A Hermeneutic Test for Psalms 51

Many people teach that the Holy Spirit was “on” the OT saints, but post-Pentecost, is now “in” the NT saints. They gloss over the fact that the Bible never actually teaches this, and frequently mentions the opposite. I find this a little disconcerting: since it’s not actually stated in the Bible, where then did this doctrine come from? How did it gain such widespread popularity over the past ~100 years?

As best as I can tell, it’s driven by Dispensationalists who have a vested interest in making Pentecost out to be far more than what Joel and Peter said it was. In Acts 2, Peter (quoting Joel 2) merely said that this day was the beginning of the last days, and a day when common servants (as opposed to just Prophets, Priests and Kings) would prophesy and do wonderful works. Peter makes no reference to Pentecost being the beginning/birth of the Church, nor does he make any reference to the Holy Spirit coming to permanently indwell saints for the first time. So why do so many people insist that this is the result of Pentecost when the Bible never actually teaches this?

Oddly enough, much of this Dispensationalistic teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit springs from a phrase by David in Ps 51:11: “take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.” From these seven words, it is to be inferred that

  1. The Holy Spirit could be taken away from David
  2. The Holy Spirit was, at times, taken away from OT believers
  3. This kind of on-gain/off-again work of the Holy Spirit no longer applies to New Testament saints.

I believe this is problematic for many reasons, but two immediately come to mind: Not only does the Bible not teach this anywhere that I can find, but it’s almost entirely based on a rather inconsistent hermeneutic handling of Psalms 51.


Here are some challenges for us:

Challenge 1: List all the passages passage in the Bible that explicitly say or actually explain that the Holy Spirit works differently in the OT period than He does in the NT period of Grace.
(HINT: There is no such passage anywhere that I can find. If there was one, people would quote it instead of (or perhaps in addition to) Ps 51. It would seem that all such teachings are based on inferences and implied passages, not explicit text. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with having an interpretation based on inferences and implications, it’s important to remember this fact. After all, doctrines based on inferences MUST be held to a higher burden of proof or we’ll quickly find ourselves out in the weeds.)

Challenge 2: For every passage/verse in the NT that sounds like the Holy Spirit worked differently in the NT than He does in the OT, please demonstrate that the verse actually means what you think it means, and that it’s not simply the author’s preferred use of language to describe something that has already been going on for centuries and will continue for centuries.
(For example, there is a period of time where we read that the Holy Spirit “rushed mightily” upon people. That period of time is from Samson to Saul. Nowhere else is this phrase ever used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit. Based on this unique language, should I conclude that a different Dispensation was in place and therefore the Holy Spirit worked differently among men for those 200 years? Or should I conclude that the author used language that just so happened to be particular to his writing style? (Note: Pay careful attention to your answer here because you’ll have to use it again in a few more paragraphs.)

Challenge 3: In both the OT and the NT, the Bible says in many places that the Spirit was both ON and IN the saints. This language is used to describe both OT and NT saints. Please explain why I should conclude that the Holy Spirit was indeed NOT in the OT saints when the Bible says He was, and was NOT on the NT saints when the Bible says He was. (If you need help finding those many references, you can start here.)

Challenge 4: Nowhere in the entire book of Acts is it said that the Holy Spirit was in anybody. Not once. Not in the KJV, HCSB, ESV, NIV, NASB, or NKJ. It’s simply not there! Luke always uses the words “on” or “upon” or “filled” or “with”. Those same words are also found throughout the OT when talking about OT saints. If Pentecost was the big grand entrance of the Holy Spirit IN the lives of believers, why did Luke consistently neglect to say that the Holy Spirit was IN the saints? Why did he always only say “on”? Furthermore, why did Peter, the main speaker at Pentecost, never ever make any mention of the “fact” that the Holy Spirit was ON the OT saints, but now IN the NT saints? Worse, why did Peter say that the Spirit was IN the OT saints? (1 Pet 1:10-11)


When David says “take not Thy Holy Spirit from me” (v11), many understand him to say that the Holy Spirit CAN be taken away from OT saints, and that was back then, not now. For unknown reasons, people never say “that’s just hyperbole, common among many of David’s Psalms”. This strikes me as odd, because there are several other statements in Ps 51 that are clearly hyperbole. If we insist v11 is literal and not hyperbole, I have one question: why?

