Throughout the ages mankind has expressed himself through music, perhaps seeking to convey thoughts, feelings and attitudes in a way more memorable than the spoken word. Beginning in the late 1950s a new musical genre emerged—Soul—it’s popularity exploding in the 60s. But the word soul, as with many other words in our language with multiple synonyms, is inadequate to express the depth of what the music is all about. Combining elements of gospel and rhythm and blues, it originally exemplified the black experience in America but soon included not only Motown soul but also blue and brown-eyed soul; smooth and psychedelic soul; Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and British soul; Northern and Southern soul; and soul expressed as blues or jazz or even disco. 1
As the music streamed across the transistor radios of the 60s with Sam and Dave crooning, “I’m a soul man…”2 or The Music Explosion belting out the lyrics of “Little Bit O Soul,”3 the church-going teen was also hearing and singing such tunes as “Thank you Lord for saving my soul…” or, “My soul in sad exile was out on life’s sea…”4 or, “He hideth my soul in the depths of his love and covers me there with his hand…”5 To add to the mixed messages, those same teenagers entered high school and college and began studying such topics as philosophy, psychology and world religion, only to discover that each one seemed to have a different take on the meaning of soul.
To the Christian, God’s truth regarding a matter is preeminent. In fact, in John 8:32 we are promised, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” So what does the Bible says about the soul?
An in-depth word study using various commentaries would quickly reveal that the root words for soul (nepes in OT Hebrew, and psyche in NT Greek) occur more than 850 times and, like soul music, are expressed in English using a variety of synonyms. These include not only soul but also life, person, creature, appetite, mind, being, self—and the list goes on and on. Additionally, each of the many versions available may translate the same root word differently. Interesting, yes, but potentially overwhelming as well.
So, picture this—you are alone in a secluded place, perhaps even stranded on a mythical desert island, and you have nothing to read but a New King James version of the Bible. You’re a brand new believer but you’ve had no teaching at all about God’s truths. You would most likely, out of boredom if nothing else, eventually pick up the Bible and start to read; probably like you would a novel, from beginning to end. So, let’s start in Genesis and search out some of the things the Holy Spirit might teach through God’s written word as it is expressed in English.
“See now, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one; please let me escape there (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live,” (Genesis 19:20) begged Lot when the angels told him to flee Sodom because God was about to destroy it. His use of soul indicates that it is alive, implying that dangerous circumstances threaten it with death.
When Isaac instructed Esau to “make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die,” (Genesis 27:4) it becomes apparent that one’s soul can act volitionally to bless another person. The same phrase “soul may bless is repeated three more times in the same chapter. (vs. 19,25,31)
Attraction and longing can be expressed by the soul as illustrated in the story of Shechem’s feelings for Jacob’s daughter, Dinah (Genesis 34).
Rachel died at the birth of her son Benjamin and her soul was described as departing. (Genesis 35:18)
After Joseph revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt, their past came back to haunt them and their souls were in anguish as they said to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)
As Jacob spoke his last words to his sons he said, “Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are in their dwelling place. Let not my soul enter their council; let not my honor be united to their assembly; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they hamstrung an ox.” (Genesis 49:5-7) So it seems that evil advice or association can influence the soul.
Leviticus is the book in which God’s law is laid out for his people. Ten references are made to soul, indicating that it can be afflicted, it can be atoned for, and it can abhor individuals or things. (Leviticus 16:29,31; 17:11; 23:27,29,32; 26:15,30,43)
Numbers confirms that souls may be sinned against, may become discouraged, may be afflicted, and may loathe things. (Numbers 16:38; 21:4,5; 29:7; 30:13)
A new concept is introduced in Deuteronomy that is repeated over and over again through out the Bible; the soul not only can but also is encouraged to seek, love and serve God in cooperation with the heart (or spirit) and to store up his words in the heart and soul. Additionally, life and abundance is promised for such obedience and the LORD is glad. “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live…The LORD your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the LORD will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 30:6,9-11).
Conversely however, there are terrible consequences when the righteous choice is made not to be obedient, “And among those nations you shall find no rest, nor shall the sole of your foot have a resting place; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and anguish of soul” (Deuteronomy 28:65).
Having now completed the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch, or the Torah to the Jews—much has already been discovered about the soul:
• The soul is associated with physical life—when it departs there is death.
• The soul experiences positive and negative emotions.
• Others can influence the soul.
• The soul can make choices. It can choose to bless others; to seek, love and obey God—or not. It can sin.
• Atonement can be made for the soul.
With over 30 references to soul, the books of the prophets (Joshua through 2 Chronicles) confirm the lessons already learned and adds a new concept in 1 Samuel 18 when it says that the soul of Jonathon was knit to the soul of David. So it appears that one person’s soul can attach to another’s, in this case out of a deep and abiding devotion in which the two were more like brothers than friends, with verse 3 stating that Jonathon loved David as his own soul.
