What Does “I Lift Up My Soul” Mean?

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.

Image of a woman with her hands raised to heaven, with text from Psalm 25:1-2, CJB version: "I lift my inner being to you, Adonai; I trust you, my God. Don’t let me be disgraced, don’t let my enemies gloat over me.”
Image by Ruby-Rose from Lightstock

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.
My God, I have trusted in you.
Don’t let me be shamed.
Don’t let my enemies triumph over me.

Psalm 25:1-2, WEB

Preserve my soul, for I am godly.
    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.

Psalm 86:2-4, WEB

Cause me to hear your loving kindness in the morning,
for I trust in you.
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
for I lift up my soul to you.

Psalm 143:8, WEB

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.

Image of a man walking in the woods reading a Bible, with text from Psalm 86:2-4, TLV version: “Watch over my soul, for I am godly. You are my God—save Your servant who trusts in You.
Be gracious to me, my Lord, for to You I cry all day. Gladden the soul of Your servant, for to You, my Lord, I lift up my soul.”
Image by HarveyMade from Lightstock

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.
    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.

Isaiah 26:8-9, WEB

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.

Image of a woman worshiping with hand raised and a smile on her face, with text from Psalm 143:8, TLV version: “Make me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
for in You I trust. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”
Image by Pearl from Lightstock

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

Image of a woman looking up at the sky with the blog's title text and the words "As people who've had Jesus lift away our sins, we can lift up our souls and lives to Him trusting that God will continue to hear and deliver us."
Image by Brightside Creative from Lightstock

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.
    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.

Isaiah 53:10-12, WEB

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

Washed Clean by Jesus

I read a chapter in my Bible each night before bed, and I recently finished Exodus and moved into Leviticus. This book is full of God’s laws and instructions for His people Israel, and much of it has to do with ceremonial uncleanness.

Those parts of the Torah might not seem as if they have anything to do with us today. There isn’t a temple building anymore or a priesthood conducting animal sacrifices. We don’t worry about doing things that might make us unclean until evening or take turtledoves and lambs to the temple to ask God to pass over our sins. But the fact that we don’t have to worry about that anymore means something changed, and that something isn’t God. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). He’s still just as holy as He was in the Old Testament. What’s changed is something having to do with our holiness and God’s relationship with us.

This “something” is that Jesus’s sacrifice cleanses us from our sins. The fact that we say “cleanses” us from sin, though, points to the same problem Leviticus was trying to deal with. God is holy, but holiness is not the default state of human beings. Sins (and even things that aren’t sin which once resulted in ceremonial uncleanness) would separate us from God if there wasn’t a way of washing us. I think this is why the New Testament writers spend so much time talking about cleanliness and holiness. When they described what Jesus is doing in us, they’re working with this background knowledge that God didn’t allow unclean people into His temple.

Uncleanness and Sin

In the Old Covenant law, people became ritually unclean in several ways. One was by sinning, which required sacrifices offered as atonement even though they couldn’t actually remove sin. There were also ways to become ritually unclean without sinning, such as by touching animal carcasses or dead bodies, contracting leprosy, having a baby, and having sex (Lev. 5:2;12:2; 13:3, 44-45; 15:1-33). All sin made people unclean, but not all the ways to become unclean involved sin.

Even though many of the things that resulted in ritual uncleanness weren’t sins, they could still disqualify you from entering the temple or eating of the holy things (Lev. 7:19-21; Chr. 23:18-19; Rev. 21:23-27). Because God is holy, His people had to “make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” so they wouldn’t die by defiling God’s dwelling place with their uncleanness (Lev. 10:10-11; 15:31). God is still holy today, but the process for making us clean is much more lasting and complete.

For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify to the cleanness of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without defect to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

Hebrews 9:13-14, WEB

Washed by Jesus

Jesus spent quite a bit of time during his earthly ministry engaging in debate with the religious leaders of His day. One thing in particular that He pointed out to them was that their efforts to be clean had gotten off-track. It wasn’t the outward cleanliness that mattered the most, but the holiness of the heart (Matt. 23:25-27; Luke 11:40-42). This doesn’t mean we ignore the outside, but outward things aren’t our focus; the outside becomes clean as a result of the cleaning happening inside us.

In John’s account of Jesus’s final Passover, he mentions that “many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually” (John 11:54-56). This is a detail I’ve overlooked in the past; it just seems like a note explaining something about the culture at the time. But a short time later at Passover, Jesus has this conversation with Peter:

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!”

