I see a lot of speculating among the Christians about soul and spirit. Some of us think a human is dichotomous. Some think a human is trichotomous. This article doesn’t answer the question, but rather shows the words the Bible uses that we translate into English as soul, and spirit. The text is quoted from Mounce’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek.
Verb: נֶפֶשׂ (nepeš), GK 5883 (S 5315), 757x. nepeš has a wide range of meaning; the basic meaning is “breath,” but it can also mean “soul, life, entire being.”
(1) nepeš is not limited to human beings, for “breath” is something that all living creatures have. God gives life and breath to both humans and animals (Gen. 1:30). God formed “man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” 2:7).
(2) As far as human beings are concerned, the Heb. understanding of nepeš encompasses the entire person, body and soul. It is not that a person has a soul; rather, a human being is a soul. Each individual is accountable for his or her sin, for which God may require that person’s nepeš (Gen. 9:5). Note Lev. 4:2 (“If a person sins”) and Ezek. 18:20 (“the person who sins shall die.” In Ps. 7:2, the psalmist cries out for deliverance lest his enemies “tear me [my nepeš] like a lion.” nepeš is so closely identified with the whole person that it can even mean a corpse (Lev. 21:11).
A human nepeš can have natural desires such as hunger (Deut. 12:15; 1 Sam. 2:16; Ps. 107:9; Mic. 7:1) and thirst (Isa. 29:8), as well as nonphysical desires. The psalmist pleads, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (Ps. 27:12, cf. Prov. 13:2). The nepeš is also the seat of emotions: Hannah has deep “bitterness of soul ” (1 Sam. 1:10 cf. also 30:6); Ezekiel has “anguish of soul ” (Ezek. 27:31).
(3) The relationship between humans and God is often expresses with nepeš. For example, “My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you (Isa. 26:9). Elsewhere, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you” (Ps. 63:1). “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” 42:1). The soul can also be downcast 42:5, 11). Psalm 42 in particular captures the imagery of breath (the deer panting), hunger/thirst, and the living God, who alone can satisfy. Moreover, when the psalmist wants to sing in praise to God, he encourages himself out: “Praise the Lord, O my soul” 103:1-2, 22; 146,1). It is interesting that of all the occurrences of nepeš in Psalms (143x), only one does not have a personal possessive pronoun attached to it. Communion with God—from crying out to him to singing his praise—happens from the core of one’s being: life and breath, longing, emotions, the will. All of these are involved in the nepeš. See NIDOTTE, 3:133–34.
Noun: ψυχή (psychē), GK 6034 (S 5590), 103x. psychē has a wide variety of meaning in the NT, being shaped by the Heb. word nepeš. Among other things, it means “life, soul, person, mind.” See life.
Noun: רוּחַ (rûaḥ), GK 8120 (S 7307), 378x. While rûaḥ has a wide range of meanings in the OT, its basic sense is that of “wind” or “breath” (see wind). This latter sense naturally gave rise to “breath” as a sign of life, and hence rûaḥ also means “spirit” or “life.” This meaning of the term relates to several different ideas in the OT.
(1) Sometimes rûaḥ functions to describe the general character of an individual or group, and when used in this way closely resembles the meaning of nepes (“soul”), denoting the general personality or disposition of a person. Thus the “spirit of the Egyptians” will be demoralized when God punishes her for her idolatry (Isa. 19:3), so that she will have a “spirit of dizziness” 19:14, “perverse spirit,” KJV). In a similar fashion, rûaḥ can describe a state of mind or personal attribute: “bitter spirit” (Gen. 26:35, grief; Ezek. 3.14, anger), “sullen spirit” (1 Ki. 21:5, depression), “shortness of spirit” (Exod. 6:9, discouragement; Job 21:4, impatience), or “high spirit” (Prov. 16:18, pride) contrasted with “low spirit” 16:19, humility). We also find expressions such as “spirit of wisdom” (Exod. 28:3; Deut. 34:9) and “spirit of justice,” (Isa. 28:6).
(2) rûaḥ may also describe supernatural or angelic beings, such as the “spirit from God” that came on Saul, causing him mental torment (1 Sam. 16:15-16, 23; 18,10), or the “spirit” from the “host of heaven” sent to entice Ahab into battle by confounding the words of the prophets (1 Ki. 22:19f.). The angels are sent as “winds” or “spirits” (KJV) to accomplish God’s purposes (Ps. 104:4; cf. Heb. 1:7).
(3) The zenith of spiritual personality is God himself (Isa. 31:3). In the OT we find the expressions “Spirit of God” (11x), the “Spirit of the LORD” (25x), the “Holy Spirit,” (3x, Ps. 51:11; Isa. 63:10, 11), and “my Spirit” (13x, where the context shows the referent is to God’s Spirit). rûaḥ in these constructions may sometimes refer simply to the will or power of God (Isa. 40:13), but in the majority of cases it denotes the active presence of God via his Spirit. Thus, the Spirit is sent by the Lord 48:16), and he is placed on individuals (Num. 11:17, 29; Isa. 42:1) or within God’s people (Isa. 63:11). In all his activities, he assumes a distinct personality while at the same time being the very presence of God among those with whom he is pleased to dwell.
