Editors' note: This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously:
- Dan Doriani on Matthew 24:15-16
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 11:29-40
- Mark Gignilliant on Exodus 4:24-26
Psalm 19 has been on the Top 40 charts for a couple thousand years. Understandably. It’s a classic. It’s short, but loaded with theological goodies (vv. 1-2, 13), great imagery (vv. 4-6), and zippy one-liners (vv. 9b-10, 14). But if you’re like me, you breeze past these rich passages in a bleary morning state during devotionals. So we often need an exercise in sitting with the depth of a passage to be nourished, instead of rushing along. Psalm 19 is the perfect place to start.
- Psalm 19:1-6: The psalmist lyricizes creation with fabulous imagery, depicting the cycle of each day as a “strong man” running his course (v. 5).
- Psalm 19:7-10: The topic switches to God’s law (tôrāh), which along with God’s judicial features is perfect, sure, right, pure, and so on.
- Psalm 19:11-14: The psalmist moves toward application, exhorting the reader to keep the law, asking that God remove temptation, and praying for mercy.
Biblical themes are strewn through it all. Which almost makes it easy to totally miss the most surprising and important message of Psalm 19: the law gives life.
Okay, it’s only a small part of the psalm, but that is what I am going to zoom in on. The kicker comes in verse 7, all too easy to overlook in our familiarity. It says: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (ESV).
Hang on. Paul says the law that was intended to bring life actually brings death (Rom. 7:10). And we know, as card-carrying Protestants, that Paul is usually right (and the Old Testament is usually confusing). Right? Even more jarring to theologically Reformed ears, the King James Version says that the law “converts” the soul. What’s going on here? The law most certainly does not revive—give life to—the soul. Only the gospel does that. Right?
Don’t throw out your copy of Calvin’s Institutes just yet (or ever, for that matter). The phrase can be translated in other ways. The word translated as “reviving” (měšîbat) basically means “to cause to return.” So the NASB says that the law “restores” the soul, and the NIV says it “refreshes” the soul. Obviously we’re dealing with something that doesn’t neatly fit into a single English word.
The question, then, is: cause to return to where, and from where? From spiritual death to life? From disobedience to obedience? Or something else? The Hebrew word for soul here (nepeš) can also mean different things, depending on context: life, person, soul, inner being. But in terse poetry, context is just what we lack.
Gaining Our (Hebrew) Bearings
Thankfully, God has given his Word profound unity that always qualifies its diversity. So we ought to let clear Scripture explain less clear Scripture. Where else do we find these two words, “to cause to return” and “soul/life/person” together? That will help.
The particular phrase only occurs in about a dozen places by my count. “Cause the soul/life to return” is what Naomi says Ruth’s son will do now that she has “life” through offspring (Ruth 4:13). It is what Elijah prays that God would do for a dead child (1 Kg. 17:21, 22). It is what Elihu tells Job that God does for men to spare them from the pit (Job 33:30), and what David says his divine Shepherd does for him beside still waters (Ps. 23:3). So both spiritual and physical life is often in mind, whether metaphorically or not. In Psalm 23, David is of course speaking of his spiritual well-being, although he does so using the image of himself as a weary sheep in need of life-restoring drink.
But the phrase occurs most frequently in Lamentations 1, where the deserted city of Jerusalem figuratively reflects on the Babylonian siege. It was horrifying. In a siege, the food slowly depletes and the people starve until they die or surrender (1:11; 4:4; 5:6, 9). In verses 11 and 19, the inhabitants groan from hunger, asking God for food to restore their lives (lěhāšîb nāpeš) and revive their strength, using the same wording as Ps. 19:7. The narrator also asks God for mercy to restore his soul (v. 16, mašîb napšî). Lamentations makes it clear that these dire circumstances are a consequence of the people’s sin (cf. 1:8, 14, 18, 22, etc.). The pending physical death of God’s people is a result of their spiritual death, a condition accented by expulsion from the promised land.
Eat Torah or Starve
Bringing this back around to Psalm 19:7, it seems that the NIV may do well with “refresh” here. Many commentators agree that the sense is one of enlivening a nearly dead person. But I want to go a bit further to suggest that the phrase is metaphorical, and is evoking food imagery. In other words, the law (tôrāh) is something to eat. Perhaps: “the law of the LORD is perfect, reinvigorating the famished.” Certainly to a physically starving Israelite facing the spiritual starvation of exile from God’s covenant blessings in the land, the law is the precise “food” needed to rejuvenate and survive. Of course, if the law is food, then the reverse implication of the food imagery in verse 7 is that disobedience leads to starvation.
That kind of image is not unprecedented. After all, God’s words had been long considered spiritual food for Israel, especially in times of suffering. As the nation wanders in the wilderness, they are called to remember that “man does not live by bread alone,” but by “everything that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3, NASB). God’s Word, his law, gives nourishment to the spiritually starved after disobedience and amid suffering. It revives the spiritually anemic (cf. Jer. 15:16; Ps. 119:103; Ezek. 3:1-3). Eat the law, Psalm 19 says. Consume the words of God, and live.
True Torah Gives Renewing Life to the Hungry
Someone else knew that man does not live by bread alone, even in his worst suffering and weakest physical moments (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4). Indeed, he himself is the true Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus Christ does not abolish the law, but he fulfills it (Mt. 5:17). In doing so he is the perfect law of God incarnate. And he is the one whose perfect sacrifice and obedience has given spiritual life to God’s people in every age.
Only Jesus Christ can truly revive the inner man. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. . . . For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn. 6:53-54). Are you spiritually malnourished? Is your soul fatigued by wilderness? Or perhaps you have been eating the food of death—anger, pornography, sin. Consume him, and be rejuvenated. Feed on him by faith, be truly satisfied, and live.