There was a time when memorising Scripture was ‘the norm’ among Christians, churches and families.
John Ruskin, the Victorian artist had a strong Calvinist mother who had made him learn by heart large portions of Scripture. He memorised, among others, Psalms 23, 32, 90, 91, 103, 112, 139 and 119 and later in life testified: “It is strange that of all the pieces of the Bible which my mother taught me, that which cost me most to learn and which was to my child’s mind most repulsive – the 119th Psalm – has now become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion for the law of God.”
Henry Martyn, who was a pioneer missionary to India in the early years of the 19th century, had memorised Psalm 119 as a child and admitted that in the midst of all the struggles he experienced it was the Bible alone that gave him the strength to persevere.
David Livingstone, the Scottish pioneer in Africa won a Bible for repeating Psalm 119 by heart when he was only 9 years old.
The story is also told of a former Bishop of Edinburgh about to be put to death on the scaffold who took advantage of the custom of the times which permitted the condemned to choose a Psalm to sing. He chose Psalm 119 and before 2/3rds had been completed a pardon arrived and he was released. It’s just as well he didn’t choose 117th Psalm!
How far removed we are from such a love for God’s Word in our own day and generation. A little while ago, in the States, a Christian father videoed his little daughter happily reciting Psalm 23 and posted the video on an internet site. He was bombarded with emails accusing him of child abuse.
I. WHY memorise Scripture?
Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 6:6-7 command God’s people to memorise Scripture. After all, unless we know some Scriptures off by heart we will not be able to “talk of them…when you walk by the way”.
Memorising Scripture is an expression to God of our esteem and affection for his word and therefore is an act of worship. The Psalmist says that he will memorise God’s Word as an expression of praise to God. (119:7)
The commentator Leupold says of this verse, “In practice you praise God by esteeming his Word so precious that you make it your business to learn it. Such learning is an act of praise.”
Here’s another spiritual discipline much neglected today. Perhaps we have become suspicious of the word because it has been hijacked by eastern religions and New Age practices but, again, it is something commanded in Scripture and is inextricably linked to memorising God’s Word. The first Psalm links spiritual growth and fruitfulness to 24/7, conscious and subconscious, meditation of the words of Scripture. As we literally chew over the words of Scripture, so they get deep into our system and nourish us spiritually.
John Piper testifies, “Memorizing Scripture makes meditation possible at times when I can’t be reading the Bible, and meditation is the pathway of deeper understanding.”
For too many Christians, the words read in personal devotions or heard in a sermon are all too quickly squeezed out by the busyness and activity of life and so their benefit is largely lost. We need to make a conscious decision, to treasure God’s Word in our hearts and as we drive down the road, wash dishes at the sink or go about our daily business we can still meditate on and benefit from God’s Word.
There is no great benefit in memorising hundreds of sentences out of the Bible if you do not know what they mean. But it is almost impossible to memorize a passage of Scripture and repeatedly meditate on it without deepening your understanding of those verses.
One of the vital and indispensable piece of the armour that God has blessed us with is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17) If we are going to have the sword to hand to use at those unexpected moments of temptation and spiritual conflict, like the Lord himself, we had better have them stored up in our hearts and minds (Psalm 119:9,11)
For example, if I’m tempted with any kind of sexually immoral thought, I can immediately start reciting 1 Corinthians 6:12–20. What a powerful way to kill sin! Piper puts it this way: “Memorizing Scripture makes God’s Word more readily accessible for overcoming temptation to sin, because God’s warnings and promises are the way we conquer the deceitful promises of sin.”
Jesus stated that our spiritual existence and survival depends on our engagement with the God’s word (Matthew 4:4). Those words on which we are to feed and live are found in our Bibles. It is our responsibility, by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God, to “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). In the Bible, spiritual growth is another way of speaking of sanctification and the primary means that the Spirit of God uses for our sanctification is the word of God (John 17:17). The more we allow our hearts and minds and lives to be exposed to the supernatural power of Scripture, the more our lives will be conformed to the image of Christ.
Memorizing a large chunk of the Bible is a strategic way to obey Romans 12:2: It helps you be like the person in Psalm 1: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
It often happens spontaneously – the Holy Spirit brings to mind words that you have memorized, and those words are exactly what someone else needs to hear at that moment, or are so apt in a message or sermon. Put in the hard work to hide God’s words in your heart, and then expect God’s Spirit to bring to mind just the right words at just the right times.