The Hebrew Term for Soul
The Hebrew term for “soul” is derived from the thought of the animation of creatures that live and breathe. As a result, it means the “self,” “life,” “person,” or “heart.” The Psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me bless His holy name” (KJV Psalm 103:1). This sentence indicates that the “soul” is the inner self (Strong’s Hebrew #5315, 189).
Though opinion among scholars is divided, some Hebrew scriptures suggest that this inner life of the person survives in some form in the afterlife. For instance, the Psalmist hopes that God will redeem his soul from the vague darkness of death, saying, “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol…[the place of the dead]” (Psalm 16:10).
On the other hand, in the Septuagint version of verse 16, the Greek word for “soul” is (psuche’), a term that also comes from the thought of the breath. From this idea, we get the idea of “the spirit,” that is, the “life force” that animates the body (Strong’s #5590, 275). In this source of spiritual vitality our thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears reside.
The Greek Term for Soul
Unlike the Jews, the Greeks had a definite belief that the soul survives the death and decomposition of the body. In a way that is parallel to this understanding, the Lord said, “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 10:28).
However it is defined, the sage suggests that we should be concerned about “keeping” this soul. The Hebrew term for “keeping” comes from the idea of a hedge (Strong’s Hebrew #8104, 285). From this thought, we get the meanings of “to tend to,” “to take responsibility for” and “to watch over.” Likewise, the Greek term in the Septuagint comes from the verb “to watch,” and it means “to guard” and to “keep an eye on” (Strong’s #5083, 250).
Bible Characters Who Lost Their Souls
The Scriptures give negative examples of persons who failed to keep their souls. These thoughtless characters include Esau, who sold his birthright; Judas, who betrayed the Lord; and Demas, who deserted Paul for the “love of this world.” Then there were others who were under the control of Satan, the demon-possessed whom the Lord healed. And the Scriptures mention those who served Satan: the slave girl in Philippi that St Paul healed of demon possession (Acts 16:16-19) and the sorcerers Simon (Acts 8:9-11) and Elymas (Acts 13:8). Outside of the Scriptures, we have the famous case of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil, a story told in legend and the literary work of Goethe.
How Can We Guard Our Souls?
These cases raise the question of how we can guard and preserve our souls. In response, the Hebrew proverb offers a pun: we “keep” our souls by “keeping” the commandment. In the first case, the term “keep” means to have and hold in our possession. But in the second case, “keep” means to observe as an obligation, to honor, and to fulfill. The Hebrew term encompasses both senses of the term “keep.” But the Greek Septuagint uses a different term that also is derived from the thought of “guarding” something valuable. It means to observe or follow a precept (Strong’s #5442, 267).
In summary, the sage promises in today’s reading that if we keep the commandment of God, we will maintain possession of our soul, our “inner self.” Conversely, those who are heedless of the way they live will perish. That is to say, if we are careless and foolish and do not keep care of our souls, we will indeed lose them. The Hebrew term means to “lose one’s life” (Strong’s 4191, 151). But it also has the connotation that we will lose whatever goodness the soul was to have in the afterlife as well as suffer punishment.
St. Paul agrees with this promise of the sage of Proverbs. The apostle states that God “will render to each one according to his deeds, eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality, but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath and tribulation and anguish on every soul of the man who does evil” (OSB Romans 2:6-8).
However, Paul’s teaching of the implications of today’s proverb is far different than the message of the sage. Instead of assuming that the wise will keep the commandments of God, St. Paul charges, “There is none righteous, no, not one” (OSB Romans 3:10). No keeper of the Almighty’s commands can be found on earth.
Another Way of Preserving Our Soul
Paul argues that circumcision would be “profitable” if we kept the Law to which it binds us. But he insists that we do not. Therefore, today’s proverb represents more of an accusation than a promise. Unless there is another way of preserving our souls, we will lose them. Therefore, Paul announces, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is revealed… even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21).
We might summarize this thought in another way, “Whoever puts His faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:2) and follows His way of the Cross keeps His soul” (Mark 8:34-35).