Does the Old Testament reveal the Trinity?

Feedback archive Feedback 2017

Today’s feedback comes from I.E. in the Philippines, who wrote:

dove

Good evening CMI! I knew that your stand on Scriptural authority is badly needed nowadays. I always admire your stand on the Genesis, that it was written as a historical narrative and the foundation of all Christian doctrines.

I know also that the Bible as a whole teaches the Trinity, the uni-plural "Elohim". I have a question though, did any character or prophet in the Old Testament knew the Trinitarian nature of God? As they were the people who personally knew Yahweh before Jesus came to the earth, did they have any clue about the Trinity? If yes, could you pinpoint any Biblical passages that support this claim?

Thank you for trying to answer this question. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, may your ministry prosper! Praise Elohim!

CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:

Hi I.E.,

Thanks for the kind words. Glad to hear you’re standing firm on Genesis and Scriptural authority, and thinking through questions like this one on the Trinity.

While I will highlight some hints at the Trinity in the Old Testament (OT), it’s important to understand that God didn’t fully reveal this truth until the New Testament (NT). Not until the NT era did the Son become incarnate and the Holy Spirit descend to permanently indwell believers, which allowed God’s triune nature to become clear.

So, are there clues as to God’s triune nature in the OT? Yes. Would an OT believer have been able to fully enunciate the doctrine of the Trinity? I don’t think so. It’s only with hindsight that we can recognize the Trinity in the OT. But here’s a sampling of the OT foreshadowings of the Trinity, which the NT authors drew upon as they fleshed out this revealed truth even further.

  1. As discussed in Our Triune God, God sometimes refers to Himself in the first person plural (we, us), despite the fact that the OT clearly teaches monotheism.
  2. That same article mentions Psalm 110, a Davidic psalm beginning with the words, “Yahweh says to my Lord". Jesus took David to be the speaker and the “Lord” to be the Messiah. So he stumped his contemporaries by asking how the Messiah could be both David’s son and yet David’s Lord (Matthew 22:41–46). The answer is that the Messiah is not merely human, but divine. Thus, in Psalm 110 there are two divine persons—Yahweh (the Father) and David's Lord (the Son).
  3. There seem to be two persons called Yahweh in the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. You can read about this in The Incarnation: Why did God become Man? See also our video Jesus in Genesis: The Messianic Prophecies.
  4. The OT contains references to the Holy Spirit who seems to be distinguished from God in some way, and yet still God. These include Genesis 1:2; Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30; 139:7; Ezekiel 39:29.
  5. The 'Word of God' is a concept used throughout the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis when God creates through His Word (i.e., “Let there be…”). John identifies Jesus as "the Word" in the prologue to his Gospel, claiming, "the Word was with God” and also “was God” (emphasis added). See The incarnate Word.
  6. In Daniel 7, the prophet has a vision in which “one like a son of man” came “with the clouds of heaven” and was presented to “the Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:13). While, in the book of Daniel, this “son of man” figure is declared to represent “the saints of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18), some of the language used indicates that the “son of man” figure is highly exalted, if not divine. Later, Jesus clearly borrowed the term from Daniel and applied it to himself (e.g., Mark 14:62). This is likely because he is the perfect representative of the “saints of the Most High”. So, although it’s not explicit, there is a sense in which this passage also points to two highly exalted (or even divine) figures—the "Ancient of Days” and the "son of man" to whom is given dominion, glory, a kingdom, and the service of all peoples and nations forever (Daniel 7:14).
  7. Psalm 45 says it is addressed "to the king” (verse 1). Yet it refers to the king as “God” (elohim) in verse 6, and then says that his God (elohim) has anointed him in verse 7. So there are two people here called “God.” Now, it’s not as though the psalmist or his contemporary readers would have taken this to mean that the Davidic king was actually the eternal Creator of the universe. Rather, the term elohim has enough flexibility that it can be applied to angels (Psalm 8:5) or even human rulers (Psalm 82:6) in some contexts. However, God also inspired the psalmist to write these words so that on a deeper level they are not merely speaking about just any Davidic king, but about Jesus. In fact, Hebrews 1:8–9 actually applies the words of this psalm to Christ. Jesus is the Davidic king who is truly God, yet was anointed and blessed by His God. So, here we have a whisper of the truth that would later come to be fully recognized—that both the Father and the Son are God.

