Note: In this article, when I refer to the Hebrew Language, I am speaking of the original words used in the Old Testament text, and when I speak of the Greek language, I speak concerning the language of the New Testament text.
Differentiating the Soul from the Spirit
It is popular today to think that the spirit and the soul are synonymous; that they are simply two ways to talk about the same thing, but the reality is not that simple. A brief pass over the Greek or Hebrew lexicon may satisfy the curious mind to see that the definitions look somewhat similar; however, a more diligent study of these words and how the scriptures differentiate between the two will open a new world before our eyes.
There are a few scriptures that make a clear separation between soul and spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:23, Hebrews 4:12, 1 Corinthians 15:45). If God is distinguishing between the two, then so should we. Let’s begin by defining the words.
Defining the Soul
In Hebrew, the soul is nephesh, and its proper and literal definition is “a breathing creature.” This word is applied to both mankind (Genesis 2:7), and the animals (Genesis 1:24); the English translations use the word “soul” or “being” for man, and “creature” for animals, but it is the same Hebrew word, and it simply speaks of the life and breath in the bodies of both man and beast. The ancient Hebrew pictographs wrote “soul” as two front teeth, a mouth, and a nomadic tent. The suggested meaning is the breath inside us; for the mouth means to speak and blow air, and the tent relates to our physical bodies. Interestingly, Paul also pictured the human body as a tent (2 Corinthians 5:1).
Likewise, in the Greek New Testament, the soul is psuche, and the literal definition is “breath.” It is commonly used to speak of a human individual (Acts 2:43, Romans 13:1), and sometimes the inner self of man (Luke 12:19).
With few exceptions, the soul is usually a reference to the natural world, in fact, the “natural body” in 1 Corinthians 15:44 is the Greek word psuchikos, which is from the root psuche (soul).
Defining the Spirit
Right away, we could surmise that the spirit must have something to do with what is spiritual, and thus, not the natural. The Hebrew for spirit is rûach, which is literally defined as “wind”. The Greek follows this pattern, and in the New Testament we have pneuma, which means “wind, a current of air”. These definitions are a challenge for us because it is difficult to accept that the eternal piece of our being is defined as a current of air. What does it mean? How can we understand it unless it is defined in a more tangible way? Well, maybe that’s the point, God chose to describe both His spirit and ours in a way that that is both invisible and ungraspable, and yet is visible and tangible. Consider it, the wind is invisible, and yet, as we see it moving the branches of the trees, we might very well say that we can see the wind. Wind cannot be grasped by our hands, but as it hits our bodies along the way, we might say that we can feel it, it is thus tangible. Jesus made a similar point in John 3:7-8, saying, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Wind is mysterious, and yet we understand much of it from its effects (what we see, hear, and feel). Likewise, the spirit of man holds some mystery to us, for we cannot see our spirit in the same way that we see this physical realm, nonetheless, the spirit’s effect on our existence is very real; in fact, James said that the physical body is dead without the spirit (James 2:26). Thus, the spirit, though not physical, is connected to the physical realm by dwelling within our bodies. This connection becomes a fascinating tale when looking at the etymology of the Hebrew word for spirit. The ancient Hebrew letters (pictographs) for rûach (spirit), is an illustration of a man’s head (representing man), a nail (representing a connection or joining together of two things), and a gate (representing the outside). Altogether, the pictographs illustrate “the man outside” or “the man connected to the outside”. We must be careful and balanced when looking at pictographs, for they are NOT definitions, and there is nothing concrete about them. So, while they may sometimes be helpful and enlightening, they also leave themselves wide open to speculation. For example, we may be tempted to look at the spirit as “the man outside” and be led to believe that the spirit of a man does not dwell within the body but resides in a realm elsewhere. However, this is erroneous, for God teaches that the spirit of man does dwell within the body (Zechariah 12:1, Daniel 7:15, Isaiah 26:9, Ezekiel 11:19, Psalm 51:10, Psalm 142:3, Acts 17:16). So, with care, looking at the pictographs of rûach (spirit), we see “the man outside”. To the ancient Hebrews, leaving the gate of their dwelling meant that they were either carrying out their prescribed chores or taking a journey. Whatever the case, going outside the gate meant that they were following a prescribed path. So, the Hebrews illustrated the spirit of a man as the part of him that is connected to God, the part of him that follows God’s path, and the way to fellowship with God. It is the spiritual side of man. The spirit within man is designed to lead the whole of man’s being in God’s prescribed ways. Paul made a similar point in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In summary, the soul is defined as the breath within us, our physical life and being, while the spirit is defined as wind, a current of air, something within us that is much more far-reaching than the breath we exhale. The spirit carries our whole being and was intended to follow the current of God’s word and joins us to God. If we cause our spirits to not follow this prescribed path, then we are trespassers upon strange and unnatural paths that defy the very purpose of our spirits and will not bring us to God.
Article by Tanner Campbell.