What Does “Pour Out My Spirit” Really Mean?

pentecost_apostlesI was reading Proverbs last term and came across a line that struck me as important for non-Proverbs reasons, namely 1:23 “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (ESV). Clearly, the author is talking about conveying his thoughts. He will “pour out his spirit,” that is, he will open his mouth and words will tumble out. In perfect Hebrew synonymic parallelism, the second line repeats the idea in the first line. Thus, “I will pour out my spirit”= “I will make my words known.” This does not mean that he thinks of his spirit as wordy, as composed of words, but rather that the pouring-out process he mentions in the first line is precisely the process of talking, of letting words drop from his lips.

Pouring Spirit in Joel
Now, you might ask, “what’s the big deal?” The Bible is full of metaphors, similes, comparisons and so on, but this particular one actually opens up new dimensions for several very important passages. Indeed, the most important passage here is Joel 2:28-29, which I will quote in full:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)

This passage notably uses the concept of “pouring out spirit” twice. In between, the meaning of the “pouring” is that people will prophesy, dream and have visions. While only one of these three ideas, prophecy, is explicitly about words, all three of them are about divine revelation. The dreams and visions here are not just nice hallucinations, but revelations from God. Visions and dreams in the Bible are received by seers or prophets who then explain, interpret and hand on the meaning of what they see to other people with words. Joel is predicting a time when the prophetic gifting will be universally available and every member of God’s people will be part of the process of revelation.

Talking at Pentecost
The Book of Acts views the fulfillment of this prediction as the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles to prophesy and speak in tongues. Peter quotes Joel 2:28-29 to explain what is happening (Acts 2:17-18). However, what I had always missed and what I imagine a lot of other people missed, is that to “pour out my spirit” is to talk. Sometimes people think of the Holy Spirit as a liquid since he can be “poured out” like oil or water, but this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible’s use of the phrase. (Though in other ways, the Holy Spirit is linked with oil and water, e.g. anointing, living water, etc.) When God “pours out his spirit,” he speaks, or at least, he speaks through an intermediary like a prophet.

Other Spirit-Pouring Concepts
Elsewhere, the concept of God “pouring spirit” appears in the context of rain (Isa 44:3), sleep (Isa 29:10), renewed relationship with God (Isa 32:15; Ezek 39:29), and mourning (Zech 12:10). In all the contexts, the pouring of God’s spirit is viewed as a positive thing, a good development. Paul gives expression to the same idea, though he takes it out of the realm of words to some extent, when he says that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). However, I can’t easily fit Paul’s explanation of pouring out the Holy Spirit in Titus 3:5. Comment if you can!

Hannah, Psalms and Prophets “Pouring” Words
But, to get back to the wordy idea, that “pouring out my spirit” is talking, we can see Hannah “pouring out my soul before the Lord” as she prays (1 Sam 1:15; cf. Ps 42:4, 62:8). Even in Peter’s speech on Pentecost, he claims that the Holy Spirit can be seen and heard as it is poured out (Acts 2:33), meaning that the bystanders can hear the words of the prophecies being spoken. There are many OT mentions of pouring out an emotion like anger (Job 40:11; Ps 69:24, 79:5; Ezek 7:8; Sir 36:7). In addition, the Psalmist will pour out both complaint (142:2) and praise (119:171;  145:7). The point is that when the OT conceives of “pouring” it is usually talking about talking, so when we see God “pouring out his Spirit,” he is likely talking or giving someone else a gift of talking on his behalf.

So, next time you are thinking about the Holy Spirit as a liquid, remember that “pouring” can mean talking, and God empowers his people by speaking through them not just dousing them.

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