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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Trinity: One God in Three Persons

Don Stewart :: Do We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament?

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Do We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament?

The Trinity: One God in Three Persons – Question 14

If the doctrine of the Trinity is true, then God has always been a Triune being. This being the case, we should expect to find some indication of this in the Old Testament. This is exactly what we do find.

We Must Understand the Progress of Doctrine

However, before we examine what the Old Testament says about the Trinity we must understand the relationship of the Old Testament with the New Testament. In Scripture, we find what is known as the “progress of doctrine.” This means that God did not say everything He wanted to say about a topic in one passage or in the entire Old Testament for that matter. This is especially true with respect with the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity doctrine is revealed progressively throughout Scripture. While the truths of the Trinity are found in the Old Testament, it is only in the New Testament that we find the doctrine fully revealed. Consequently, while we find indications of the Trinity in the Old Testament, we must resist the temptation to read back into the Old Testament what we know about the Trinity from the teaching of the New Testament.

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not Plainly Revealed in the Old Testament but Can Be Detected

Therefore, we must emphasize that the doctrine of the Trinity was not clearly formulated until after the New Testament was written. However, there are anticipations of the doctrine in the Old Testament.

As stated, the doctrine of the Trinity is not plainly revealed in the Old Testament. Without the teaching of the New Testament, we would not be aware of this truth. Although not explicitly mentioned, the basis of the doctrine can be detected when exploring the Old Testament. We can make the following observations:

1. A Plural Noun for God Is Used with a Singular Verb

A hint of the doctrine of the Trinity can be found in the very first verse of the Bible. It reads as follows:

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. (Genesis 1:1 KJV)

The Hebrew word for God is Elohim. Elohim is a plural noun but it is used here with a singular verb bara. In the remainder of the Old Testament, when Elohim speaks of the true God, it is almost always used with a singular verb. The conclusion to be drawn is that in some sense God is both singular and plural. The doctrine of the Trinity states this: within the nature of the one God there are three eternal Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There is something else about the word Elohim which we should note. While this plural form is the term which is usually used for God in the Old Testament we do find that the singular Eloah is also used. Since the singular form of the word was available to the writers of Scripture, it may be significant that they used the plural form of Elohim in the great majority of the instances when they wrote the name of God.

2. God Created by the Word and the Spirit

There is also the fact that God, Elohim, created everything by both His Word and His Spirit. The Bible says,

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3 KJV)

God spoke the “Word” and light appeared.

In the New Testament, Jesus is called the “Word” of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1 KJV)

We find a further hint of the Trinity in Genesis 1. When God created human beings the word “Us” is used of God:

Then God said, “Let us make people in our image, to be like ourselves. They will be masters over all life—the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the livestock, wild animals, and small animals.” (Genesis 1:26 NLT)

The phrase “let us” again gives the idea of plurality. The word “us” cannot refer to angels because angels do not create. Indeed, they themselves are created beings. Neither are human beings made in the image of angels. Therefore, the verse must refer to someone else.

Some try to argue that what we have here is a “plural of majesty.” The idea behind this is that a king or monarch speaks of himself in the plural; “we.” However there are no examples in the Old Testament of a king speaking in this manner or using any plural pronoun to describe himself.

Therefore, in the first chapter of the Bible we seem to have a hint of the Trinity with the plural title Elohim used with a singular verb, the Spirit and the Word of God specifically mentioned in creation, and God speaking and saying, “Let Us.” These are three examples of the foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity.

4. The Words, “Let Us” Are Used Elsewhere in Scripture

The words “let us” is used elsewhere of God speaking in Genesis. After Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible records the following occurred:

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever...” (Genesis 3:22 NRSV)

The Lord God said that man is now like one of “us.” The plurality within the nature of God is certainly hinted at here.

At the incident at the Tower of Babel, we again read about God saying, “Let Us.” Scripture says,

“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:7 NRSV)

This is the third instance in Genesis of God speaking in the plural. In all of these instances, more than one person is indicated. Someone is speaking to someone else.

5. It Is Not Limited to the Book of Genesis

This use of “Us,” where God refers to Himself, is not limited to the Book of Genesis. Isaiah the prophet recorded the Lord saying,

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8 NIV)

In this verse, the singular and the plural are both used by the Lord to refer to Himself. He says, “I,” then He says, “Us.” The use of “Us” seems to be an indication of the triune nature of God. Again, while not clearly spelled out it is consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity.

There is something else. In the New Testament, John the evangelist said this passage of Isaiah was a vision of Jesus:

Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke about Him. (John 12:41 HCSB)

The New Testament, therefore, saw a distinction between the members of the Godhead in this verse.

