In part 2 of this blog series, I present the second biblical metaphor revealing the Holy Spirit: the wind. We need to discern what the metaphor is, and what its meanings are within the biblical and ANE framework. I will be drawing some details from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. My goal is to recognize patterns of meaning that may be intended to expand our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in subtle ways hinted at through metaphors. Click here for the dove metaphor.
I consider the metaphor of “wind” to be the most frequent of all the metaphors in the Bible since this is integral to the biblical terms translated “Spirit.” Both the Old Testament and New Testament terms for “spirit” have a range of meaning discerned by contextual usage: “breath, the human spirit, wind, life, air in motion, living power, an angelic spirit, the Spirit of God.” The Hebrew term, ruah, is used in the following ways: breath (27x), wind (92x), Spirit (108x, the capitalization by translators indicates the Spirit of God), spirit (124x = human or angelic, demonic).
Similarly, the Greek term, pneuma, has the following usage as discerned by translators: spiritual (1x), wind (2x), breath (3x), spirits (32x), spirit (103x), Spirit (239x, the capitalization by translators indicates the Spirit of God). Scholars count particular uses of ruah and pneuma differently, so 239x may be too low. I’ve seen another count of 261x as referring to the Spirit of God.
The point of using these two terms to refer to the third person of the Triune God is to draw along the meanings of invisibility, living and life-giving, unlimited power and presence, and necessary for life to help us understand the Spirit of God in terms of air that is all around us and ultimately sustains every cell in our body with life (oxygen). We also have some correspondence (by analogy) to knowing something of God as spiritual through using the same term for the spiritual part of human beings (with overlapping meanings among the terms for soul, spirit, and heart). Knowledge of divine and human existence is intermingled with knowledge of the wind.
Accordingly, the Spirit of God is omnipresent and invisible, making His presence known by the effects of His action. Just as we know that the wind is present when the boat’s sail is full, when the kite soars upward, and when the windmill is turning, we know that the Holy Spirit is active when we see typical effects of His works: people believe in Jesus, they live in closer unity of mutuality and interdependence of church life, and lives are changed into closer conformity to Jesus Christ.
Some examples set the Spirit of God in poetic parallel with synonyms for wind, breath, and life (all NASB):
…the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
The Spirit of God has made me,
And the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
The wind (pneuma) blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it,
but do not know where it comes from and where it is going;
so is everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).
He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind,
and it filled the whole house where they were sitting…and they were
all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues…
The Spirit (pneuma) Himself testifies with our spirit (pneuma)
that we are children of God…
Like the wind, the Spirit of God fills people to take over their lives. This metaphor of wind for the Spirit is implied in the 12x that the New Testament speaks of people being “filled” with the Spirit, in the sense of taking over control of their activity, like the wind blows a sailboat across the lake. (Another metaphor used for the Spirit is water, which also fills and takes over things, so some of these 12x could have water more in view than wind, or perhaps both. An example of the ambiguity is Eph 5:18 “And do not get drunk with wine…but be filled with the Spirit…”)
To be clear, I’m not saying that every usage of ruah and pneuma are references to the Holy Spirit. I am saying that when the contextual meaning is clear when these terms are used for the Spirit of God, we can see additionally that there are things about the wind, breath, life and the human spirit that help us to know and relate to the Holy Spirit. It is curious that the Spirit Himself selected these two terms ruah and pneuma in human language for reference to Himself, instead of using an entirely distinct word that wasn’t used for created reality. The term “holy” helps to make the distinction between the Creator and His creation.
Strangely, the Creator wants to accommodate Himself to our understanding of Him in terms of the creation, and in terms of particular created realities. We should not see the actual wind forces as divine, but we may take the wind around us and the breath in our lungs as reminders of the supernatural Person who created us, enlivened us through regeneration, and speaks to us and through us in various ways. Accordingly, the Scriptures were produced through human writers as “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16) and by the process of “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21).
Finally, the early church rightly identified the Spirit of God as the “Life giver” (Constantinople I, 381). Just as we receive life from the Spirit in creation and new creation, we are also constantly dependent on Him for life, just as our bodies constantly depend on oxygen-rich air. Do we consciously rely on Him for life? Do we speak and live as filled by and blown about in guidance by the Spirit of God (cf. Rom. 8:14, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God”)? Do we take His nearness as a comfort and assurance?