Jesus answered him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with me.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”

Jesus said to him, “Someone who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed, but is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you.” For he knew him who would betray him, therefore he said, “You are not all clean.”

John 13:8-11, WEB

We are clean in every sense–ritually and in terms of forgiveness for sin–if Jesus Christ washes us. Paul emphasizes this in one of his letters, saying “Christ also loved the assembly, and gave himself up for it;  that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the assembly to himself gloriously, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without defect” (Eph. 5:25-27, WEB).

Jesus’s sacrifice mediates a new covenant that involves more immediate and lasting cleansing than was ever available under the old covenant (Heb. 9:13-15, 22-24; 10:1-14). Instead of making it possible for us to walk inside a physical temple dedicated to God, Jesus’s cleansing makes us part of God’s undefiled spiritual temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:16-20; 2 Cor. 6:15-18). It goes beyond just being allowed to visit God. We actually get to be part of His dwelling place.

Image of a waterfall, with text from 2 Cor. 6:16-18, NET version: "For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, ‘I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ Therefore ‘come out from their midst, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,’ says the All-Powerful Lord.”
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Dwelling in the Clean Vine

Becoming clean is something that Jesus does to us. Staying clean is something we’re involved in. It’s part of a lifelong process of becoming holy the way that God is holy (Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). We need to “cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1, WEB). We’re actively involved in the process of sanctification because we choose what behaviors shape the sort of people we are (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 2 Tim. 2:20-21).

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. …

“In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love.”

John 15:1-4, 8-10 WEB

The way we stay clean is by staying firmly attached to Jesus and following Him. Under the Old Covenant, we could have become “unclean” in all sorts of ways and becoming clean again involved the passage of time and/or ritual washing or sacrifice (depending on how you became unclean). Now under the New Covenant, Jesus washes us clean all the time so long as we’re sticking close to Him.

Staying in God’s Presence

Jesus doesn’t let anything that could make us “unclean” stand in the way of us getting into God’s presence. The relationship we have with God isn’t cut off if we touch an unclean animal or become seriously ill; there’s no more ritual uncleanness to worry about. However, God still cares about the way we live our lives.

Just like there was a difference between ritual uncleanness and law-breaking sin in the Old Testament, there’s a similar difference today. The first doesn’t matter at all anymore–Jesus takes care of washing us from any ritual uncleanness. The second doesn’t have to matter, but still could. Jesus’s sacrifice washes sins away as easily as any other uncleanness, but in this case we’re also supposed to stop sinning after we’re washed clean and repent if we make a mistake.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.

1 Corinthian 3:16-17, NET

The word translated “destroy” here is phtheirō (G5351), and it can also mean “corrupt” or “defile,” though most modern translations use “destroy” (see Thayer’s Dictionary and KJV translation). I wonder if Paul was thinking about the effect that uncleanness had in the Old Testament when he wrote this. If something that was holy touched something that was unclean, then the holy didn’t sanctify the unclean–the holy thing became corrupted (Haggai 2:11-14). God doesn’t want that happening in His temple (i.e. the church body of believers).

If you look back at Jesus’s words in John 15, you see that remaining in Him involves keeping His Father’s commandments. Jesus washes us from sins as well as from ritual uncleanness, but we’re still not supposed to do things that would defile us. If we do realize we’ve sinned, then we’re supposed to repent and ask for forgiveness so He can wash those sins away again just like He did the first time we were sanctified (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The cleanness of our souls should matter to us because one of our chief desires should be to dwell in the presence of God (Psalm 16:11; 140:13), and He doesn’t have close relationships with people who won’t let Him wash them (as Jesus told Peter in John 13:8-11). So let’s stay close to God, repenting if we sin and continually praising Him for cleansing and making us holy so we can dwell with Him.

Featured image by jplenio from Pixabay

Letting Our Messiness Out So We Can Heal

They say confession is good for the soul. Usually when I think of confession, though, I picture a scene from a crime drama. I’ve never really studied the idea in its Christian context until writing this post.

Recently during a small group meeting, a friend made the statement that holding in our mess can prevent healing. I quickly scribbled it down in my notes since that’s an idea I’ve been championing since I started talking more openly about my anxiety. To give you some context for this comment, we’d just read this verse:

Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective. (James 5:16, WEB)

Given James’ word choices here, we can say for certain that he’s telling us there’s a connection between healing and openly acknowledging the ways we slip into error. The Greek words are specifically about confessing faults, offences, and trespasses. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch, though, to extend this principle to other struggles as well including those that are not, strictly speaking, sinful.

To share a personal example, trying to hide my mental health struggles only made them worse. I felt shame and guilt around my anxiety and depression. I worried that others would find out about them, which just increased my levels of anxiety. I didn’t start to find healing until I opened up about my struggles to friends, family, a counselor, and even publicly here on this blog.

Bringing Dark Things To Light

God has a habit of shining light into dark places. Jesus even went so far as to say “nothing is hidden that will not be revealed; nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17, WEB). While God works in ways that are mysterious and sometimes hidden from us, there is no darkness in Him. He is all light and those who love Him want to walk in that light. Read more

The Value of Being Slow To Anger

The Old Testament often describes God as “slow to anger.” A more literal translation of the Hebrew is actually “long-nosed,” which makes no sense in English. But it’s a picture of a person who takes a long time to reach the point where they’re so angry that their nostrils flare and the air whooshes through their nose like a bull about to charge.

The phrases “slow to anger” and“long-suffering,” are both translated from two Hebrew words — “long” and “breath/passion/heat/anger.” The Greek equivalent is typically translated “patience” or “long-suffering.” It’s not about never getting angry, but about having control over when that happens and not flying off into a rage.

Anger is not inherently sinful. God gets angry, and Paul also tells us we can be angry without sinning (Eph. 4:26). But God doesn’t get angry quickly or without good cause, and we shouldn’t either. So how can we become “slower to anger” and “longer suffering”?

Quick Anger Fuels Strife

I think the dividing line between anger that is and is not sinful can be found in the effect that it has. Jesus throwing those who were exploiting believers out of the temple? Righteous anger. Me getting so upset at someone that I say something nasty which leads to conflict? Sinful anger.

God hates arrogance, wicked schemes, and discord. So if your anger is causing these (or anything else He hates), then it is leading to sin. There are several Proverbs addressing this. Here are a few: Read more

Immanuel: The Lord’s Incredible Response To Dealing With A Sinful People

The name Immanuel means “God with us.” It’s part of a beautiful Messianic prophesy that God delivered to a sinful king. When confronted by people who wouldn’t do as they were told, who thought they didn’t need God, and wanted to do their own thing, God’s response was to promise He would come and visit them. He followed through on that promise by coming to live on our plane of existence, getting as close to us as He could so He could relate to us and save us in a uniquely vulnerable way.

For Christians today, there’s a temptation to look at the stories of the Old Testament as just that — stories. These include the stories about all the bad kings of ancient Israel and Judah, which might not seem particularly relevant to us. King Ahaz of Judah was just one in a long list. He committed idolatry, sacrificed his own children, and tore valuables out of the Lord’s temple to pay-off his neighbors (2 Kings 16).

When Jerusalem was attacked during Ahaz’s reign, the Lord sent Isaiah to him with a message. Isaiah tells Ahaz, “Be careful, and keep calm. Don’t be afraid, neither let your heart be faint” because the Lord will not let enemy plots against His people succeed (Is. 7:3-9, WEB). Even though Ahaz was actively practicing evil, God was still concerned with Judah and He still held open a door for Ahaz to repent.

What happens next leads to one of the most famous prophesies in the Old Testament. But rather than just skip ahead to the Immanuel prophecy, let’s take a close look at the conversation God had with Azah that led up to this incredible promise. Read more

What’s Behind The Facade?

Yesterday my sister and I went to see a community theater’s production of the musical Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a show that our cousin introduced us to years ago through the soundtrack and we were excited to it on stage. I’m not sure I’d call this a favorite play, but the music is fantastic and the story line prompts some intriguing questions about the nature of human kind and how our personalities work.

Jekyll and Hyde is a classic tale of good and evil. The play is quite different from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novel, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the original version, Jekyll develops a serum to separate his darker side because he’d already started indulging his vices and wanted to keep doing so without fear of discovery. The play offers a more compelling protagonist; a Jekyll searching for a cure to evil on a grand scale. If you’re curious, you can watch a really good high school production of the play on YouTube by clicking here.

This isn’t the sort of play that I recommend frequently. It’s dark. It’s complicated. It’s more sexual than the scandalized ladies sitting behind me expected. It doesn’t end happy (don’t look at me like that — you don’t get spoiler warnings when the book’s 132 years old). But it’s also a deeply compelling story that dives head-first into tough questions about the nature of man. Read more