6. There Is Another Plural Name for God: Maker

There is another instance in the Book of Isaiah where a different plural name for God is used. He wrote,

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. (Isaiah 54:5 NRSV)

The word translated “Maker” is plural in Hebrew. Therefore, we have a second Hebrew word that is found in the plural that is used of God. Again, this is another indication that the nature of God is unique.

7. The Clearest Old Testament Statement on the Trinity (Isaiah 48:16, 17)

There is one statement in the Old Testament that gives a fairly clear indication of the Trinity. This is found in the Book of Isaiah. The speaker is the servant of the Lord. He says,

“Approach me! Listen to this! From the very first I have not spoken in secret; when it happens, I am there.” So now, the sovereign LORD has sent me, accompanied by his spirit. This is what the LORD, your protector, says, the sovereign king of Israel: “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you how to succeed, who leads you in the way you should go.” (Isaiah 48:16, 17 NET)

In verse sixteen, God the Son is speaking. He is called the “servant of the Lord.” He identifies the Father (the Sovereign Lord) and His Spirit as having sent Him. He is also accompanied by His Spirit.

In the next verse, the Son is clearly spoken of as the Lord. Consequently, these verses identify three distinct Persons who are God without denying the fact there is only one God.

From the New Testament, we learn that Jesus, the promised Messiah, is the servant of the Lord.

8. There Is a Distinction between the Lord in Heaven and the One on Earth

The Old Testament also makes a distinction between the Lord who is in heaven and the Lord who is on earth. When the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, the Lord is said to have been both on the earth and in heaven.

Then the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens. (Genesis 19:24 NIV)

The Lord on earth was the angel of the Lord who visited Abraham. He is specifically called, "the Lord." This seems to indicate that He was God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity.

9. The Angel of the Lord Is Called God

This brings up the subject of the “angel of the Lord.” In the Old Testament, there are a number of occasions when a being called the “angel” or “messenger” of the Lord appears. While this messenger is sent from the Lord, this personage is called both “God” and “the Lord.” The evidence is as follows:

Thereafter, Hagar referred to the LORD, who had spoken to her, as “the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have seen the One who sees me!” (Genesis 16:13 NLT)

Hagar believed the angel of the Lord was the Lord Himself.

The Bible says that an angel of the Lord, or Yahweh, appeared to Moses in the burning bush. We read the following in Exodus:

The Messenger of the LORD appeared to him there as flames of fire coming out of a bush. Moses looked, and although the bush was on fire, it was not burning up. So he thought, “Why isn’t this bush burning up? I must go over there and see this strange sight.” When the LORD saw that Moses had come over to see it, God called to him from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses answered, “Here I am!” God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals because this place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:2-6 God’s Word)

Here the angel of the Lord identifies Himself as the God of Moses’ ancestors. Consequently, there are a number of texts found in the Old Testament where a messenger sent from the Lord is actually the Lord Himself.

There is more. The angel, or messenger of the Lord, has the power to forgive sins. In the Book of Exodus, we read the following about Him:

“I am going to send an angel before you to protect you as you journey and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed because of him, and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.” (Exodus 23:20, 21 NET)

Not only does the angel of the Lord have the power to forgive sins, the Lord says, “My name is in him.”

While, at times, the angel of the Lord, is merely a created being, on other occasions a different personage is in view. Many people believe this messenger, or angel, of the Lord is actually God the Son. If so, it is another indication of the distinction among the members of the Godhead that is found in the Old Testament. However, the exact identity of the angel of the Lord is debated among Bible believing Christians.

Each Member of the Trinity Is Specifically Mentioned in the Old Testament

In addition, each member of the Trinity is mentioned by name in the Old Testament. The evidence of this is as follows:

God the Father Is Mentioned in the Old Testament

There are Old Testament passages that refer to God the Father. Isaiah the prophet called God, “Our Father and our Redeemer:”

But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. (Isaiah 63:16 NIV)

Here we find the Lord referred to as “our Father.”

Malachi also wrote of God being a “Father.” He said,

Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers? (Malachi 2:10 NKJV)

Though infrequent, the idea of God being a Father is found in the Old Testament.

The Son Is Mentioned in the Old Testament

The Son finds mention in the Old Testament. The Psalmist wrote of God the Father speaking to the Son. He said,

Your throne, O God, is permanent. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of justice. You love justice and hate evil. For this reason God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy, elevating you above your companions. (Psalm 45:6, 7 NET)

In this passage, there is a Person who is called God, and a person who is called the Lord. They are distinguished from one another. God is distinct from the Lord. Thus, two distinct persons are called God.