Other texts could be mentioned, but hopefully that’s enough to help you see how Scripture contains one beautiful and consistent story from start to finish. God revealed truth to humanity in a progressive fashion, but the additional information that came later never violated truths that were revealed earlier.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

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Further Reading

Readers’ comments
Danny W., Australia, 13 May 2017
Also in Isa 9:6 which seems to equate a man (the Messiah) with God: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
William S., United Kingdom, 13 May 2017
I believe the first verse of Genesis gives us a big clue on the trinity, if I am correct in saying, that the word "God" is plural, which in Hebrew means three or more. I am not a scholar, but I remember reading this somewhere, please correct me if I am wrong.
Keaton Halley responds
We have made this point before, in places like Who really is the God of Genesis? and What's in a name? It may well be another subtle hint at the Trinity. But I wouldn't rely too heavily on this point, because it seems to reflect broader Hebrew linguistic principles. As Dr Michael Brown points out, "In the Ancient Near East, it was common to refer to the deity in the compound plural,[ref] and when speaking of an owner or master it was often the rule to speak of him in such terms. To give you just a few examples, Abraham's servant speaks of his master in the plural in Genesis 24 ('adonim, literally, "lords"), Joseph speaks of his master Potiphar in the plural in Genesis 39, and David the king is spoken of as "lords" in 1 Kings 1:11." (Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological Objections, Baker Books, 2000, p. 9.)
Chuck R., United States, 13 May 2017
For another OT example, in Job 19:21-26 Job appears to know of a distiction between God and his Redeemer: Job understood and placed his faith in a Redeemer that would reconcile him to God (and also too that there is a resurrection of the dead).
D. R., United States, 13 May 2017
Also, Genesis 1:26 states, "Then God said, 'Let US make man in OUR image, in OUR likeness....'" This use of first person personal pronouns in the plural sense with God's reference to Himself strongly suggests two (or more) individual personal entities.
Keaton Halley responds
Yes, this was my point number 1.
R. S., United States, 13 May 2017
I am surprised you did not mention Isa 48:12-16.
Rob H., United States, 14 May 2017
Goooood Morning! Great response Keaton! As you said, there are other Scripture portions that declare the Trinity in the Old Testament. I just wanted to address one of them due to its importance. In Isaiah 48, Isaiah was forthtelling/foretelling of God’s provision for the future deliverance of Israel from Babylon. Within the dialogue, Isaiah came as close as any to identifying the operation of the Trinity on the behalf of Israel. vv. 1-11: The Speaker is recounting His past acts in establishing Jacob/Israel and His special relation to them, and their obstinacy, as ours in many ways. The Speaker further relates how He proclaimed His provision for their future well-being, as well as His awareness of their rebellion from the beginning so they could not rationally declare that some false idol had proclaimed and brought these things to pass. vv. 12-1: The Speaker now switches to identifying Himself as the Eternal (“First and Last”) Creator of Heaven and Earth, and that by Him all things “stand.” (Cf. Colossians 1:16-17.) By establishing His identity, He sets the foundation for their faith in His future deliverance of them from the Chaldeans. Finally, He relates how He did not act on His own impetus, but was sent by “the LORD God” and “His Spirit.” (v.16). So, The Speaker has to be “God” and He has to be operating at the behest and in concert with the other Members of the Godhead. Thus, He identified as The Pre-incarnate Son of God, Jesus the Christ (Jeshua HaMashiach). Based on this, Isaiah had to have a pretty good notion of the Three-in One persona of The Godhead even if no one else picked up on the revelation.
Keaton Halley responds
Thanks for the suggestion. You're not the only one to recommend this addition. I'm not sure, though, that God is still the one speaking at the end of v. 16. In Isaiah, the speaker sometimes shifts without much hint in the context. Also, here, I do actually see a hint that the speaker has changed from God to the prophet or someone else, because in v. 17, there seems to be a reintroduction to God's words again with the prophetic formula, "Thus says the LORD". The ESV translators seem to have understood the passage this way, if you observe where the quotation marks begin and end. Nevertheless, this is at least another example of how Yahweh's Spirit is treated as something distinct from Yahweh, which can be "sent" to accomplish His purposes. So, I do see this passage as consistent with what I've written above. And, if the speaker in vv.16–17 could be understood as a type of Christ (the way I believe Hebrews 10 uses Psalm 40), then that could be another way this passage does hint at the Trinity.