Surprising Benefits of Bible Memorization
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Do you look forward to your daily Bible study? Do you find yourself spontaneously meditating on God’s Word?
For many years, I did not. I read my Bible and prayed, and then I went about my day. No longer! Bible meditation is now a natural dimension to my day, and my morning study and prayer have come alive. I actually can’t wait to jump out of bed every day to do them! And one pivotal difference came from the last place I expected: Bible memorization.
Perhaps you’ve heard Bible memorization presented as a tool for defending the faith using key doctrinal verses. That has value, but this is different. I’m talking about the power to be found in committing passages and chapters to memory—even if you don’t yet fully understand every line. Why do this? First, you will put afterburners on your Bible meditation by giving God’s Word a way to directly reorder the way you think. Second, your Bible study will continually show you things you’ve never seen before as you learn to engage with the text in the way its authors designed it to be read.
Memorization fuels meditation
Time after time, the Bible tells us to meditate on God’s law throughout the day. For example, Psalm 1 sketches a portrait of a righteous person, saying “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (verse 2).
What is meditation? Forget whatever you’ve seen in movies. It isn’t a mystical experience. It’s simply focused thinking. But while the biblical authors could probably agree with us on that definition, they would also likely caution us that they didn’t think about thinking in quite the way we do.
Here is an example. Did you know that the skill of silent reading has only been commonplace for around 400 years? Before that, you probably would have found it bizarre or even creepy to see somebody sit and silently read a book. Reading meant using your mouth! Silent reading is one of several cultural shifts over the centuries that led us to imagine our own thoughts differently. Today, we prefer to frame our inner thoughts as if they inhabit a world apart from our physical bodies, as we “drift off in thought.” This concept comes so naturally to us, we may mistakenly import it into our reading of the Bible.
The Hebrew writers, on the other hand, were more inclined to conceive of their thoughts as a whole-body experience involving their mouth, heart and other abdominal organs.
When Psalm 1 speaks of meditation, it uses the word “hagah” (Strong’s H1897). In other contexts, this word is translated “to speak,” “to mutter,” “to groan” or “to roar.” Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon describes it as having the sense of “the growl of a lion over its prey.” So, when the Hebrew authors spoke of “meditating,” their language implied a more physically active process potentially involving one’s mouth, such as speaking something to yourself while murmuring in a low voice.
Does this sound strange? It makes perfect sense within a memorization culture. When scrolls were expensive to produce, you “read” Scripture by attending a reading of it at your local place of Sabbath assembly, and then you continued to “read” and “remember” it by repeating it to yourself throughout the day. So, while today we might only conceive of “meditation on God’s law” as sitting quietly and thinking, the Biblical authors’ perspective would have incorporated this practice of rehearsing scriptures. With that in mind, consider the Lord’s command to Joshua in Joshua 1:8 Joshua 1:8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success.
American King James Version×: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate [hagah] in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it.”
How Scripture memorization transforms meditation
Since the dawn of the alphabet, students everywhere have learned primarily through memorizing texts. Yet I was deeply skeptical. I came of age at a time when memorization was viewed as the opposite of critical thought. Isn’t it more important to understand concepts than to repeat words? I saw memorization as a practice that elevates form over substance.
Then a few years ago I started reading books on the science of learning, and I was surprised to find that modern neuroscience is turning this view on its head. Researchers are discovering correlations between memorization and creativity because when you take the time to fully memorize important things, you construct webs of new neural pathways to that knowledge. This gives your brain opportunities to produce new insights by creatively connecting knowledge, ideas and your own real-life experiences. Meditation needs fuel, and that fuel comes from the things you most deeply know.
The process of memorizing your first Bible passage will feel tedious. It will force you to slow down and read closely. You will find yourself asking why you’re drawn to remember the words one way when they plainly say something else. You will feel like your memory must be worse than everyone else’s (it’s not). Memorization isn’t hard; it’s just slow. The good news is most of the meditative benefits will come not from reaching your memorization goals, but will come directly out of the learning process itself. For example, I found some parts of Psalm 91 easy to memorize (“He shall give His angels charge over you / to keep you in all your ways”), but I struggled mightily with verse 15: “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him.”