There is something else. This could not be speaking of an earthly king because the king is called “God” and is said that He will rule forever. In addition, it says that God has set this king above His companions. This is a clear indication that the predicted king would be both God and human.

In the second Psalm, we read of God the Father speaking to His Son. The verse reads,

“I have installed my own king on Zion, my holy mountain.” I will announce the LORD’s decree. He said to me: “You are my Son. Today I have become your Father.” (Psalm 2:6, 7 God’s Word)

Later, in that same Psalm, it speaks of kissing or doing homage, to the Son. The psalmist says,

“Kiss the Son, or he will become angry and you will die on your way because his anger will burst into flames. Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:12 God’s Word)

In the Book of Proverbs, it makes a distinction between God and His Son:

Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in His hands? Who has bound up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is the name of His Son—if you know? (Proverbs 30:4 HCSB)

God’s Son, the Messiah is described with divine titles. The prophet Jeremiah records the Lord saying that the coming King will be known as “The LORD Is Our Righteousness:”

“The days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will raise up a righteous Branch of David. He will reign wisely as king and administer justice and righteousness in the land. His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. This is what He will be named: The Lord Is Our Righteousness. (Jeremiah 23:5, 6 HCSB)

This title of the coming king is the title of a divine personage, not a mere human.

Isaiah the prophet also ascribed divine titles to God the Son. He said,

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. And the government will rest on his shoulders. These will be his royal titles: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 NLT)

The Son has a number of divine titles. Among them, He is called the mighty God.

These passages indicate there is a Person called the Son who is indeed God.

The Spirit of God Is Mentioned in the Old Testament

The Holy Spirit, or the “Spirit of the Lord,” is also mentioned in the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis we read of the Spirit of God being intimately involved in the creation process.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2 NIV)

The idea of the Spirit “hovering” shows intent.

Isaiah spoke of the Spirit of the Lord resting on someone. We read the following:

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears... (Isaiah 11:2, 3 NIV)

In another place, Isaiah wrote of the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord. He put it this way:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, because the LORD has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to announce that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. (Isaiah 61:1 NLT)

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is distinguished from the Lord Himself. They are distinct persons.

Again, Isaiah wrote of the Spirit of the Lord, or the Holy Spirit:

But they rebelled against him and grieved his Holy Spirit. That is why he became their enemy and fought against them. (Isaiah 63:10 NLT)

In this instance, the Holy Spirit can be grieved. You can only grieve a person. In addition, that passage treats Him as a different Person from God. God in this passage is most likely a reference to the Father.

In the account in the Book of Genesis which led up to the Flood the Spirit of God is distinguished from the Lord. The Bible says,

Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3 NRSV)

Therefore, the Spirit is also distinctly spoken of in the Old Testament.

Distinctions Are Made between the Members of the Trinity

In a number of places in the Old Testament we find distinctions made between the members of the Trinity:

1. The Holy Spirit Is Distinct from the Lord

In Isaiah, there is a distinction made between the Lord and the Holy Spirit. He stated it as follows:

But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them. (Isaiah 63:10 NASB)

The Holy Spirit is spoken of as distinct from God. Because certain people grieved His Holy Spirit the Lord fought against them.

2. The Lord Speaks to the Lord

In the psalms we read about the Lord speaking to the Lord. It says the following:

The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit in honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.” (Psalm 110:1 NLT)

Here we have the Lord, saying to another Person, to sit at His right hand. No angel or human being is worthy to sit at the right hand, or place of authority of the Lord. The only one worthy to sit at the right hand of God, is God Himself. Therefore, we have one member of the Godhead, the Father, speaking to another member, the Son.

3. God Addresses Someone Else as God

In another psalm, we find one Person directly addressing another Person as God. We read the following words:

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. Your royal power is expressed in justice. You love what is right and hate what is wrong. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you, pouring out the oil of joy on you more than on anyone else. (Psalm 45:6, 7 NLT)

The one who has the everlasting throne is directly addressed as God. Indeed, only God would have an everlasting kingdom. Yet we are also told that God sets Him above all others. This can only be an example of God the Father talking to God the Son. Again, we have two different Persons who are each called God.

4. The Messenger of the Lord Is the Lord

In Malachi, we read about the messenger of the Lord. The prophet records the Lord saying the following:

“Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Malachi 3:1-2 ESV)

Here the Lord sends the messenger of the Lord. Yet the messenger is the one who refine the people. No one will be able to stand in His presence. This could only refer to God and Him alone. In addition, a distinction is made between “the Lord of hosts” and “the Lord whom you seek.” They are two different persons.

