Have you ever been curious about the phrase, “I lift up my soul”? It’s something I’ve heard so much by this point in my life as a Christian that I don’t really think about it anymore. There’s even a “To Thee I Lift My Soul” song in our church hymnal. After hearing, reading, and singing it so often, I just assume I know what it means.
Then I read the first couple verses of Psalm 25 again this past Tuesday, and I started wondering. Is “I lift up my soul” just a poetic phrase for prayer–directing your soul up to God? Or might it be something else; like perhaps David saying he’s lifting up his soul like an offering? Maybe the meaning isn’t as clear as I thought. At the very least, I suspect there’s more here to learn.
Trusting With The Soul
We find the phrase “I lift up my soul” in three psalms where the writers talk about lifting up their souls to God. Let’s take a look at those verses:
To you, Yahweh, I lift up my soul.Psalm 25:1-2, WEB
My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.
Preserve my soul, for I am godly.Psalm 86:2-4, WEB
You, my God, save your servant who trusts in you.
Be merciful to me, Lord,
for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to the soul of your servant,
for to you, Lord, do I lift up my soul.
Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning,Psalm 143:8, WEB
for I trust in you.
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
for I lift up my soul to you.
These psalms are all prayers directed at God asking Him for something. They’re also about trust; every one of these psalms mentions it when they’re talking about lifting up the soul. This makes sense since there isn’t much point in prayer if you don’t trust God enough to think He might answer.
As I read these psalms, I see a deeper level of trust than just the basic thinking God might be paying attention. There’s a hopeful expectation here and a certainty that God can and will respond. This type of trusting prayer involves the direction and dedication of the soul (naphesh in Hebrew, which means a breathing, living being). You don’t point your soul toward someone who doesn’t care or lift up your life to them if you don’t think they’ll help. We need trust if we’re going to have a “lift up the soul” type of relationship with God.
A Longing Soul
The NET translators opt for a less poetic and more literal phrase when translating “lift up my soul.” In this version, Psalm 25:1 reads, “O Lord, I come before you in prayer.” A footnote on that verse says, “To ‘lift up’ one’s ‘life’ to the Lord means to express one’s trust in him through prayer.” The translators opt for the “prayer” meaning in this verse, though they also see nuances in the Hebrew that they discuss in another footnote.
Hebrew words often have multiple meanings. The word “lift up” is nasa, and it’s no exception to this rule. The basic meaning is to lift, carry, or take. The phrase can gain slightly different meanings depending on context. In the Psalms, for example, it’s used figuratively rather than of literally picking up and carrying an object.
In a footnote on Psalm 143:8, the NET translators say, “The Hebrew expression נָאָשׂ נֶפֶשׁ (naʾas nefesh, ‘to lift up [one’s] life’) means ‘to desire; to long for.'” From this perspective, nasa seems synonymous with the longing soul spoken of in other psalms and songs where the writers want to be close with God more than anything else (Psalm 63:1; 84:1-2; 130:6).
Yes, in the way of your judgments, Yahweh, we have waited for you.Isaiah 26:8-9, WEB
Your name and your renown are the desire of our soul.
With my soul I have desired you in the night.
Yes, with my spirit within me I will seek you earnestly;
for when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
This also makes me think of King Solomon’s prayer at the temple dedication. He asked that God would hear His wayward people’s prayers if they “return to you with all their heart and being … and direct their prayers to you” (1 Kings 8:48, NET). Similarly, Samuel urged Ancient Israel, “direct your hearts to Yahweh, and serve him only” (1 Sam. 7:3, WEB). Paul does much the same thing in one of his letters, praying, “may the Lord direct your hearts toward the love of God and the endurance of Christ” (2 Thes. 3:5, NET).
The desires of our souls and the directions of our hearts show God what matters to us. When things are right between us, our prayers show that He matters to us. Lifting up our longing souls to Him demonstrates that He’s our hearts’ desire.
Other Things We Could Lift Up
Trusting God with our lives and showing our desire for Him in our prayers is a very good thing. There are also negative things that we could lift our souls to, but shouldn’t. In Psalm 24:4, the writer says that only someone “who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood” can dwell with God. In Hosea 4:8, God charges His people will wickedness when they “set their heart on their iniquity” (“set their heart” is the same phrase in Hebrew as “lift their soul”). We can choose whether we aim our souls in the right direction or turn them toward evil.
The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) lists three categories of meaning for nasa. The first is a literal or figurative lifting up, which we’ve already looked at. The second is “bearing the guilt or punishment of sin” (entry 1421). There are several Bible verses that say the soul/person who sins will bear/lift/carry their iniquity for that transgression. Here are two examples:
“If anyone (naphesh) sins, doing any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, though he didn’t know it, he is still guilty, and shall bear (nasa) his iniquity. He shall bring a ram without defect from of the flock, according to your estimation, for a trespass offering, to the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him concerning the thing in which he sinned and didn’t know it, and he will be forgiven.Leviticus 5:17-18
The soul (naphesh) who sins, he shall die. The son shall not bear (nasa) the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear (nasa) the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him.Ezekiel 18:20, WEB
When we sin, we’re carrying that like something we’ve lifted up and put on our shoulders. We don’t bear the iniquity of someone else, but we are responsible for the things that we do as a living, breathing naphesh. This would be a big problem for us if we had to keep carrying all our sins, but God provides a solution.
Carrying Away Our Sins
The third category of meanings for nasa describes the solution to the problem of us bearing the load of our gilt and sin. If you’re carrying something, someone else can come in, lift that burden, and carry it away. That’s what Jesus does with our sins. Because of His sacrifice, “Sin can be forgiven and forgotten, because it is taken up and carried away” (TWOT entry 1421).
Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him.Isaiah 53:10-12, WEB
He has caused him to suffer.
When you make his soul (naphesh) an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring.
He will prolong his days
and Yahweh’s pleasure will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul (naphesh),
he will see the light and be satisfied.
My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself;
and he will bear (nasa) their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion with the great.
He will divide the plunder with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death
and was counted with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sins of many
and made intercession for the transgressors.
There are so many verses that speak of Jesus taking away our sins, washing away our sins, and removing sin from us (for example, John 1:29; Rom. 11:26-27; Heb. 9:25-26; 1 John 3:5). Our souls were weighed down with sin, but He lifts that burden off our shoulders. We don’t have to carry our guilt anymore. We get to do something else with our souls now.
The psalmists wrote centuries before Jesus’s sacrifice but (judging by the Messianic psalms he wrote) we know at least David had an idea of the incredible deliverance God promised. These writers also had the Old Covenant sacrifices pointing toward the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice that would take away sin once and for all. They knew less about God’s plan for redemption than we do today, yet they were still so filled with trust and confidence in God that they lifted up their souls to Him.
How much more should we lift our souls to God now that we’ve been freed from carrying around the burden of sin? Lightened and rescued by Jesus’s sacrifice, we lift our hands, hearts, and souls to God with joy and thanksgiving, confident in His goodness and faithfulness.
For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time. … So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.1 Timothy 2:5-6, 8, NET
Featured image by Temi Coker from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Lift” by Sue Samuel