Let my soul live, and it shall praise You;
And let Your judgments help me. (Psalm 119:175 NKJV).
In a long acrostic poem which mostly praises the word of God, an unknown psalmist asks the LORD to keep him alive, so that he can continue praising him, and continue learning from him. It seems a simple request, and most commentators ignore it. Yet, it has a surprise for the modern Christian. When it is translated literally (as the NKJV does above), it suggests a possibility that popular evangelical Christianity has rejected: the possibility of a soul dying.
What? Did I hear you correctly? Is it possible for a soul to die? Many believe that souls are immortal. Yet this biblical poet does not seem to have gotten the memo. He does not simply say “Let me live” as several modern versions translate it.1 Nor does he say “May I live” as another version puts it.2 He is in danger of literal death, from who knows what, and describes that threat as the death of his soul.
Some are quick to say that the author could not possibly mean that he thought his soul could die. Figart, for example, states “…this is not saying that those who have died and are in heaven do not praise the Lord; rather, it simply means that, here on earth when a person dies, his soul leaves his body; thus there is no life in the dead body from which to praise the Lord. So David realized this and wanted to remain alive so he could praise Jehovah before men. ”3 Likewise, Manton affirms “A man may praise God in Heaven; but from their bodies no service is performed for a long while in the other world; there is no such service there as here; as reducing the stray, instructing the ignorant, propagating godliness to others who want it, by our counsels and example.”4 Both men suggest that what the psalmist really wanted was for his body to stay alive, because (as everybody knows) the soul of a believer can never die.
But the actual text has the psalmist stubbornly refusing to accept what everybody knows — that his soul’s immortality is a given. Long before the apostle Paul affirmed that God alone has immortality,5 this Old Testament believer simply prays that his soul continue to live, so that he can continue to worship and learn. Unlike the later Greek philosophers who would suggest that death is an illusion, this Hebrew poet seems to think that death is quite real, and that it would entail that his praising and learning would stop, because his soul (his whole being, including his body) would cease to function. For this Hebrew poet, death is not the gateway to praise, but the interruption of praise. Death is not going to God, where he can get closer to God, but the absence of a relationship with God. He does not want to die and go to heaven, he wants to continue to live so that he can keep his link to heaven.
This psalmist is not alone in his view of the nature of death. Solomon said: “The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime — loving, hating, envying — is all long gone.”6 He encouraged people to take advantage of their conscious lives, because “when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom.”7 And this psalmist would add “no praise, and no learning from the word.” Death is not continuing to live; it is an interruption in life.
This is not the only place in the Old Testament where souls are said to die. Samson’s last words were not “Let me die with the Philistines” as every major English version translates it. What he actually said was tamut nafshi im-plistim (let my soul die with the Philistines).8 Samson, like the psalmist, seemed to think that his death would be total.
When Moses commanded “anyone who kills a person” to remain outside the Israelite camp for seven days, his actual words were kol horeg nefesh (anyone who kills a soul).9 Was Moses deluded? Is it that he merely did not have access to the right theological word-book? Hebrew has several words for body, and flesh. But Moses chose a word that indicated the whole person, the soul (nefesh). He had used that word when he described the creation of Adam. He said “The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”10 The words translated “living being” are nefesh xayyah – alive soul. Moses defined living people as alive souls, and so dead people would be dead souls. His theology is consistent. It just does not agree with the theology that many have been taught.
The reason the psalmist did not want his soul to die was that “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.”11 Indeed, in death there is no remembering or thanking God.12 Souls are silenced, so that they cannot praise. They are not experiencing joy and life beyond the grave; they are in a kind-of holding pattern, a time of waiting. They are not floating around on the clouds, but unconscious in their tombs, awaiting the voice of Jesus, who will raise them to life again – either for permanent life, or permanent judgment:
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment”13
Paul described this intermediate state (between death and resurrection) as a sleep. He said that Jesus is the only one who has been raised from that sleep, but that believers await his return, so that we, too may be raised:
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ”14
Popular theology has no place for that sleep. God’s word does. It places all dead souls in the grave, where they sleep until raised. Jesus told his disciples that a dead girl was sleeping.15 Then he woke her soul up. He said that dead Lazarus was sleeping, and that he was going to go wake him up.16 He did wake up Lazarus’ dead soul, just as he intends to wake all souls now dead. That is why the blessed hope is not floating away to heaven when we die. The blessed hope is the glorious appearing of or Saviour,17 who has the keys of death and Hades, and can rescue our souls from death’s prison.18 He can make our dead souls live again. The good news of the gospel is not that we have souls that will live forever. It is that we have a Saviour who will not let our souls die forever.
- “Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me” (New International Version). “Let me live so I can praise you, and may your regulations help me” (New Living Translation). “Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.” (New Revised Standard Version).
- “May I live and praise you! May your regulations help me!” (New English Translation).
- Thomas O. Figart, Meaningful Meditations. (n.c.: XulonPress, 2004), 399.
- Thomas Manton, One Hundred and Ninety Sermons on the Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm, vol.3. (London: William Brown, 1845), 485.
- 1 Timothy 6:16-17.
- Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 NLT.
- Ecclesiastes 9:10 NLT.
- Judges 16:30.
- Numbers 31:19.
- Genesis 2:7 NET.
- Psalm 115:17 ESV.
- Psalm 6:5.
- John 5:28-29 ESV.
- 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 ESV.
- Mark 9:24.
- John 11:11.
- Titus 2:13.
- Revelation 1:18.