5. The Lord Will Save His People by yhe Lord

In the Book of Hosea, the Lord tells us that the Lord will save Judah:

But I will have compassion on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God. I will not deliver them by bow, sword, or war or by horses and cavalry. (Hosea 1:7 HCSB)

This seems to be another example of one Person of the Trinity talking about another one. The Lord is speaking and says to the people that He will deliver them “by the Lord their God.” Again, this appears to be a reference to two distinct persons.

The Trinity Is Foreshadowed in Benedictions

The Trinity seems to be foreshadowed in Old Testament benedictions. For example, we find a triple benediction in Numbers 6:24-27 where the name Yahweh, or Lord, is used three times. It reads as follows:

“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:24-27 ESV)

The blessing is in threes.

We find something similar in Isaiah. The doxology of Isaiah 6:3 also gives hint of the Trinity. It reads as follows:

And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth. (Isaiah 6:3 HCSB)

There is another example of this. When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he used the name of God three times. Each time God’s name was identified differently.

Then he blessed Joseph and said: The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm—may He bless these boys. And may they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they grow to be numerous within the land. (Genesis 48:15, 16 HCSB)

While this is certainly not conclusive, the triple benedictions are consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Why Is More Not Said in the Old Testament?

If the doctrine of the Trinity is true, then why don’t we find more explicit references in the Old Testament? While there is no answer to this question given to us in Scripture a couple of points need to be made:

1. The Polytheistic Background of the World at That Time May Have Confused the Trinity as Being Three Gods

Part of the answer may lie in the culture in which the Old Testament was written. Israel was surrounded by nations who were all polytheistic; they believed in many gods. It was important for the nation Israel to realize that the God of the Bible is the only God who existed. Consequently the oneness of God was stressed. After this truth was firmly understood by Israel, then the Lord revealed further truth about His basic nature; that He is a Trinity.

2. The Full Revelation of the Trinity Awaited the Coming of Jesus

There is something else. The full revelation of the Trinity did not occur until God the Son became a human being at a particular time in history. There was an expectation of further revelations of God when Jesus Christ appeared. Indeed, the Old Testament is incomplete. There were predictions waiting to be fulfilled. Jesus fulfilled many of them.

Thus, the progressive revelation of the Scripture needs to be appreciated. God is certainly not obligated to reveal everything about Himself at once.

Indeed, Jesus did not tell His disciples many things about His death and resurrection until after they occurred. We read the following words of Jesus in John’s gospel:

“I have a lot more to tell you, but that would be too much for you now.” (John 16:12 God’s Word)

God’s revelation to humanity was progressive. The doctrine of the Trinity was revealed over time. That which was latent in the Old Testament is made clearer in the New Testament. Until Jesus came, God’s revelation was only partial. God the Son would be the ultimate revelation. Indeed, He said that He is “the truth:”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NKJV)

Consequently, we do not expect any further revelation that may supersede what God has revealed through Jesus Christ. For in Him, Christ, are hidden all the treasure of God.

Summary – Question 14
Do We Find the Doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament?

Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Old Testament, the basis of this doctrine is certainly found there. There are a number of important things that we need to stress.

First there is the use of the plural noun for God Elohim that is used with a singular verb. This gives a hint of the Trinity. God is in one sense singular but in another sense He is plural.

In the Genesis creation account we find that God created with the “Word” and the “Spirit.” This may be a reference to God the Son, who is elsewhere called the Word, and the Holy Spirit.

There are also passages where God speaks of Himself with the words, “Let us.” These are possible references to the Trinity where the different members are speaking to each other.

The Hebrew word for Maker, which describes God, is also in the plural. This is further indication of some sort of plurality in the nature of the one God.

There are also specific passages where the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are mentioned as distinct from one another. In other words, we have three distinct personages or centers of consciousness. In particular, there is a passage in Isaiah 48 where three distinct personages are mentioned and each is called God. This is without denying that only one God exists.

Add to this passages that foreshadow the Trinity with the triple benediction “holy, holy, holy” is the Lord.

The reason we do not find a developed doctrine of the Trinity in the Old Testament has to do with the progressive way in which the Lord revealed His truths to humanity. At different times and in different stages, He set forth His truth. He did not reveal everything at once.

We can conclude that the Old Testament does not have a developed doctrine of the Trinity. These passages, while being consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity, do not fully reveal this truth about the nature of God. This was left for the New Testament to accomplish.

However, certain truths about the Trinity are foreshadowed in the Old Testament and they are setting the stage for what was later revealed when God Himself became a human being in the Person of Jesus Christ. However, truths about the Trinity are foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

Are Divine Works Attributed to Each Member of the Trinity? ← Prior Section
Does the New Testament Mention the Three Distinct Members of the Trinity Together? Next Section →
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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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