When the Spirit “comes upon” a person

Image: Photo by Daniel van den Berg on Unsplash

We sometimes invoke the Spirit to “come upon” us when, if we think about it, we believe the Spirit is already “in” us. Yet, both the Bible and our experience teaches us that there is something about the Spirit coming upon.

In Jack Levison’s new book, A Boundless God, we find an entire chapter on the OT expressions of the Spirit “coming upon” and – wait for it – what we read is unsettling, not comforting. Why? because we operate with simplistic categories.

He examines this expression with Balaam, the judges of Israel, Samuel and Saul and David, and then principal figures in 1-2 Chronicles. We can’t cover it all but I want to highlight some emphases we find in Levison’s career passion – to unsettle us with our Christian pneumatology by broadening it to include an OT “ruach-ology.”

The spirit, in short, was not yet tame in the annals of Israelite lit-erature. Absent the creeds,long before Christians annexed philosophy to grasp the nature of the spirit, Israel told stories of a mysterious presence that prompted remarkable feats in the public sphere. The comfortable constraints of later generations were not yet in place;this is untamed wilderness. Not gardens but forests. Not fields but plains.

First, once again: spirit-Spirit-wind-breath, which is it? We don’t always know. Spirit of God as a good spirit and spirit of God that is an evil spirit? Yes, both in the OT in the days of Saul. Human spirit and divine spirit then are not easy to distinguish. This is worth our pondering more and more.

Second, sometimes God’s spirit/Spirit comes upon someone outside the people of God, like Balaam.

“Then the ruach of God came upon him, and he uttered his oracle, saying . . .” (Num. 24:1-3).

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px ‘Times New Roman’}span.s1 {font: 11.0px ‘Times New Roman’}span.Apple-tab-span {white-space:pre}Now Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, so he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness. Balaam looked up and saw Israel camping tribe by tribe. Then the spirit of God came upon him, and he uttered his oracle, saying, “The oracle of Balaam son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is clear…”.

Levison now:

Balaam had already realized that God would not bless or curse Israel through ill-gotten omens berore the ruach came upon him: “Balaam saw that it pleased the LORD to bless Israel, so he did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” This is an important detail. Balaam already underwent a change of heart by the time “the ruach of God came upon him, and he uttered his oracle.” The spirit was not upon Balaam in order to work against the wicked wiles of a non-Israelite. On the contrary-and this may be one of many surprises in the Old Testament-the spirit came upon a receptive non-Israelite seer, an outsider, someone not included among the chosen nation.

Maybe, one wonders now, if we ought to be looking for the Spirit to speak from sources we have not previously thought capable of Spirit-inspired speech? Thoughts?

Now on to the Judges, where we encounter the Spirit coming upon them to judge.

Judges 3:9-12

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 14.0px ‘Times New Roman’}But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel son of Kenaz died.

Notice it then:

The spirit is upon Othniel and Jephthah (Judg. 3:10; 11:29). The spirit clothes Gideon (6:34). The spirit rushes upon Samson (14:6, 19; 15:14). But the pattern remains the same.

What happens when the Spirit comes upon? rushes upon? is upon?

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Source: Christianity Today