The Meaning of Nephesh – Hebrew Word that Grips the Soul
The word “soul” can often feel like a nebulous word in English, it doesn’t always communicate what it means. Soul has been been coined in jazz and blues music, and it’s used to describe a certain kind of southern comfort food. But is this the same “soul” we read about in Scripture?
The Hebrew word nephesh (נפש, pronounced “neh-fesh”) the Hebrew Bible) generally translates to “soul”. It can also be spelled ‘nefesh’ in English. Why is this word significant and pertinent to our daily lives? Why has it found its way into descriptions of food and music?
The Meaning of the Hebrew Word Nephesh
As we notice the other uses of nephesh, the picture becomes a little clearer. In the Bible, Nephesh is also translated into English as: living being, life, creature, mind, desires, heart, appetite, persons.
What does that tell us? We get the sense that nephesh is the inner, living being of a man. And it speaks of the very essence of a person. This understanding comes into focus when we examine Deuteronomy 6:5, the first and chief commandment given to the children of Israel:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
The New Testament reiterates this commandment:
Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (Matthew 23:27, TPT)
This is a love that takes over everything! It is a love expressed with “the whole of the affections of the heart, with great fervency and ardour of spirit, in the sincerity of the soul, and with all the strength of grace a man has, with such love that is as strong as death.” (Exposition of the Entire Bible by John Gill)
Nephesh that Brings Revelation
In Psalm 19, David wrote: “How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory… no speech or words are used, no sound is heard; Yet their message goes out to all the world and is heard to the ends of the earth”.
Have you ever considered that, just like the sky, your life should send this same message to the world? Your life—your words and your actions—are actually supposed to reveal God to the people around you!
This means we should love God with all our life and for all our life. And when we do – when we love God with all of who we are and with everything we’ve got – we bear witness to others!
It means to love Him in everything we do, in every word we speak, in every minute of every day. As pastor Craig Groeschel said, “God doesn’t exist to serve us. We exist to serve Him.”
The Soul of a Living Being
Nefesh also reveals the immeasurable value and significance God places on human life – on all human life. The below examples demonstrate how deeply and dearly He cherishes every single life; young and old, married and single, male and female, Jew and gentile, from every nation. God values our souls so highly He purchased us with His Son Jesus.
“No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them [the ransom for a life (nephesh) is costly, no payment is ever enough] so that they should live on forever and not see decay…” (Psalm 49: 7-8)
“But God will redeem my soul (nephesh) from the power of the grave; for He shall receive me.”(Psalm 49: 15)
These verses speak to the substance and worth of human life. As believers, the value we place on life should reflect the high esteem God has for life. The way we interact with, speak to and relate to one another (and treat ourselves) should be in light of our understanding of nephesh.
The Breath of Life
Nevertheless, to fully grasp the weight of the Hebrew word Nephesh, we need to return to the beginning. God called the world into being with the power of His Word. But man came alive because God breathed into him.
This unique being, made in the likeness of God, is the recipient of God’s covenant. Nephesh highlights the weight and worth of a covenant. The promises God makes to His children are significant because He made life significant.
“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 (nephesh).” Genesis 2:7
“But as for an uncircumcised male, one who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person (nephesh) shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” Genesis 17:14
As we examine these verses, we might pick up on two distinctive – almost opposite – characteristics of nephesh.
Is Nephesh – Soul Measurable?
First, nephesh is the “measurable life” – a life that can be counted, physically touched and measured. Like we see in Genesis 3:19, for dust you are and unto dust shall you return.
This meaning connects to the critical part of the sacrificial system in the Hebrew Bible, which was animal sacrifice. The offering of a physical life of an animal covered for the life of a person. One life for another life.
The other distinct element of nephesh is the immaterial aspect, where we see nephesh translated as desire, passion or lust. Linked to the heart of a person, it is the force that drives one in a specific direction.
“You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets—for he is poor and sets his heart (nephesh) on it—so that he does not cry out against you to the Lord, and it becomes a sin in you.”(Deuteronomy 24:15)
The use of nephesh as desire and passion is worth noting because where we set our attention to, there our heart will be. Thus our entire life, our very being is moving towards that. Proverbs 27:7 says, “A satisfied soul loathes the honeycomb.” John Bevere interprets this verse very clearly:
“If your soul is filled with cares, pleasures, the love of riches, or the desires of this world… You’ll be full and actually despise the sweet honeycomb of God’s fellowship.”
The Sanctity of Being
Judaism places a huge emphasis on the sanctity of life. Jewish tradition teaches that all life is precious and only God has the power to determine when a life begins and ends. Because of that the Jewish people do everything they can to preserve life. Even if there is only a small chance the life will be saved.
This is commonly referred to as “pikuach nefesh”, or “saving a life”.
How can we recognize the importance of this principle? It is demonstrated by the fact that even on Shabbat, when all work ceases, rescuing a life in danger takes precedence over the Shabbat laws. God commanded His people to rest and abstain from all work on Shabbat. And yet, that commandment is superseded by the necessity to preserve life – preserve nephesh.
On Yom Kippur, the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar, Jewish people traditionally do not eat or drink. However, safeguarding health takes precedence to fasting, even on this solemn day of Yom Kippur.
This means that a person who is sick or a woman who has just given birth may break the fast. Because it would potentially compromise their health even more, or possibly lead to death.
The Profound Connection between our Nephesh and our Creator
The above examples showcase the depth of God’s love for mankind. His law and His commandments are instructions for preserving life. This kind (His kind) of love gives a blueprint for how we are to love Him in return. We are to love God with all of our nephesh – with all of our life and with all of our soul, with all of our very being!
So, here’s my question for you today. If you never spoke another word, would the way you live your life today reveal God’s glory to the world? Is your nephesh a reflection of your Creator?
“How clearly the sky reveals God’s glory! How plainly it shows what he has done!” (Psalm 19:1)
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