One of the many benefits of learning the Hebrew alphabet is to be able to look up individual words in the Hebrew lexicon. Hebrew is such a rich language. Individual words have such depth of meaning, usually more than can be expressed with one single, English-word equivalent.
Even in the same Bible passage, when the same English word appears in different verses, the original Hebrew word might have different nuances of meaning, based on how the word is used in its immediate context.
When you know the Hebrew alphabet, you can look up words in the lexicon and note the differences in meaning each time and place the word is used. These nuances bring even deeper understanding and appreciation of the biblical text you are reading.
Here’s an example from Psalm 143, a beautiful psalm in which David cries out to God in ways we can all relate. Why don’t you start by reading Psalm 143 all the way through in English before we go further and explore one particular Hebrew word.
Now let’s look at one particular Hebrew word that appears in Psalm 143 verses 6 and 8:
It’s such a beautiful-sounding word: “neh-fesh,” with the stress on the first syllable. (Most biblical Hebrew words take the stress on the last syllable, but there are exceptions, and “neh-fesh” is one of them.)
When this word “neh-fesh” is introduced as a basic vocabulary word for biblical Hebrew, the simple definition is often given as “life” and “self.” In Psalm 143 verses 6 and 8, the NKJV and NRSV translate this word as “soul.” The NIV simplifies the word to “I” in verse 6 and “life” in verse 8. We can all relate to these translations enough to understand the psalm.
But let’s dig a little deeper and see what the Hebrew lexicon has to say. This is where it gets even more delightful, to look up an original Hebrew word from the scriptures and drill deeper into the richness of meaning.
When you look up a word in the Hebrew lexicon, you will start with the original word: “neh-fesh.” And then you will look down the page at all the entries, to find out the meaning of this word as it is used in a particular Bible verse.
In Psalm 143, you’ll want to look at how the word is used in verse 6 and verse 8. In some Bible verses, a word that’s used twice might have the same meaning. But in Psalm 143, the meaning is slightly different and brings greater richness to how we read and understand those verses.
The lexicon shows that the word “neh-fesh” in Psalm 143 verse 6 means “seat of the appetites” and is particularly related to the appetite of thirst.
As you can see from the English translations, the verse is a metaphor, equating “neh-fesh” with a parched, thirsty land.
So, with the specific definition from the lexicon, we can see that David is comparing “the seat of our appetite of thirst” to a “parched, thirsty land,” in the midst of those difficulties or trials David is crying out to God about.
How often do we feel that way in our longing for more of God? Sometimes we feel as if we’ve been crawling across a burning desert with no refreshment in sight. How humbling and exciting to realize how much we need God (we need Him all the time, but those desert moments remind us of how much), and also to realize that all we have to do is reach out to Him in that moment and be refreshed by Him, just as gentle and freely flowing water would refresh a desert landscape. How amazing!
Here’s where the Hebrew meaning makes it even more interesting. The Hebrew word “neh-fesh” helps us understand how this Bible verse is more than a metaphor. We long for God from the “seat of the appetites,” which means we have that appetite of thirst within us — thirst that only He can refresh. He has created us with that need, and He perfectly fills that need. He is available to us as refreshment all the time. We have the joy and privilege of coming to Him from that place inside of us that is a deep appetite of thirst. What an awesome way to approach our God. And to recognize that this need is part of who we are and how we can relate to Him.
Do you see what the Hebrew word does? It deepens our understanding of our relationship with God, showing us a more specific way we relate to Him, and why. How would this understanding transform those desert moments of daily life for us, to realize — Yes, we are thirsty now. This place inside us, the appetite of thirst, our “neh-fesh” needs to come to God for the ways He fills us with refreshing. We don’t have to crawl through the desert languishing. Our refreshment is right here with us. Let’s focus on His presence — the presence of the God who fills our appetite of thirst, no matter where we are, no matter what we are going through. How refreshing!
We could get to this understanding by drilling deeply into the English translations as well. But look at how the Hebrew meaning jump starts that for us. Without reading the Hebrew meaning, we might not realize the many ways this particular Bible verse is penetrating to the depths of our soul and highlighting a need we might not have explored fully before. That’s one of the many things that is so exciting about learning some Hebrew words from the Bible and looking them up in the lexicon. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort for the discoveries we get in the process and the ways we draw even closer to God.
Now let’s look at what the lexicon says about the use of “neh-fesh” in Psalm 143 verse 8. (It is slightly different from the way the word is used in verse 6.) As used in verse 8, “neh-fesh” is defined as “seat of emotions and passions,” and more specifically “desire.”
We use the word “desire” in English in many different ways. By looking up “neh-fesh” in Hebrew, we have a very specific understanding of “desire.” It relates to the “seat of our emotions and passions,” which is part of how God has created us.
In the English translations, verse 8 shows how David asks for daily help from God, so he can hear God’s lovingkindness first thing every day. David shows his vulnerability and surrender to God, by indicating he trusts God in this matter of hearing His love. David then asks God to show him how to live and indicates that he is giving God his “neh-fesh.”
So, David is trusting God with “the seat of his emotions and passions,” asking God to speak His love daily to his emotions and passions (how incredibly nurturing!). David is also asking God how to live his life by surrendering the seat of his emotions and passions to God. How much encouragement this gives us, to realize that when we surrender our entire being to God, He will help us navigate all those emotions and passions in wisdom, guided by His love. What a deeply reassuring verse of scripture to remember and to abide by as we face the complications each day can bring.
Do you see how the Hebrew meaning draws us deeper into the truth the scripture is showing us? “I surrender my daily life to You, God” takes on so many more dimensions of meaning, and it builds our faith, peace, comfort, and trust. The specific meaning also helps us embrace more deeply the idea of surrendering ourselves and our life to God. Sometimes that level of surrender can seem like such a big, abstract, overwhelming concept. When we look at specific ways we surrender (e.g., our seat of emotions and passions, for one), it helps us get our hands around the concept and then extend our hands to give each of those areas of our life to God.
Looking up words in the Hebrew lexicon takes time. But what a worthwhile effort. And you don’t need a huge Hebrew vocabulary to start with. As you can see from this example, if you only look up one word from the Hebrew Bible, it will open the treasure of God’s presence and love in even deeper ways. Try one word and meditate on those discoveries for a while. Then move on and try another word.
As far as learning the Hebrew alphabet, so you can more easily look up these words, the task may sound daunting. But you can do it — you really can. And it’s fun! I’ve created a self-paced online video class for you, during which you will learn the whole Hebrew alphabet, along with 40 basic words from the Hebrew Bible, as well as several Bible verses, names, and a Hebrew blessing. Students who have taken this class have shared that they enjoyed the process of learning the Hebrew alphabet. Imagine all the words you can look up when you learn how to recognize the alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet is a key to Bible exploration, and you really can do it. Shalom! שָׁלוֹם God bless.
Interested in getting a taste of biblical Hebrew? There’s more to discover on my biblical Hebrew blog.
Copyright © 2020 by Janet Eriksson
Janet Eriksson is an intercessor, writer, and teacher in Dahlonega, Georgia. She loves conversation with friends, front porch swings, sweet tea, and spending time on lakes and rivers. The author of nine books and editor of many more, Janet blogs and teaches at Adventures with God. She enjoys volunteering with Transformations. Janet received her M. Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary.