The Soul - Its Usage in Old and New Testaments

The Soul - Old Testament Words

This has been one of the most discussed subjects in Christendom, if not the entire world. Everyone seems to have his or her own opinion as to what the soul is, and each opinion seems to be different. To settle this problem we need to see what the Bible says about this subject.

The word soul in the Old Testament is translated from Hebrew word nephesh, which actually occurs 754 times and is also translated in several different ways, including life, mind, creature and desire. I have included a complete listing at the end of this article.

Nephesh is often used in conjunction with another Hebrew word chay, which has reference to life or living.

I am not, by the way, suggesting that people need to learn Hebrew or Greek to understand the Bible, because you don't. The references to these words are helpful in this study and any reliable concordance of the Bible will help a person dig up the original words used and be able to trace them through the Bible. I have used e-Sword because it contains not only Strong's Exhaustive Concordance (which is moderately useful), it also has several other tools such as Vines, Easton's Bible Dictionary, Keil & Delitzsch and more, which can be a great help.

First Usages

These two words first occur together in Genesis 1:20.

Genesis 1:20 - And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

The words "that hath" are translated from the Hebrew word nephesh and the phrase "life" is from the word chay. In this verse it is in reference to moving (creeping) insects and fowls. In the following verse it is used in reference to sea creatures.

Genesis 1:21 - And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Here chay is the word "living" and nephesh is the word "creature". This combination of words is used in the following verses in Genesis 1 & 2.

Genesis 1:24 - And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

Genesis 1:30 - And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

Genesis 2:7 - And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2:19 - And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

As you can see from just the first two chapters of Genesis the word nephesh or soul is used of animals, fish, birds, insects and man. In fact, we can come to the conclusion that there is no difference between man and beast when it comes to the soul. We do not have souls; we are souls.

Now let's see what the rest of the Old Testament says about the souls.

Souls are born

Genesis 46:18 - These are the sons of Zilpah, whom Laban gave to Leah his daughter, and these she bare unto Jacob, even sixteen souls.

Genesis 46:26 - All the souls that came with Jacob into Egypt, which came out of his loins, besides Jacob's sons' wives, all the souls were threescore and six...

Exodus 1:5 - And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls: for Joseph was in Egypt already.

Souls live

Genesis 12:13 - Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.

Psalms 33:19 - To deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.

Psalms 56:13 - For thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt not thou deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living?

Psalms 116:8 - For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.

Jeremiah 38:17 - Then said Jeremiah unto Zedekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of hosts, the God of Israel; If thou wilt assuredly go forth unto the king of Babylon's princes, then thy soul shall live, and this city shall not be burned with fire; and thou shalt live, and thine house.

Souls eat

Exodus 12:16 - And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation, and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man (nephesh) must eat, that only may be done of you.

Deuteronomy 14:26 - And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household...

Isaiah 29:8 - It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite: so shall the multitude of all the nations be, that fight against mount Zion.

Souls die

Leviticus 7:21 - Moreover the soul that shall touch any unclean thing, as the uncleanness of man, or any unclean beast, or any abominable unclean thing, and eat of the flesh of the sacrifice of peace offerings, which pertain unto the LORD, even that soul shall be cut off from his people.

Job 7:15 - So that my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life.

Psalms 78:50 - He made a way to his anger; he spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence...

Ezekiel 18:4 - Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.

Souls are destroyed

Ezekiel 22:25 - There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they have made her many widows in the midst thereof.

Ezekiel 22:27 - Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.

Isaiah 10:18 - And shall consume the glory of his forest, and of his fruitful field, both soul and body: and they shall be as when a standardbearer fainteth.

Old Testament Conclusions

As you can see, the word soul is used in various ways except in terms of immortality. As a reminder a complete listing of all the ways nephesh has been translated is at the end of this article.

The Soul Defined - New Testament

The word for soul in the New Testament is psuche and like the Old Testament word nephesh it is actually translated several ways. The first occurrence of the word psuche is found in Matthew 2:20.

Matthew 2:20 - Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.

Another passage it is used is found in Romans 16:4.

Romans 16:4 - Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.

And again:

Philippians 1:27 - Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel...

We can see that the New Testament word psuche is the equivalent to the Old Testament word nephesh. They are common words used about animals, humans, fish and birds. Psuche refers to the being or person as a whole. It can die, it can eat, it is born, but it is never used in the context of immortality. The word soul refers to mortal breathing creatures, whether man or animal.

Souls eat and drink

Luke 12:19-20 - And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

Souls Die

Matthew 16:25-26 - For whosoever will save his life (psuche) shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life (psuche) for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (psuche)? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul (psuche)?

Revelation 16:3 - And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man; and every living soul died in the sea.

Revelation 6:9 - And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held...

Souls are destroyed

Acts 3:23 - And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.

Matthew 10:28 - And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul (psuche): but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

New Testament Conclusions

As we can see, the word "soul" is used in various ways except in terms of immortality. For a complete listing of all the ways psuche has been translated please see the end of this article.

The Soul - Conclusions

As you can see from the above word studies, the soul, as used in Scripture, refers to the whole being, whether man or animal. It is not immortal, as taught by the churches, but mortal. This is totally consistant with what is found in the rest of Scripture. The Bible teaches that man is a mortal, dying creature. We die because we sin, and we sin because we have a sin prone nature inherited from Adam.

Ecclesiastes 3:18-20 - I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Romans 5:12 - Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned...

Romans 5:14 - Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.

Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death...

James 1:14-15 - But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death. (RSV)

Scriptural Teaching on Death

If our study is accurate (which I believe it is), what is it that happens when we die? Is that it? Do we cease to exist completely? Is there something after death? Again the Bible has our answers for us.

