The word soul has various meanings in Scripture. (Every Bible word must be defined by its context.) Sometimes soul refers to biological life in general. In this sense, the Hebrew word translated soul (nephesh) is used for animals (Ge. 1:20-24). But animals are never said to have a soul like man has a soul. Sometimes soul refers to the whole man (Ge. 2:7; Le. 17:12). Often, though, it refers to the immaterial part of man that exists beyond death.
The Soul Is the Immaterial Part of Man that Exists after Death. O.T. examples of the soul as an immaterial part of the man are seen in Ge. 35:18 and 1 Ki. 17:21-22. In Ge. 35:18, Rachel’s soul departed when she died. In 1 Ki. 17:21-22, the boy’s soul departed when he died and returned when he was raised from the dead. In the N.T., the word “soul” is also used to describe a spiritual part of man distinct from his body (Mt. 10:28; 1 Th. 5:23; Re. 6:9).
The Characteristics of the Soul. The soul thinks (Ge. 49:6); it can sin (Le. 4:2); it can love God and keep His commandments (De. 6:5; 10:12; 11:13); it can meditate upon God’s words (De. 11:18); it can love a friend (1 Sa. 18:1-3); it can trust in God (Ps. 57:1; 63:1); it can be chastened with fasting (Ps. 69:10). The soul is particularly associated with man’s feelings and desires. The soul can be hungry (Is. 29:8), can experience romantic love and friendship (Ge. 34:3; 1 Sa. 18:1-3), can be discouraged because of difficulty (Nu. 21:4). The soul can be “anguished” (Ge. 42:21), “dried out” (Nu. 11:6), “grieved” (Ju. 10:16; Job 30:25), “cast down” (Ps. 43:5). The soul can “lust” (De. 12:15), “long” (De. 12:20), and “thirst for God” (Ps. 42:2).
What is the Difference between Soul and Spirit? The “soul” is used in close association with the “spirit.” Job was anguished in spirit and soul (Job 7:11). So in some cases the “soul” might be a synonym for the “spirit,” but the N.T. makes a plain distinction between the two. It says that man has both a soul and a spirit (1 Th. 5:23), and the soul can be divided from the spirit (He. 4:12). It appears from Hebrews 4:12 that the the spirit can be conceived of as “inside” the soul as the marrow is inside the joints or bones. The soul is the “outer part” of the inner, immaterial man. As we have seen, the soul is the part of man that relates to the world. It lusts, hungers, loves, joys, fears, sorrows. It is emotional and affected by the environment and therefore unstable. The spirit of man is also affected by emotions (2 Co. 2:13), but the spirit of man is the deepest part of man; it is that which communes with God. The spirit is where the Lord dwells in the believer and where He communes with us (Ro. 8:16; 1 Co. 6:17; 2 Ti. 4:22). It is with the spirit that we seek God (Is. 26:9). It is by the spirit that we search the heart (Ps. 77:6). The spirit is the candle of the Lord that searches all the inward parts, which would include the heart and soul (Pr. 20:27). The spirit is the wellspring of man’s being. “We may use the illustration of three concentric circles: The outer circle refers to our body. Our body is our outer part containing our five senses with which we contact all the things of the physical, material realm. The middle circle refers to our soul. Our soul is our inner part containing our mind, emotion and will with which we contact all the things of the psychological realm. The inner circle refers to our spirit. Our spirit is our innermost part with which we contact God and substantiate all the things of the spiritual realm” (Tom Smith, What Is the Difference between the Soul and Spirit of Man? holdingtotruth.com).
There are two important applications to this teaching. First, God intends for man to walk in the spirit so that man’s spirit, surrendered to God’s Spirit, controls his soul and body. The heart and the soul affect the spirit (Pr. 15:13), but the spirit should control the heart and the soul. See Ps. 42:5; Pr. 23:19. Consider the example of Mary’s praise (Lk. 1:46-47). It could be said that Mary’s rejoicing spirit moved her soul to praise God. “Mary lived and acted in her spirit, which directed her soul” (“What Is the Difference between the Soul and the Spirit?” Bibles for America, Feb. 2, 2014). Second, the Word of God can cut through man’s being, through the turmoil of the soul, to bring peace by His presence in the spirit (2 Ti. 4:22).
It also appears that soul and spirit point to a major difference between the natural body and the resurrection body. The natural body is largely soulish, whereas the resurrection body is spiritual (1 Co. 15:45). This means that the resurrection body is totally oriented to the spirit. The natural body has a spirit within the soul, but the spirit is often overwhelmed by and controlled by the soul. The resurrection body will be oriented in an entirely different manner so as to be completely dominated by the spiritual realm. [See also Death, Heart, Hell, Immortal, Mind, Spirit.]
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