The winners of Wineskins book drawing done through my blog to receive a copy of Mark Powell’s Centered on God are: Robert C. Bliss; Eric Whelchel; and Jerry Starling.
Introduction to Caricatures
Ok! I grow tired, can I confess that?, of caricatures of the Old Testament. They are prevalent among Christians. What is most disappointing is that many that profess to be “teachers” also perpetuate these false notions about God’s word. Paul warned about those that wanted to be “teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Tim 1.7). They do not invest the time to learn to “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2.15) though Paul told Timothy these Scriptures make us wise unto salvation (2 Tim 3.15-16). In each of the texts just cited, Paul is talking about what some Christians call the Old Testament.
What is baffling about these caricatures is that Jesus’s own faith is in the God of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus’s mission in the world is defined by the explicit words and theology of the Hebrew Bible (Luke 4; Isa 61; Lev 25). Almost every time Jesus opens his mouth it is with a word from the Hebrew Bible. He was so immersed and shaped by the Hebrew Bible that even in the greatest of all crises of his life, hanging on the Cross, he has no words to pray but those of the Psalms.
Do we not know that Paul, like his Master before him, cannot think apart from the Scriptures of Israel in Hebrew or their Septuagint translation. So he claims that his Gospel itself is “according to the Scripture.” That is not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts and the Letter to the Romans (you know the song!). The Good News is the Good News because of it has an ancestry. When Paul speaks of salvation by Grace thru Faith he bases his entire theology upon the “Old Testament.” Abraham and David are prototypical.
So the caricatures are rooted in wilful ignorance.
A Sad Example
Several years ago I found myself involved in a discussion with a preaching brother who castigated me over some point about the Hebrew Bible. I had published a blog about the grace of God in the Hebrew Bible. He believed the myth perpetuated by many that the HB is “carnal” (his word) and that Jesus brought a brand new religion … grace-faith religion.
I shared numerous things with him that he simply refused to read. So I invited him to simply read the Psalms with me for a couple of months. That is a daily run thru the Psalter. He refused to my dismay even after I tried to explain how important they were for Jesus and the NT church.
He finally “marked me” because I clearly did not know the OT was “nailed to the cross” and “do not understand the distinction between the covenants.” I was sad but amused.
The Israelite, The Holy Spirit & Relationship with God
One of the greatest caricatures of the Hebrew Bible has to do with the Spirit of God. This is directly related to the old saw that the “OT” was a religion of legalism, form without substance, and ritual without life. Certainly the Jews do not recognize themselves in our caricatures of them. So the question can be formulated as follows:
Were Israelites/Jews aware of the need for and reality of God’s personal presence and aid to understand the word, to obey the word and to have communion with God?
Most recently I was involved in this discussion because my conversation partner hold the view that Israelites could obey God’s word without the indwelling of the Spirit therefore contemporary believers do not have any need of an actual indwelling of the Spirit either. I disagree with the position from every quarter. But I want to focus on the assumption that Israelites knew nothing of a personal presence of God in his Spirit and they were left without enabling divine aid to walk in the ways of God. These assumptions simply do not reflect what is in the Hebrew Bible itself.
This is not intended to be a theology of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible rather we are exploring the idea of whether or not the Israelite had a personal relationship with his or Creator and Redeemer and if they knew how that was sustained.
Three Points Need to Be Made
The position just noted above is simply false and is based on misreadings of both Testaments. Serious ones.
First, God’s “word” in Scripture is not the Bible. I do not know of a single text where the word phrase “word of God” refers to a page with hand written words on it.
Second, the power of God’s word is not conditioned on which Testament it appears. The Hebrews Preacher believes that the “Old Testament” is nothing if not the Spirit himself talking (Heb 3.7, etc). So the Spirit is addressing people even in the Hebrew Bible.
Third, though we may be able to say that Israelites did not have the personal indwelling of the Spirit in the same manner as disciples in the Messianic Spirit age, it is decidedly NOT the case that they were not aware of the Spirit and their need for divine aid in accomplishing God’s will, for understanding the will of God and for faithful obedience.
The Spirit and Personal Divine Aid for the Israelite
The word ruach occurs about 400x in the Hebrew Bible. About fifty times it is clear in the context that ruach means air or wind (in the sense of the matter of Earth’s atmosphere) that leaves hundreds of times when it refers to a spirit from God. This basic fact stuns many because they have trouble remembering any texts about the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.