I wonder if we might need to examine ourselves if we’re being honest and consistent in our presuppositions and interpretive process.

Here’s a test to see if you’re handling Ps chapter 51 with consistency. Please answer the following questions by placing check marks in the appropriate boxes:

Sample Question: v11 “take not Thy Holy Spirit from me” means…
[__] It means the Holy Spirit CAN depart from an OT believer
[__] It means the Holy Spirit DID depart from OT believers unlike NT believers
[__] It’s merely hyperbole. David is exaggerating about the horrors of not having God with him, and is praying for something he knows the Holy Spirit will not do.

Q1: v1 “blot out my transgression”  means…
[__] OT sinners had their sins blotted, not washed away.
[__] It’s merely hyperbole. David wants his sins removed. That’s all he’s saying.

Q2: v2 “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin”  means…
[__] OT sinners had their sins washed away thoroughly, not just blotted (see Q1).
[__] It’s hyperbole. David knows OT sinners can only have their sins blotted away, not removed.

Q3: v4 “Against You, You only, have I sinned” means…
[__] David did not sin against Uriah by killing him, nor against Bathsheba by taking her into his bed.
[__] It’s hyperbole. David knows he sinned against all 3. But the sins against God make the other 2 (very grievous sins!) pale in comparison.

Q4: v5 “in sin did my mother conceive me” means…
[__] In the OT, it was a sin for women to have sex and conceive a child. This no longer applies in the NT.
[__] David’s mother was obviously unmarried to Jesse.
[__] It’s hyperbole. David is merely talking about how he has imputed sin from Adam.

Q5: v7 “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” means…
[__] In the OT, the use of the hyssop plant was required for forgiveness, salvation, etc. Not so for the NT, since salvation and forgiveness are not by works.
[__] It’s hyperbole. David is referring to the Levitical laws in passing, but he is talking primarily about his desire to be cleansed and forgiven by God.

Q6: v10 “Create in me a clean heart” means…
[__] God does not renew hearts. He removes old hears and puts in a newly created heart.
[__] It’s hyperbole. The exact verbiage is not relevant. David merely wants a renewed/right relationship with God. (See the second half of the verse.)

Q7: v16 “You are not pleased with a burnt offering” means…
[__] Although God commanded sacrifices, the truth is that He never did like them. However, now in the NT, He does like them.
[__] It’s hyperbole. David is talking about sacrifices IN LIEU of repentance and a contrite heart.

So the question we need to eventually ask is this: if we answer “hyperbole” to any of the above questions, we have no basis whatsoever to assume that “take not thy Holy Spirit from me” is literal. Since David has quite a bit of hyperbole in the same chapter, the honest conclusion is that v11 may also be hyperbole.

Whether we choose to treat this chapter as literal or hyperbole, we are obligated to provide support for our answer based on other passages in the Bible. And as you may well know, there are no passages that support the idea of the Holy Spirit leaving (in a salvific sense) any saint. The only time we see the Holy Spirit leaving someone is if they’re an unbeliever (Saul, Balaam, Judas, etc), or if temporary empowerment (Samson, Peter, Disciples, etc) is in view. (and it’s worth noting that any time the Holy Spirit is on/with/in someone and then leaves them in a salvific sense, they were never saved. He was merely empowering them for a temporarily task).

And both of these scenarios are present in both the New Testament.

Yes, the New Testament says that believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit, but .. so what? That doesn’t mean the Old Testament saints were not. The burden of proof is on the other side to demonstrate that the Bible actually teaches that OT saints were not sealed. And propping up the idea with a Psalm riddled with hyperbolic language is probably not the best way to go about it.

It seems to me that the Bible consistently teaches that all of God’s elect (OT and NT) are marked for salvation, and sealed by the Holy Spirit at conversion.

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