What Is Biblical Meditation?
Jim’s initial concerns about meditation are quite common. Many people associate the word with transcendental meditation, a technique that is intended to achieve a state of inner peace. Others think of meditation as “mindfulness”—a heightened awareness of one’s own thoughts. But biblical meditation is not simply about focusing upon ourselves, or emptying our minds, or trying to achieve a state of calmness. Biblical meditation is pondering the words of Scripture with a receptive heart, trusting the Holy Spirit to work in you through those words.
Let’s consider the key parts of this definition.
Ponder: Biblical meditation is an act of “pondering.” This is different from simply reading or studying the Bible. Reading and study are important, and can even enable us to meditate properly by helping us to understand the original meaning of a verse or phrase in its context. But to ponder is “to weigh in the mind” or reflect upon something. By definition, it implies careful consideration and focused attention upon its object. But the biblical foundations for the concept suggest even more.
In the Old Testament, one of the key words translated as “meditate” is the Hebrew word hâgâh. It is used in Joshua 1:8, where God told Joshua to “meditate” on his law day and night. The word is also used in Psalm 1:2, where we are told of the blessed person whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” In his commentary on Psalm 1, Allan Harmon writes, “The Hebrew word translated ‘meditates’ (hâgâh) implies something more than silent reflection. It means ‘to whisper or murmur’—a use that may point to the fact that reading was usually done aloud in biblical times.”1
Another Hebrew word for meditation in the Old Testament is siyach. It is the word used in Psalm 119:97: “Oh how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” Concerning this word, pastor David Saxton writes, “Siyach then means to lovingly rehearse or go over in one’s mind; but in contrast to hâgâh, siyach can be either spoken out loud or said silently in one’s heart.” 2
In the Old Testament then, “meditation” may have included repeated vocalization of God’s truth, rehearsal of it in the mind, and focused thought upon it after it was done being heard or read.
The word “meditate” is found less frequently in the New Testament, and most modern translations use words like “think” or “consider” to convey the idea of pondering or reflecting upon something. For example, in Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul lists things upon which believers are to “think.” He uses a form of the word “logizomai,” a Greek word found forty times in the New Testament that means “think [about], consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on.” 3
With this background, we can understand that biblical meditation involves our minds. By focused thought upon God’s truth, we reflect upon the meaning of words or phrases.
Meditating on God’s words is an ancient practice —one that’s long been a vital component of a vibrant relationship with God. As Christians, we would be wise to embrace this God-given discipline.
The Words of Scripture:
Biblical meditation is distinct from other forms of meditation because the focus of our “pondering” is Scripture. Our goal is not to empty our minds—though striving to identify and, with the help of the Spirit, rid ourselves of thoughts that are not pure and right (see philippians 4:8) could be a part of meditation—but to renew them by focusing on God’s words. Meditation occurs when we rehearse and reflect upon a word, or words, found in the Bible.
Systematic reading and study of the Bible is of great value in laying the groundwork for meditation. It’s important that we consider individual passages in light of their place in the whole story of Scripture—how the Old and New Testaments fit together to unveil the entirety of God’s plan for us in Jesus Christ. Careful study helps us to unlock the riches found in each biblical book. And understanding, as much as we can, the meaning of a verse in its larger context is necessary before we meditate upon individual verses.
Along with reading and study, memorization of Scripture is a great support to meditation. The Old Testament concept of “muttering” or repeated vocalizing of Scripture was likely an aid to memorization in a time when ordinary people did not have access to Scripture, and so relied upon their recollections of words that had been read aloud. Still today, memorization is an invaluable way to reflect upon and benefit from a verse of Scripture throughout the day.
But while memorization is a great support to meditation, the two are not the same. In the Bible, God’s words are sometimes compared to physical food (“When your words came, I ate them” Jeremiah 15:16). If the reading, hearing, and memorization of God’s words could be compared to the intake of physical food, we can think of meditation as the slow chewing of that food to make sure all of the nutrients are available to the body. Meditation allows us to receive more of the nutrients and spiritual strength found in a verse or phrase of Scripture.
With a Receptive Heart:
Biblical meditation calls for an attitude of receptivity toward God and his Word. We must approach our times of meditation with expectant faith, trusting that God will speak through sacred Scripture to give us what we need. Jesus has promised that those who seek will find (luke 11:9), and we can trust that God will reward those who seek him with a better understanding of his will and his ways (hebrews 11:6).
Receptivity to God includes not merely openness to his encouragement but also to his correction. Meditating on the words of Scripture may lead to the awareness of something in our lives that is out of step with God’s will and his ways. A receptive heart is one that is ready to listen and engage with the Lord’s loving correction as the Spirit guides and convicts us.
Trusting the Holy Spirit to Work in You:
The Spirit of Christ is our great Helper and Teacher in meditation. The Spirit guided the writers of Scripture to give us the words of God (2 peter 1:20–24), and illumines the minds of believers to understand those words. Jesus promised his followers that his Spirit would:
• dwell with us and be in us (john 14:17).
• teach us (john 14:26).
• bear witness to others about Jesus Christ (john 15:26).
• guide us into all truth (john 16:13).
• glorify Jesus Christ (john 16:14).
It is important to know that the Holy Spirit only dwells within those who are followers of Jesus Christ (see romans 8:9, 15–16). The Spirit’s work in not-yet-believers is to convict them of sin and show them their need of the forgiveness that is provided through faith in Jesus (see john 16:8–11). Those who have received God’s salvation and the gift of Christ’s Spirit can trust the Holy Spirit to help us better understand Scripture and apply it to our lives. While the Spirit certainly guides us in reading and study of the Bible, meditation provides further opportunity for God to teach, correct, encourage, and guide us through Scripture. As we give focused attention to a word or phrase in God’s Word, the Holy Spirit often helps us to see it in a new light, gaining insights we might have missed by hurriedly reading through a passage. Christ’s Spirit is our great Helper in meditation, and we need to trust the Spirit to work in us through the words of Scripture.
As we consider how the Spirit of Christ may work in us through the words of Scripture we are pondering, it may be helpful to ask:
• What does this teach me about God?
• What does this teach me about myself?
• How might this transform my life and/or
1 Allan Harmon, Psalms: A Mentor Commentary, vol. 1 (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2011), 99.
2 David W. Saxton, God’s Battle Plan for the Mind (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 26.
3 W. Arndt, W. Bauer, and F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and the Early Christian Literature, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 476.