Typical of Hebraic theology is Psalm 51. Prayer is itself a request for divine aid even when such is not explicitly stated. But in Ps 51, a text that belongs to ALL Israelites that come to the temple to worship not just the author,
“Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51.10)
The context is that of gross sin. Sin of such a nature the psalmist believes that he/she does not have the power to overcome with her human willpower. The editors of the Psalter thought it was a fitting Psalm to illustrate the horrific fall of David when he murdered Uriah and raped Bathsheba. Divine power is appealed to change the heart.
Isn’t this what Moses commanded Israelites in Deuteronomy, that they are to “circumcise your hearts” (10.16)? But did not Moses prophesy that Israel would fail? Did not Moses prophesy that Yahweh would circumcise the hearts of Israelites, “The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your soul and live” (30.6).
Significantly this Psalm also uses the word bara (create). This is not the word “make” but “create.” This is evocative of creation itself and only God can bara in the Hebrew Bible. “In the beginning God created (bara) …” The ancient Israelite encountered the creation stories the same way they did the psalms, in worship. In Genesis, God’s creation of the pristine and good world is accompanied by the “Spirit of God” filling the useless chaotic void with life and goodness. So the psalmist pairs her own prayer with creation and the Spirit … to to me what you did “in the beginning” … make me new … such an act of grace is nothing an Israelite could do by his strength, work, obedience or anything else. It must be a new creation of God himself through his own ruach.
Psalm 51 is the prayer that thousands upon thousands of Israelites confessed and prayed in the context of their own struggles for God to do to them what Moses promised. They need God to do what they proven to be a failure at. Each one prays for Yahweh to create a clean heart, this is a brand new heart. The Jew knows this is not done by their own initiative or boot straps. There is no illusion of self-sufficiency here.
“Do not cast me away from you Presence
and do not take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51.11)
John Goldingay suggests this as the proper translation of Ps 51.11-12
“Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit”
This is a nonsensical statement and plea if the average faithful Israelite had zero conception of personal fellowship with God thru His Spirit. Further the person praying this prayer in worship recognizes that Yahweh sustains us with the Spirit and with the parallelism makes it abundantly clear that the saving help is from the ruach.
The saving help of Psalm 51 is God’s ruach, his Spirit. Not only is the Spirit the instrument of help in overcoming sin and the creation of the clean heart but the Spirit functions as the means of fellowship with God. Communion with God was therefore in and through the Holy ruach of God.
Praying for Divine Aid
All through the Psalms the psalmists are praying for divine intervention to enable them to understand and even obey just as we saw in Psalm 51. In the longest and most complex meditation upon God’s Word within the pages of the Bible, Psalm 119, we are confronted repeatedly with the prayer of one that confesses love for God’s word but not the wisdom to understand nor the strength to be precisely obedient to it without God’s personal aid.
“I treasure your word in my heart … teach me your statutes” (Ps 119.11, 12)
“teach me your statutes, make me understand the way of your precepts” (119.26)
“Put false ways far from me; and graciously teach me your law” (Ps 119.29)
“Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart” (Ps 119.34)
“Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight” (Ps 119.35)
“Turn my heart towards your statutes and not towards selfish gain” (Ps 119.36)
“The earth, O LORD, is full of your hesed, teach me your statutes” (Ps 119.64, see v.65, 73, etc)
“Your statutes are forever right: give me understanding that I may live” (Ps 119. 144)
Many more texts can be cited but this final one says it all …
“I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me” (Ps 119.102)
Let’s be clear about one thing as we read these words, the psalmists that pray this prayer are no asking God to give them the power of literacy. They are not want to know how to read. The psalmists already know what the “Bible” says! They are not praying that God give them lessons in grammar and syntax. God does not become the teacher by saying “read the book.” The commands, statutes, ordinances, etc are already known. The prayer is precisely,
“open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things in your torah” (Ps 119.18)
Something divine had to happen! The prayers of Psalm 119 are precisely the prayer of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1.17-18 that the eyes of disciples hearts may be “enlightened” so they can know God!