Suffering plagued Job’s life for a time, as he lost everything except his life. Thus, the references to soul in the book of Job reflect a tremendous amount of anguish and include cursing of the soul as well as the consignment/redemption of the soul to the Pit. Some examples:
• Job 3:20—Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter of soul
• Job 6:6-7—Can flavorless food be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the white of an egg? My soul refuses to touch them; they are as loathsome food to me.
• Job 7:11—Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
• Job 7:15—So that my soul chooses strangling and death rather than my body.
• Job 10:1—My soul loathes life; I will give free course to my complaint, I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
• Job 19:2—How long will you torment my soul, and break me in pieces with words.
• Job 30:16—And now my soul is poured out because of my plight; the days of affliction take hold of me.
• Job 31:30—Indeed I have not allowed my mouth to sin by asking for a curse on his soul.
• Job 33:22—Yes, his soul draws near the Pit, and his life to the executioners.
• Job 33:30—He will redeem his soul from going down to the Pit, and his life shall see the light.
Over one hundred references to soul in Psalms and Proverbs reflect previous lessons learned and also introduce new truth. As we discover that there are terrible places and trials that the soul can experience, we are comforted by the wonderful descriptions of how God rescues and ministers to us:
• Psalm 16:10—For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption.
• Psalm 19:7—The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul.
• Psalm 23:3—He restores my soul.
• Psalm 30:3—O LORD, you brought my soul up from the grave; you have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the Pit.
• Psalm 31:7I will be glad and rejoice in your mercy, for you have known my soul in adversities.
• Psalm 33:19—to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
• Psalm 49:15—But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for he shall receive me.
• Psalm 57:6—They have prepared a net for my steps; my soul is bowed down; they have dug a pit before me; into the midst of it they themselves have fallen.
• Psalm 66:9—God keeps our soul among the living, and does not allow our feet to be moved.
• Psalm 86:13—For great is your mercy toward me, and You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
• Psalm 94:17,19—Unless the LORD had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence…in the multitude of anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul.
• Psalm 119:20—My soul breaks with longing for your judgments at all times.
• Psalm 124:5,7—Then the swollen waters would have gone over our soul…our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.
• Psalm 142:7—Bring my soul out of prison that I may praise your name; the righteous shall surround me, for you shall deal bountifully with me.
• Proverbs 24:12—He who keeps your soul, does he not know it? And will he not render to each man according to his deeds?
• Proverbs 22:4-5—By humility and fear of the LORD are riches and honor and life. Thorns and snares are in the way of the perverse; he who guards his soul will be far from them.
Ecclesiastes teaches us that the things we do for ourselves, in our own strength, do not bring satisfaction:
• Ecclesiastes 6:3—If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness…a stillborn child is better than he.
• Ecclesiastes 6:7—All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied.
Throughout the writings of the prophets the truths already learned about the soul are re-emphasized. Isaiah contrasts the dire consequences of rejecting God with the wonders that God supplies to his children:
• Isaiah 29:8—It shall even be as when a hungry man dreams, and look—he eats; but he awakes, and his soul is still empty; or as when a thirsty man dreams, and look—he drinks; but he awakes, and indeed he is faint, and his soul still craves: so the multitude of all the nations shall be, who fight against Mount Zion.
• Isaiah 58:11—The LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
• Isaiah 61:10—I will rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.
The New Testament is full of the story of redemption. Again, previous lessons apply, but now we read the words of Jesus himself as he gives warnings, instructions and promises, often quoting from some of the Old Testament scriptures:
• Matthew 10:28—And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But, rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
• Matthew 11:29—Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
• Mark 12:30—And you shall love the LORD you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment.
Remember how David’s and Jonathon’s souls were as one? In the early church that same concept of souls being bound together occurs again in the form of unity within the body; “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32)
Paul wrote of the power of God’s word upon the soul; “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) And other New Testament writers continue the theme of the salvation of souls:
• James 1:21—Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
• 1 Peter 1:8-9—Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith-the salvation of your souls.
Way back in the beginning—in Genesis—one of the first lessons learned was that the soul had to do with the concept of life, of a living being. And so the Bible ends with the triumphant declaration of the living souls of Revelation 20:4, “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
What an indelible image of a soul committed to God; a soul that overcomes; a soul that has withstood the trials and temptations of life; a soul that is not confined to one of those horrible dark places such as the Pit, Sheol, or Death, but who lives in victory in the very Presence of God! And the words of another old song come to mind, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus; life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ…”6
1 Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_music
2 From Soul Man, by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, 1967; as recorded by Sam & Dave, Stax/Atlantic S-231
3 From Little Bit O Soul, by John Carter and Ken Lewis, 1964; as recorded by The Music Explosion, Laurie 3380—5/67
4 From Thank You Lord For Saving My Soul, S & B Sykes, 1940, 1945 New Spring (Admin. by Universal Music Publishing MGB Australia Pty)
5 From My Soul in Sad Exile, Henry L. Gilmour
6 From It Will Be Worth It All, Esther Kerr Rushthoi