Gateway to Prayer: Meditation on God's Word
This morning we begin a series on several of the Psalms. Why are we doing this?
First, because the Psalms teach us how to pray. The vast majority of Psalms are inspired prayers to God. They were the prayer book for Old Testament Israel. Jesus’ prayer life was steeped in them, so that he sang them even while he was being betrayed (Matt.26:30) and prayed them even while being crucified (Ps.22; 31:5). The spiritual vitality of the early Christians was deeply rooted in them (Eph.5:19; Col.3:16). Yet most Christians today are unfamiliar with most of the Psalms. This was the case in my own life for many years, until personal suffering drove me to the Psalms that form the largest group in the book...
We will focus on these “lament” Psalms because they teach us how to pray when we are in pain. These Psalms begin in a state of fear or anxiety or anger or grief or envy or depression or doubt. In them we hear the psalmists praying to God—honestly expressing their negative thoughts and feelings, stubbornly affirming what they know about God and calling on him to fulfill his promises, and (usually) ending with some measure of peace or hope or even joy. We want to learn how to pray this way—not just so that we can feel better, but so that we can be strengthened by the Lord to go on serving him, and so that we can attract others to him as the One who can sustain them and lifts them up.
Interestingly, these inspired prayers begin with two Psalms that are not prayers. The inspired arranger of this book positioned these two Psalms as the gateway to the rest, because through them we learn two keys to effective prayer. We will discover the first key this week in Ps. 1, and the second key next week in Ps. 2.
Read Ps. 1. You can see that the main point of this psalm is to call us to meditate on God’s Word (1:3). The point is that an effective prayer life does not begin with prayer, but is ignited and sustained by meditating on God’s Word. Let’s examine this Psalm more closely and answer three questions about meditation...
What is meditation?
There are two widespread and powerful cultural misconceptions that will prevent us from becoming meditators unless we reject them.
The first misconception is that meditation is the discipline of emptying your mind of conscious thoughts. This view of meditation was popularized in the late 20th century (Transcendental Meditation). It is rooted in the Hindu view of God as the impersonal Oneness. By chanting a mantra, we are to empty our minds of all conscious thought on specific ideas (which are illusions), and thus become more “God-conscious.” But the God of the Bible is a Person who has revealed himself in words. So meditation has a mental object—“the law of the Lord”—which refers not just to the Ten Commandments or the first 5 books of the Old Testament, but to the whole Bible—all of God’s written revelation of himself and his redemptive plan through Jesus.
Most of us who are Christians reject this misconception, but miss another misconception. As children of the Information Age, we read and think almost entirely to learn new and pragmatically useful information. This is why we’re always restlessly “moving on” to new information. We read the Bible almost exclusively this way, too. But biblical meditation is different from this informational reading (where we begin). It is formational reading, in which we let the text probe and shape us (presumes Heb.4:12). The Hebrew word (hagah) means literally to “mutter” to oneself. The idea is to linger over a truth—to ponder, muse, ruminate, obsess on, ingest it (cf. Isa.31:4 – lion growing over his prey)—so that it gets down into your soul and profoundly changes your deepest affections and beliefs and values.
Here’s how Paul Thompson defines biblical meditation: “Meditation is a cross between Bible study and prayer. Meditation is both, a blending of prayer with Bible study. Most of us first study our Bible and then move to prayer, but the prayer is detached from the Bible you just studied. Meditation is praying the truth deeply into your soul until it catches fire. By fire I mean, until it makes all sorts of personal connections so it shapes your thinking, it moves your feelings and changes your actions. Meditation is working out the truth personally.
The closest analogy to meditating is the way a person eagerly reads a love letter. You tear it open and you weigh every word. You never simply say, ‘I know that,’ but ‘What does it mean?’ You aren't reading it quickly just for information; you are looking for feelings, for what lies beneath what is said. Most important, you want the letter to sink in and form you.”
Does this practice sound foreign to you? You already meditate in many harmful ways! Compulsive worry or anger are forms of meditation. You keep rehearsing a past offense, or plotting (Ps. 2:1) revenge, or you keep imagining fears concerning the future (Matt.6:25 – merimnao; “brood”). You keep going over and over these things in your thoughts and imagination, and they destructively affect your emotional state and choices. God calls on us to replace these “natural,” spontaneous meditations with the deliberate, habitual (“day and night”) choice to meditate on his Word!
I will share some practical ways to do this in a few minutes. But practical steps won’t help you much until you are convinced that this is a life-or-death issue. This is why most of the content of Ps. 1 is about this. The Psalmist gives us three reasons (two positive promises and one sober warning) why biblical meditation is essential.
Why is meditation on God’s Word essential?
First, those who meditate on God’s Word will experience the greatest Treasure of all—God’s presence. “Blessed” (1:1) means “happy”—but a far deeper happiness than the transient pleasure of favorable circumstances (“hap”). It is the security and joy and peace that God’s personal presence imparts (see Num.6:24-26). God’s Word not only reveals accurate information about him; it is also the environment in which we personally encounter him.