Bible teach is actually quite clear on this subject. It teaches that when a person dies their memories are gone, their love, their hatred, their knowledge; all of it is gone and they know nothing; they cease to exist. This happens to everyone with no exceptions.

Ecclesiastes 9:4-10 - For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

We see here that death is total oblivion. There is no knowledge of your surroundings or of anything else. It is a completely unconscious state. This is taught throughout the Bible.

Isaiah 38:18 - For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.

There is no conscious existence in death so there is no praise or celebration of God. The writer of Psalm 6 reinforces this statement.

Psalm 6:5 - For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?

Another Psalm puts it this way:

Psalm 146:3-4 - Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

Is that all there is to it? Do we live and die and that's it? A careful look at the Bible reveals a difference between the death of an average person and a person that is a believer in God. In the Bible the death of a believer is called euphemistically "sleep".

John 11:11-14 - These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.

Acts 13:36 - For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption...

Why is the death of the follower of God considered a sleep? Is their death different? The answer to that question is Yes and No. When a follower of God dies, he too ceases to exist like all others, but unlike the others, the believer in God died in hope, but in hope of what? They die in hope of being awakened out of death. That hope is why the death of a believer in God is called a sleep.


1 Corinthians 15:51-58 - Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

As we have seen, the death of a believer is considered a sleep. This chapter, as a whole, is dealing with the resurrection (verses 12-23) and so we can safely conclude that the sleep spoken of here is death.

The change that will occur is said to be "at the last trump". It even tells us what will happen at the "last trump". "For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised"; this will take place at the return of Jesus Christ. It is, in fact, the first thing Jesus will do when he returns.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 - For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent (precede - RSV) them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first...

1 Corinthians 15:22-23 - For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

It is at this time (after the resurrection) the believers are made immortal, or as 1 Corinthians 15 says "this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality". It is at that point that "Death is swallowed up in victory".

As you can see, the traditional church teaching of the immortally of the soul is completely left out of the picture in the most definative chapter on life after death. In fact, the very opposite thing is taught, the resurrection of the dead at the return of Jesus Christ.

The doctrine of the resurrection is set out in absolute clarity by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Here Paul argues the basic necessity for resurrection. He was, in fact, contending with false teachers who, even at that time, had entered the church and were questioning this very doctrine.

In the early verses of the chapter Paul establishes the indisputable fact that Christ rose from the dead. Then, in verse 12, Paul asks the question "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?"

The resurrection of Christ is the basis of Paul's argument. No Christian worthy of the name could deny that Christ rose from the dead, and Christ's own resurrection proved the fact of a future resurrection of the believers. Paul develops his argument by contending that if the doctrine of the resurrection were denied, the denial applied also to Christ's resurrection. If Christ had not risen from the dead then the whole of Christianity was falsehood. If Christ is not risen from the dead then there is no salvation and all those who have died in the Christian hope had, in fact, perished forever. This is the substance of Paul's argument in verses 13-19. He then brushes aside these false teachers with the triumphant words "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept."

Notice how Paul describes those who have died in the Christian hope: "are fallen asleep" (v. 18), "them that are asleep" (v. 20). They are sleeping the deep sleep of death, completely unconscious until they are woken at their resurrection.

Christ was the first to rise from the dead. He was, as Paul puts it, "the firstfruits". The harvest will be the resurrection. Paul tells us when the resurrection will be in the words of verse 23.

1 Corinthians 15:23 - But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.

How 'nephesh' has been translated and # of times each

The word 'nephesh' occurs 754 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. This list has every word that has been translated from 'nephesh' in the King James Version.

soul - 475
life - 117
person - 29
mind - 15
heart - 15
creature - 9
body - 8
himself - 8
yourselves - 6
dead - 5
will - 4
desire - 4
man - 3 (Exodus 12:16; 2 Kings 12:4; Isaiah 49:7)
themselves - 3 (Esther 9:31; Isaiah 46:2; Isaiah 47:14)
any - 3 (Leviticus 2:1; Leviticus 4:27; Deuteronomy 24:7)
appetite - 2 (Proverbs 23:2; Ecclesiastes 6:7)
dead body - 1 (Haggai 2:13)
everything - 1 (Ezekiel 47:9 with "chay" meaning "living")
that hath - 1 (Genesis 1:20 with "chay" meaning "living")
beast - 3 (Leviticus 24:18)
slay - 2 (Jeremiah 40:14, 15)
at their pleasure - 1 (Jeremiah 34:16)
the ghost - 2 (Job 11:20; Jeremiah 15:9)
herself - 2 (Isaiah 5:14; Jeremiah 3:11)
greedy - 1 (Isaiah 56:11 with "ar" meaning "harsh")
fish - 1 (Isaiah 19:10)
the tablets - 1 (Isaiah 3:20 with "bayith" meaning "house")
hearty - 1 (Proverbs 27:9)
he - 2 (Psalms 105:18; Proverbs 16:26)
his own - 1 (Proverbs 14:10)
myself - 1 (Psalms 131:2)
for their lust - 1 (Psalms 78:18)
so would - 1 (Psalms 35:25)
my deadly - 1 (Psalms 17:9)
his breath - 1 (Job 41:21)
they - 1 (Job 36:14)
thyself - 1 (Esther 4:13)
discontented - 1 (1 Samuel 22:2 with "marah" meaning "bitter")
let me die - 1 (Judges 16:30 with "muwth" meaning "to die")

How 'psuche' has been translated and # of times each

The word 'psuche' occurs 105 times in the Greek New Testament. This list has every word that has been translated from 'psuche' in the King James Version.

soul - 58
life - 40
mind - 3
heart - 1
heartily - 1
not translated - 2

Written by Matthew Smith