The Israelite prays that God will personally teach him or her. The Israelite prays that God will personally direct her or his steps. The Israelite prays that God will personally enable the him or her to love the word in the first place. The Israelite prays that God will personally save them “I am YOURS; SAVE ME” (Ps 119.94; cf. v.76-77, etc)
In short Israelites pray in Psalm 119 exactly what they pray in Psalm 51.10-13. They need Yahweh to personally sustain them through his Presence … through his ruach.
Isaiah’s Word on Israel’s Personal Relationship with the Spirit
Our Spiritual ancestors were very much aware of the stark truth that they depended upon the Spirit of the Lord for life, communion, power and even the source of obedience. Isaiah looked could look back on Israel’s history from the time of her birth and testify that it was God’s Holy Spirit that was with them from the beginning. Indeed in words not to distant in thought from Psalm 51 we note that it was gross sin that would drive God’s Spirit from dwelling with Israel.
“I will recount Yahweh’s acts of commitment, Yahweh’s praise …
He was the one who restored them, lifted them up,
and carried them all the days of old.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them …
But they rebelled
and hurt his Holy Spirit …
But he was mindful of the days of long ago,
of Moses, of his people.
Where is the one who brought them up from the sea,
the shepherds of his flock?
Where is the one who put in its midst
his Holy Spirit,
the one who make his majestic arm go
at Moses’ right hand,
dividing the waters in front of them
to make himself a name in perpetuity
enabling them to go through the depths like a horse in the wilderness,
so they would not collapse,
like a beast in the vale that goes down,
the Spirit of the LORD gave them rest,
thus you led your people,
to make for yourself a glorious name”
Isaiah tells us that it was not an angel that God used to bring Israel out from slavery or who was “with” the Israelites. Rather it was his Holy Spirit doing what is prayed for in Psalm 51.
Wisdom of Solomon, Relationship Sustained with God through the Spirit
Jews certainly were aware of God’s personal presence, Gods personal empowerment, God’s personal teaching and they did NOT confuse that personal presence, personal teaching, etc for the Bible. The Psalms more than demonstrate that many Israelites seemingly had deeper and more intimate relationships with Yahweh than many of their Christian descendants. He is the “God of my salvation” after all (Isaiah 12.2, see vv 1-6)
It is simply a misrepresentation of the Old Testament (something Protestants and Restorationists do routinely anyway) to imagine that Israelites some how were confronted by God’s holy word and left to pull up their obedience by their bootstraps. The book of Psalms shatters the idea for the bunk it is. Having God withhold his Spirit was a terrifying thought for the faithful Israelite as we see in Ps 51.
But even if the one rejects the Apocrypha those books show what Jews believed that had been reading the same “Old Testament.” Thus in complete line with Psalm 119 we see in Wisdom of Solomon written in the two centuries before Jesus (scholars are divided on the date)
“I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the SPIRIT of wisdom came to me” (6.7)
“But I perceived that I would not possess wisdom unless God gave her to me” (8.21)
“who has learned your counsel, unless you have given wisdom and SENT YOUR HOLY SPIRIT FROM ON HIGH” (9.17)
God’s word is activated and carried by the source of its power – the Spirit. It was mediated to Israel, so the Jews believed, thru the Spirit/Presence/Spirit of the Lord. Thus we read, Wisdom says,
“your all-powerful word LEAPED FROM HEAVEN (clearly not the Bible), from your royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed” (18.15)
The Conclusion of the Matter: Walking with God Requires God’s Personal Ruach
God word is equally powerful in the Hebrew Bible and the Messianic age. Same God, same Spirit, same word empowered by the Spirit!
To understand God’s word required personal divine aid for which worshiping Israelites plead for routinely. To obey the holy commands revealed required that God personally “direct” our steps. Israelites personally knew the communion of God’s presence else they would not pray take not your Spirit from me.
Luke did not INVENT the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Jesus could not have accused some of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit had those Jews no inkling of who or what that was! They did know. And they knew divine aid was required for walking with God.
To recognize that the Israelite, or Second Temple Jew, may not have had full Trinitarian view of the Spirit does not in any fashion support the false idea they had not idea what Presence was, communion with God, felt the need for and received divine aid in following the will of God. They knew “something” about the Spirit. Simply because the doctrine of the Trinity was not fully comprehensible prior to the Incarnation does not mean that God became Triune at the birth of Jesus. God has always been Father, Son and Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was not unemployed in the Hebrew Bible.