The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books

Available at Amazon USA / UK
Available at Amazon USA / UK

With a desire to learn more about the Holy Spirit, particularly with regard to the Old Testament, I am working my way through the book, A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit. This book, written by various scholars, begins with an investigation of “The Holy Spirit in the Pentateuch” by Walter Kaiser Jr. (click here to read my review and thoughts), This post builds on that initial article by looking at chapter two which explores the Holy Spirit in “The Historical Books.” This informative chapter is authored by David Firth, and encompasses the books of Joshua – Esther in our Old Testament. Of the 62 occurrences of ruach in the historical books, Firth notes that a majority either refer to breath, wind, or the human spirit. Firth also cautions that, “Because of the semantic breadth of ruach, we need to consider the possibility that even [when] ruach is associated with God it may refer to something other than the Spirit” (p. 14). Due to the ambiguous nature of the expression in certain texts, Firth limits his investigation to 13 passages in Judges and 1&2 Samuel (books which are part of the “Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible), and 6 passages in Chronicles-Nehemiah.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Judges

The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges
The Holy Spirit is an important motif in the Book of Judges

Firth notes that, “A central motif in Judges is that the Spirit’s presence indicates Yahweh’s power to deliver his people….The Spirit is thus principally associated with military action” (pp. 14-15). The giving of the Spirit to enable leadership is reminiscent of one of the features of the Spirit in the Pentateuch (Num. 11). In Judges this leadership is raised up as a means to deliver God’s people from various oppressors. These leaders include Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Jephthah (Judg.  11:29), and Samson (Judg. 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Firth makes the important point that it “becomes clear that the Spirit’s presence does not compel the judge to comply with Yahweh’s purposes. The Spirit’s power is a resource that can be drawn upon but is not something that overcomes the judge” (p. 16). This is evident in Gideon, who still operates out of fear although he has received the Spirit (Judg. 6:34-40; 7:9-11), Jephthah who pronounces a foolish and unnecessary vow after receiving the Spirit (Judg. 11:29-31), and Samson who receives the Spirit on various occassions, but also acts in dubious ways.

The ability to draw upon the power of the Spirit but not be overcome by the Spirit, reminds me of a similar principle enunciated by the apostle Paul when writing to the Corinthian believers. Paul notes the confusion that exists in the Corinthian assembly over the expression of spiritual gifts during their corporate worship. Paul counsels them to take turns, and if there is no interpreter for a tongue to keep silent in the church (1 Cor. 14:27-28). He states that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32). Although this is not a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, it is a reference to the gifts given by the Spirit and suggests the same principle we see at work in the Book of Judges. From this observation we can learn several important principles. First, God’s Spirit is given to someone (whether a deliverer and judge, or believer in a church) to benefit the people of God. This means that the giving of the Spirit involves a certain individual but it isn’t merely about that individual. The Spirit is given to one in order to benefit many. This is overlooked by some churches where the gift of the Spirit seems to take on an “it’s all about me” attitude. Second, while a person can draw on the resources of the Spirit, they can also act out in the flesh. Gideon continued to fear, Jephthah made a foolish vow, Samson violated his vows, and the Corinthian assembly was a place of confusion rather than order (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). In other words, receiving the Holy Spirit is no guarantee that we will not react in a fleshly manner. We still need to practice discernment and humbly offer ourselves, our actions, and our decisions to God.

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: 1&2 Samuel

"But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him" (1 Sam. 16:14)
“But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him” (1 Sam. 16:14)

Firth states that in 1&2 Samuel, “The Spirit continues to designate those chosen by Yahweh, though without removing the flaws of those so empowered. However, the books of Samuel also include the motif of the Spirit’s association with prophecy from Numbers 11, but (especially with David) in new ways. Most originally, the books of Samuel also point to the possibility of the Spirit disempowering those who set themselves against Yahweh” (p. 18). In other words, a number of the ways in which the Spirit works and manifests himself continue to be seen in the books of Samuel with some further development. Certainly one of the intriguing aspects of 1 Samuel is how the Spirit is given, but then taken from Saul due to his disobedience (1 Sam. 10:10; 16:14). A similar idea is introduced in the story of Samson, although there it does not mention the Spirit but simply says, “But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him” (Judg. 16:20). The other major difference with Samson is that later, when he prays, God restores his strength (Judg. 16:28-30). Saul, on the other hand, not only receives no further answers from the Lord (e.g., 1 Sam. 28:6), he also is sent an “evil spirit” from the Lord (1 Sam. 16:14). Firth writes, “Previous references to the Spirit indicated a means by which Yahweh empowered someone to work for him, but here the Spirit acts independently of a human servant, disempowering those who opposed Yahweh’s purposes” (p. 20).

Firth also notes a development in the idea of Spirit-inspired prophecy. Whereas previous depictions of Spirit-inspired prophecy seem to be of the ecstatic type (e.g., Num. 11), David is said to speak a prophetic oracle by the Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2). Firth concludes, “David’s experience of the Spirit is pivotal for the whole of the Old Testament’s understanding of the Spirit, so that from this point on the emphasis is upon the Spirit and the spoken word of prophecy, though elements such as empowering for leadership do emerge occasionally. The books of Samuel have thus brought new emphases on the Spirit’s work” (p.21).

The Holy Spirit in the Historical Books: Chronicles and Nehemiah

“In contrast to the more complex theology of the Spirit in Judges and Samuel, references to the Spirit in Chronicles and Nehemiah have a simpler focus. Without fail, they are concerned with the Spirit’s involvement in the delivery of Yahweh’s word to his people” (p. 21). Although Chronicles often seems to use Samuel and Kings as a source, “it is notable that none of the references to the Spirit in Samuel occurs in Chronicles” (p. 21). Firth concludes that “This suggests that the Chronicler has conciously chosen to associate the work of the Spirit only with prophetic utterance” (p. 21), the same can be said for the Book of Nehemiah.

Conclusion and Evaluation

Firth concludes that the references of the Holy Spirit in the historical books show a “progressive development of the understanding of the Spirit.” While Judges focuses on the role of empowering leadership, especially in regards to military deliverance, the books of Samuel act as the pivot taking up motifs from Judges but moving them forward especially in the areas of the Spirit withdrawing from Saul and David speaking the prophetic word of God through the Spirit. This leads to the usage in Chronicles and Nehemiah which is wholly focused on “the Spirit’s role in enabling prophets to speak God’s message to his people” (p. 23).

Firth’s treatment of the Holy Spirit in the historical books is more nuanced and more insightful than Kaiser’s on the Pentateuch. I found his ability to show a progressive development in the understanding of the Holy Spirit in the historical books and to discuss various aspects of that development to be very helpful as I seek to better understand the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament.

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