May 20: Isaiah 63:10-14

Isaiah 63:10-14

As we come to the end of these studies on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, it is time to consider the specific expression “holy spirit”. For those who have not looked into the matter, it may be surprising to learn that this expression scarcely occurs in the Old Testament at all. Of course, the idea of God’s holiness is common enough, and the association of the spirit of God with water-imagery and cleansing (i.e., making things pure/holy) is attested in a number of passages, as we have seen. However, the actual expression “holy spirit” (lit. “spirit of holiness”, vd#q) j^Wr) is quite rare. I discussed its use in Psalm 51 (v. 11) in an earlier note; the only other occurrence is in Isaiah 63:10ff, which we will examine today.

Isaiah 63 is part of a complex set of oracles and poems, located within the broader context of chapters 56-66 (so-called “third Isaiah”, trito-Isaiah). The Deutero-Isaian themes associated with the restoration of Israel and return from exile, have been developed within a more pronounced apocalyptic and eschatological framework, much as we see in Zechariah 9-14. The restoration of Israel comes to be viewed as part of a wider canvas of end-time/future events, including the judgment of the nations (and also their conversion), and the inauguration of a New Age for God’s people (depicted in cosmic terms as a New Creation, cf. 65:17; 66:22). These themes are woven through the oracles, along with a continuation of older prophetic and historical traditions. We certainly see this in chapter 63, which features a summary of Israelite history (vv. 7-14) at its heart, similar in certain respects to what we saw in the prayer of Neh 9:6-37. The traditional juxtaposition of rebellion (i.e. breaking the covenant-bond) and restoration is expressed, in verses 10-14, in terms of the presence and work of God’s spirit (j^Wr):

“But they rebelled and provoked (the) spirit of His holiness [ovd=q* j^Wr], and (so) He turned (himself) to become an enemy to them (and) He made battle with them.” (v. 10)

The “rebellion” of the people, their violation of the covenant, is understood primarily in terms of religious unfaithfulness—that is, the syncretistic adoption/acceptance of Canaanite (polytheistic) beliefs and practices, rather than worship of YHWH alone. At the same time, this unfaithfulness was also realized in ethical and moral terms, marked by the (widespread) occurrence of wickedness and injustice within society. All of this was incompatible with the holiness of God, and necessitated a withdrawal of His protecting presence, and the bringing of punishment (in the form of military conquest) upon the people. Likewise in Psalm 51, it is sin that threatens the removal of God’s presence (His spirit) from the Psalmist. The same expression occurs there in v. 11: “spirit of your holiness” (i.e. “your holy spirit”). It is scarcely to be understood as a name or title; rather, the emphasis is on the holiness of God—as a quality, characteristic or (divine) attribute. If one were to view it as an abstract or absolute expression, then “holy spirit” would be seen as a shorthand for “spirit of the holy God”, or something similar (cp. Daniel 4:8-9, 18, etc).

The rebellion (and punishment) described in verse 10 is followed by the promise of future restoration, of a return of God’s holy spirit to dwell with His people. This is viewed as a return to the time of Moses, when the people were guided into the promised land by his divinely-inspired leadership:

“And (then) He remembered (the) days of (the) distant (past), (of) Moshe (and) His people. Where is the (One) bringing them up from (the) sea with the shepherd of His flock? Where is the (One) setting (the) spirit of His holiness in(to) his inner (parts)?” (v. 11)

The hope (and longing) is for a leader like Moses, one possessing within him the very “holy spirit” of God. This theme was central to the Deutero-Isaian oracles and poems, expressed, for example, in the ‘Servant Songs’, beginning in chapter 42 (on this, cf. the earlier note). It is proper to regard this as an early form and example of Messianic expectation—hope for the coming of a spirit-inspired anointed leader, following the type-pattern of Moses, the servant of God. The presence of God’s spirit is evidenced by the miraculous events leading to Israel’s salvation (vv. 12-13a). Ultimately, the people were brought to a place of peace and rest in the promised Land (vv. 13b-14), marked especially by the presence of God’s spirit:

“Like an animal going down in(to the) valley, (so the) spirit of YHWH made him [i.e. Israel] to rest (there). Thus did you drive along your people, to make for you(rself) a name of beauty/glory.” (v. 14)

Clearly the “spirit of His holiness” is the spirit of YHWH Himself, His very presence among His people. The future hope is that this will be realized again, with the restoration of Israel in a New Age, soon to come.

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