround Jesus' baptism in all
Psalms reiterate this same idea of the creative
power of the spirit of God, applying it to God's actions in
the world. "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and
by the breath of his mouth all their host" (Psalm 33:6).
"When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth" (Psalm 104:30).
Other psalms apply the idea of the creative action
of the spirit to the individual lives of believers. "A clean
heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within
me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your holy spirit
take not from me. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and
a willing spirit sustain within me" (Psalm 51:12-1).
Getting Ready for Jesus
Nowhere in the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit
spoken of as a separate person of the Holy Trinity. In fact,
it will take the Church a long time to arrive at a clear explanation
of the role of the Holy Spirit.
Even in the centuries before the coming of Jesus,
however, we can see the traces of future teachings in the people's
growing awareness of the role of the spirit.
The spirit is a power in the world and in individuals,
breathing life into both. The spirit not only gives life but
determines the type or quality of life both of individuals and
of history, good, ethical, given to God.
The spirit is God's charismatic presence in individuals,
enabling them to be leaders, prophets, kings, craftspeople and
Since the spirit is seen as so powerful and good,
it is natural to expect that when the best of times come in
the Messiah, both the people and the Messiah himself will be
filled with the spirit of God.
In the Old Testament the people's experience
was that the spirit brought life where there was none. So, it
is natural that the Chosen People should also think of the spirit
as the creative presence of God.
When Jesus comes he will develop these ideas
even more, so that eventually believers will be able to see
the actions of a divine person, distinct from Father and Son,
and deepen their faith in the Holy Spirit of the living God.
Next: The Trinity (by Elizabeth Johnson)