The opening verses of the Bible show the “Spirit” of God active in the process of creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30). In the unfolding story of the Bible, the rûaḥ of God gives wisdom and endows people with abilities for leadership (Num. 11:17, 25) and for craftsmanship (in preparing items for the tabernacle, Exod. 31:2; 35,31), and his presence provides spiritual guidance (Neh. 9:20; Ps. 143:10; Hag. 2:5). God’s “Spirit” enables ordinary people to win military battles against formidable foes (Jdg. 6:34; 13,25; 14,6, 19; 15,14; 1 Sam. 11:6). He removes the rebellious heart and replaces it with one that responds in true obedience to God (Ezek. 11:19; 36,26-27). The “Spirit” is the “breath” that brings life to the dead (regeneration), as pictured in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37).
The “Spirit” of God also gives divine revelation to prophets (Num. 11:25; 1 Sam. 10:10; Neh. 9:30; Ezek. 11:24; Joel 2:28; Zech. 7:12), and it is by the “Spirit” of God that the true prophet speaks (Ezek. 13:3). The promised Messiah accomplishes his work of redemption through the power of the “Spirit” of God (Isa. 11:2; 42,1; 61,1). The work of this “Spirit” is often pictured as a “filling” or “coming on” a person. Likewise, in the imagery of anointing, the “Spirit” of God is said to be “poured out” on those he endows with his redemptive presence (always of the restoration of Israel as God’s covenant nation, Isa. 32:15; 44,3-4; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:28). See NIDOTTE, 3:1073–78.
Noun: πνεῦμα (pneuma), GK 4460 (S 4151), 379x. (1) Similar to rûaḥ in the OT, pneuma can mean “air in movement.” In Jn. 3:8 Jesus uses pneuma twice: once for “wind” or “air” and once for the “Spirit” (“the wind blows where it chooses … so it is with everyone born of the Spirit”).
(2) pneuma can also mean that which animates or gives life to the body (Mt. 27:50) or the human spirit in general (Jas. 2:26). It can also refer to the human person insofar as he or she belongs to and interacts with the spiritual realm. In this sense the human spirit is that aspect of a person through which God most immediately encounters him or her (Rom. 8:16; 1 Cor. 2:11; Gal. 6:18), where a person is most immediately open and responsive to God (Mt. 5:3; Rom. 1:9), or where most sensitive to matters of the spiritual realm reside (Mk. 2:8; Jn. 11:33; Acts 17:16).
(3) Beyond a human being, pneuma can refer to evil and good “spirits.” It was common in NT times for people to view the mysterious powers that afflicted people as evil spirits or demons. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts especially reveal this (Mt. 8:16; Lk. 4:36; Acts 19:12-16). These evil forces are considered to be “personal forces” from the spiritual realm. But the NT never claims that these “evil spirits” are as strong as God; all evil spirits are inferior to God and subject to the power of his “Spirit,” often operating through his agents: Christ and the apostles (Lk. 10:17-19; 11,19-20).
(4) Finally, pneuma in the NT can refer to the “Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit first of all filled Jesus and directed him throughout his earthly ministry (Lk. 1:35; 4,1, 14, 18). Then through his supernatural power, the Spirit worked through and directed the apostles (Acts 1:8; 4,8; 13,2, 4, 9; 16,6-7). The Spirit is presented as a powerful force with visible effects (Acts 2-5). In the early church the Holy Spirit was the “Spirit of prophecy” 1:16; 4,25), a transforming power in conversion 9:17), and the director of its mission 9:10; 20,28). In Jewish writings the “Spirit of God” often meant the spiritual reality that performed God’s work on earth, most notably in creation (Wis. 1:7; 12:1) and prophecy (Sir. 48:12).
The OT stress laid on Isaiah’s promise of a Messiah who would have a special endowment of the Spirit (Isa. 61:1-3) and on Joel’s prophecy about the pouring out of the Spirit on the godly in the last days (Joel 2:28-29). In the NT that understanding was fulfilled in the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-36), who gave each believer various spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11; 14,26; Eph. 4:11). Yet as Paul makes clear, though there are different kinds of gifts of the Spirit, there is still only one Spirit and one God (1 Cor. 12:4). Even more important, the Holy Spirit also wants to work his “fruit” in our daily lives and enable us to fight against the sins of the flesh (Gal. 5:22-23).
(5) Just as John baptized with water, the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11; 16). Such imagery describes the type of “Spirit baptism” the believer receives—a baptism of the Spirit prophesied in the OT and fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus. See NIDNTT-A, 473-479.