The Hebrew Words for the Spirit Coming on People
In both Testaments, the Holy Spirit comes upon people to empower them for acts they could not do themselves or at the very least could not do as well themselves as when empowered. While many of the references are to God's Spirit empowering to prophesy (and most people seem to default to this example), the Spirit empowers in many other ways. For example, when the Tabernacle was being built, God filled Bezalel with the Spirit to give him wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in workmanship as an artisan to work in precious metals, jewels, and wood carving (Exodus 31:1-5). Similarly, this wisdom was given to other artisans (Exodus 31:6-11). As another example, the Spirit of the Lord gave Samson his great strength (Judges 14:6). Several words are used for this empowering in Scripture.
Clothed - Labash
Literal and Symbolic Meanings
Labash means to put on a garment or clothe oneself with a garment. It can also be used figuratively such as in "clothed with shame" (Job 8:22; Psalm 35:26; 109:29) [completely shamed], "clothed with the slain (Isaiah 14:19) [surrounded by corpses], clothed with majesty and strength (Psalm 93:1), clothed with trembling (Ezekiel 26:16), etc. In numerous examples, it is God who puts the item on the recipient:
There is an interesting wordplay in Job 29:14. In one of his defenses, Job says that he clothed himself with righteousness and it likewise clothed itself with him. The English can be misread as simply repeating ("I put on righteousness, and it clothed me:" as if righteousness were a cloak), but the Hebrew means that righteousness put Job on, more literally, "I put on righteousness and it put on me." That is, everything about Job, within and without, is righteous. He is saying righteousness completely fills him.
The Spirit and Labash
Three times in the Old Testament, God's Spirit is used with labash.
- Judges 6:34 "The Lord’s spirit took control of Gideon. He blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him." (ורוח יהוה לבשה את גדעון)
- 1 Chronicles 12:18 "But a spirit empowered Amasai, the leader of the thirty warriors, and he said:..." (ורוח לבשה את עמשׁי)
- 2 Chronicles 24:20 "God’s Spirit energized Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest." (ורוח אלהים לבשה את זכריה בן יהוידע הכהן)
In all of these verse, the Spirit is the subject with an active verb and a person receiving the action (the 'eth particle in Hebrew marks the direct object). That means that it is the Spirit that puts on the While some translations use "the Spirit clothed Gideon/Amasai/Zechariah," that leads to meaning contrary to what the Hebrew pictures. The imagery there sounds as if the Spirit of God is laying on the recipient like a cloak. However, in all of these verses, it is the Spirit that puts on the person. That is, the Spirit wears the person like a glove or cloak. If the Spirit were acting as the clothes, different Hebrew grammar would have been used. The phrase would have used Gideon as the subject and marked "Spirit of the Lord" with the 'eth.
When Gideon is put on by the Spirit, the change in Gideon is immediate, striking, and a complete 180. Before, Gideon had threshed wheat in a winepress (Judges 6:11) and argued that he, as the youngest son in the weakest clan of a minor tribe, could not be the one used to deliver God. In fact, he doubted the strength of God to even rescue the people. However, when the Spirit put him on, Gideon no longer doubted God's power. For a short time afterwards, he doubted God's intention to use him (the fleece incident is after the empowering), but he had no doubts of God's power. Gideon becomes a wise and mighty warrior (Judges 8:1ff). Gideon's life after the empowering is a checkered one. He rejects a crown but makes an ephod (he even names one of his children Abimelech which means "my father was a king"). He stops Baalism during his life, but once he dies it returns.
The other two examples of the Spirit and labash do not have enough of the person's life before empowering to see how different they became. However, in the case of Zechariah, his speech after being empowered led to his martyrdom. In Amasai's case, it led to him being accepted by David as an ally.
In all three cases, the lives of the men were changed forever.1
Rushed - Tsalach
Tsalach means "rush, prosper, fall upon." The word is translated "prosper" more than any other way. It is also used in the sense of God's Spirit empowering in:
- Judges 14:6 "The Lord’s spirit empowered him and he tore the lion in two with his bare hands as easily as one would tear a young goat."
- Judges 14:19 "The Lord’s spirit empowered him. He went down to Ashkelon and murdered thirty men."
- Judges 15:14 "But the Lord’s spirit empowered him."
- 1 Samuel 10:6 "Then the spirit of the Lord will rush upon you and you will prophesy with them. You will be changed into a different person."
- 1 Samuel 10:10 "When Saul and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a company of prophets was coming out to meet him. Then the spirit of God rushed upon Saul and he prophesied among them."
- 1 Samuel 11:6 "The Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and he became very angry."
- 1 Samuel 16:13 "So Samuel took the horn full of olive oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers. The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day onward. Then Samuel got up and went to Ramah."
- 1 Samuel 18:10 "The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul and he prophesied within his house. Now David was playing the lyre that day. There was a spear in Saul’s hand," Note: "an evil spirit"
Amos 5:6 uses the same word: "Seek the Lord so you can live! Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;"
Similar to labash, when men are empowered in the sense of tsalach they do mighty things for God. Samson, hardly a man of peace, killed a lion, 30 men, and then a thousand when empowered. He also led the tribes for 20 years. In him, the Spirit came and went. At times he was empowered yet always had the choice to not obey. Each time, he yielded to the Spirit, and until the time after he told Delilah the symbol of his strength2, he was not disappointed. Interestingly, while Samson is often portrayed as tall and muscular, the Bible never indicates this. In fact, the Philistines cannot explain Samson's strength. If he were bulging with muscles, they would have had a starting point. However, Samson's strength came not in his muscles but from God. Like most of the others who are empowered this way, the Spirit empowers for a time and then withdraws.
David is a special case. Only in his case does the Spirit come upon him from that day onward. Even during his time with Bathsheba and dealing with the rebellion, David was empowered. It is obvious that these empowerments are not to the extent that they take away a person's free will or make them unable to sin. But David gave God all the credit for his reign and military victories (Psalm 18).
As pointed out by David, all the examples of tsalach use the Hebrew preposition 'al (upon) or el (to/into) to mark who the Spirit empowers. These examples are also the only times that tsalach is followed by that preposition. Alone, the word usually means "prosper." In this verbal phrase, it takes on the meaning of "empowerment" (seen by translations such as "rushed upon" and "came mightily upon").
When the Spirit moves like this, the recipient is no longer accepting of the status quo and seeks changes.
Was/Came - HYH
These all indicate not simply that the Spirit was upon the recipient (as if it had been there before) but the grammar shows a sequence to the events (these are waw-consecutives on an imperfect verb). This is their empowering moment. Before, as in the case of Otheniel, they may have been mighty men and heroes. Afterwards, they were something more because of God's empowerment.
The different words show different flavors of the empowering of the Spirit. When labash is used, the recipient is controlled by the Spirit for the extent of the time. This is the word used for a person putting on clothes. However, it is not the person who wears the Spirit but the Spirit who wears the person. Tsalach is a mighty empowering of the Spirit for a specific purpose. In the case of Samson and the others, it came and went as needed. With King David, however, the Spirit empowered him from that day onward. The final word, forms of hyh indicates that was the time of change but doesn't give more details about the extent of the change.
No matter the word used, the empowerment of the Spirit makes the recipient different.
1Compare the change in Peter from before Pentecost to the empowering event of that day. Peter was not the same man afterwards.
2While it is popular to say that Samson's strength was in his hair, the Bible never says that. Samson's strength came from God's Spirit being upon him. The long hair was the symbol of the Nazarite vow laid upon Samson from his birth. The Bible tells us that it was not because of his hair cut that his strength left him but because the Lord had left him (Judges 16:20).