The great problem for Christians is that we do not maintain the blessing of God’s presence. Life’s problems come at us, and we naturally meditate on them, and they breed deeper fear and anger and doubt. Other Christians tell us to “trust the Lord” or “draw near to God”—but this seems nebulous. How do you trust the Lord and draw near to him in the midst of real life? You do it by habitually meditating on his Word. Such meditation will bring you into his presence and enable you to commune with him so that his presence outweighs your situation and strengthens you to go on faithfully following him.
George Mueller was one of the most faithful Christian workers of the 19th century (EXAMPLES). He always said that the joy of the Lord was the secret of his perseverance. “In what way shall we attain to this settled happiness of the soul? How shall we learn to enjoy God? How shall obtain such an all-sufficient soul-satisfying portion in him as shall enable us to let go the things of the world as vain and worthless in comparison? I answer, This happiness is to be obtained through the study of the Holy Scriptures... not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”
Second, meditating on God’s Word results in a life that is “like a tree” (1:3)—characterized by stability, fruitfulness, vitality, and prosperity.
Because your roots are regularly drinking the life-giving water of God’s Word, you will be “firmly planted”—not easily blown down by the winds of adversity.
You will “yield fruit in season.” Your character will become more godly, and you will attract people to the living God. There will be “seasons” when this is not evident—but these seasons will be followed by fruitfulness.
You will “not wither.” When others wither spiritually because their roots are shallow, your soul will continue to have motivation and health and vigor.
You will “prosper in whatever you do.” This does not mean that every career or financial plan that you devise will succeed. It means something far more wonderful than this. It means that God will accomplish his will through your entire life. He will work even through adversity and hardship to fulfill the true purpose of your life to know him and make him known to others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood like a “tree” for Jesus Christ in Nazi Germany. He was executed by Hitler days before WWII ended at the age of 39. But his life and books have had a massive ripple-effect ever since. What was the secret of his “tree” life? “Why do I meditate?... Because I need help against the ungodly haste and unrest which threaten my work as a pastor. Only from the peace of God’s Word can there flow the proper, devoted service of each day. In the same way that the word of a person who is dear to me follows me throughout the day, so the Word of Scripture should resonate and work within me ceaselessly. Just as you would not dissect and analyze the word spoken by someone dear to you, but would accept it just as it was said, so you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart... That is meditation... Ponder this word in your heart at length, until it is entirely within you and has taken possession of you.”
Third, if you don’t meditate on God’s Word, you will have a life “like chaff” (1:1,4). Chaff is the opposite of a tree: it is light and easily blown away, it is not nutritious to others, it quickly rots and perishes.
Does it offend you to be told that your life will become either like a tree or like chaff? Does it offend you to be told that you will either meditate on God’s Word and be blessed, or you will walk in the counsel of the wicked (1:1) and waste your life (1:5)? We like to believe that we can create our own truth to lead us to the destination that we desire. But:
There are only two voices—either the voice of Satan, whose lies will lead us to death, or the voice of God, whose truth will lead us to life (Gen.3).
There are only two ways to build your life—either upon the rock of heeding God’s Word, or upon the sand of not heeding his Word (Matt.7:24-27).
You will either be transformed into a person who demonstrates the goodness of God’s will by having your mind renewed by his Word, or you will be conformed to the spirit of this age and corrupted by it (Rom.12:2).
You do not have the power to make your own path and forge your own reality. You have the much smaller but significant power to choose which voice will mold you. Which voice are you listening to?
How can I get started in biblical meditation?
There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for biblical meditation. It is more like an art that anyone can begin (no matter how biblically literate or illiterate you may be) and keep growing in. Here are two ways to get started:
ONE WAY: Take a very small passage (i.e., one or two verses), memorize it, and “chew” on it for several days (or “suck” on it like a lozenge). Say it back to yourself when you wake up, during the “seams” of the day, before you go to sleep, etc. Ask God to show you how to apply it to your life—and then take that step. After you have sucked the life out of it (for now), go on to another small passage.
You can do this even if you aren’t yet a Christian (challenge to meditate on Rev. 3:20).
ANOTHER WAY: Take 20-30 minutes for this, at least several times a week.
Find an undistracted place and time.
Briefly ask God to speak to you through his Word (Ps. 119:18).
Select a small portion of scripture (e.g., a Psalm, 1 or 2 paragraphs of a New Testament letter) and write it passage down long-hand. This will help you to slow down, (especially if you are already familiar with the passage).
Write down concisely what this passage teaches about God and humanity.
Notice what part of the passage “lights up.” Ask yourself: “What would I be like if I really believed this truth?” Ask yourself: “Why God is lighting this up for me now?”
Write out whatever prayer this part ignites—maybe praise, maybe petition, maybe confession, maybe intercession, etc.
Continue to “chew” on this part throughout the day (as per above).
The main thing is to start and stay at it (“day and night”)! Use one of the above ways and meditate for a week on each of the Psalms we cover. Watch how this changes your prayer life! Watch how this changes how you pray when you are in pain. Watch how God strengthens you to represent him to others!
George Mueller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealing with George Mueller, Written by Himself, Jehovah Magnified. Addresses by George Mueller Complete and Unabridged, 2 vols. (Muskegon, Mich.: Dust and Ashes, 2003), 1:646, 272-273.