I went over it repeatedly and couldn’t get it right. Then one day—I think I was mowing my lawn while practicing this scripture—it finally dawned on me. The verbs tell a five-part story. God answers, but He doesn’t immediately deliver. Instead, He is with us in trouble. It’s actually a key to understanding the whole psalm. Once I could see the story, everything fell into place. It just took a bit of focused thinking for me to get there. This is meditation in action.
The Bible is designed to be memorized
This practice can also transform your study by teaching you to read in ways that follow the grain of Scripture. The books of the Bible were written for people in our time, but they were not written by or to us. Today we would be confused if the weatherman suddenly broke into poetry while describing a coming cold front, but this is the kind of thing you routinely find happening in the Bible. Why?
All written works have a design strategy. When I wrote radio news, I wrote short, forward-flowing sentences so listeners could follow along in real time and grasp the details in a single hearing. Today we skim more than we read, so authors adapt their writing style accordingly. The writers of the Old and New Testaments likewise used the tools of their medium. God inspired all Scripture, but it was first recorded by, to and about people living in memorization cultures. Their medium was memory.
They brilliantly employed a range of literary techniques that may at first seem obscure to us, but became second nature to them. When providing details in a story, they carefully chose words that would mentally trigger earlier writings, using them like an ancient system of Internet hyperlinks connecting to other parts of Scripture. They employed Hebrew poetic structures to compare, contrast and spotlight ideas—sometimes across entire chapters and books! They developed sophisticated motifs spanning the whole Bible, sometimes describing a scene in a way that creates a mirrored or inverted portrait of a previous story.
These techniques all have something in common. They capitalize on the natural processes your brain uses to encode and sequence stories during memorization, and use them to embed more layers of meaning. You will miss them if you skim-read the text (an alien concern to the Bible’s authors).
Sometimes they would creatively rearrange or inset stories. When you memorize long passages, you must mentally link the end of one story to the beginning of the next, which forces you to think about their relationship to each other. Sometimes God even inspires a sequence of events for this purpose. For example, in the gospel according to Mark, he inserts the story of a blind man receiving eyesight within a larger narrative of the disciples finally coming to see Jesus is the Christ. Later, he wraps the story of Jesus withering the fig tree around the account of the cleansing of the temple.
Mark doesn’t need to tell you these things are related. He’s not trying to be overly clever. Within a memorization culture, he assumes you are already accustomed to thinking this way.
Perhaps this sounds daunting, but it doesn’t need to be! Even just dabbling in Scripture memorization will lead you to a better intuitive sense of how God has organized the Bible. The more we engage with it on its own terms, the more these techniques will start to pop off the page at us. And again, every scripture you learn by heart will fuel your meditation and study.
You have time! Memorizing is slow, but the time spent brings its own rewards. I know of people with average memories who began learning a verse a day 20 years ago, who now have more than 30 books of the Bible memorized. They’ll tell you it has nothing to do with being a genius; it has everything to do with consistency.
You’re not too old! Nine months after I presented this topic as a sermonette in Cincinnati, Ohio, a woman in her 60s told me she had since memorized over 450 verses of the Bible.
You can start anywhere! Your goal is to let God’s Word reshape your mind, so look for passages that are foundational but perhaps a little unfamiliar. A few good starting points would be Psalms 1 & 2, the Ten Commandments in long form, the Beatitudes, 1 Corinthians 13, Exodus 34:6 Exodus 34:6And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
American King James Version×–7, Psalms 19:7 Psalms 19:7The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
American King James Version×–11, Psalm 23 or Psalms 103:8 Psalms 103:8The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.
American King James Version×–14. You might then progress to longer passages such as Genesis 1 or the Sermon on the Mount.
Each time Satan tried to tempt Jesus, He answered with memorized scripture. I think you’ll find to the degree you take this on, it will be a source of encouragement and blessing to you throughout your day as God speaks to you through His own words.