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 has three sections.
1. 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).
2. 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.
3. 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.