What in the world did people do after dark on lonely nights before we had television? And before we had our litany of pixelated devices that so often light our nights, and days, absorbing our priceless commodity of human attention?
To go way, way back, Genesis 24:63 gives us an interesting peek into what Abraham’s promised son did, however often, after dinner: “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.” See him there alone, pacing in the field, with nothing in his hands, and his eyes wide open to God’s three-dimensional world — with a screen far more powerful and enriching than our modern pixels: his imagination.
Meditation is a lost art today. And one way to reintroduce it to the church is to consider how it relates to something many of us know much better: prayer.
What Is Meditation?
But before we pair it with prayer, let’s rehearse just the basics of what the Bible says about meditation. To meditate in Hebrew means literally to “chew” on some thought (as an animal chews the cud) with the teeth of our minds and hearts. To ponder some reality, to roll some vision around on the tongue of our souls, savoring it as it deserves and seeking to digest it in such a way that produces real change and benefit in us. What I am describing is the opposite of Eastern meditation that aims to empty the mind. Judeo-Christian meditation aims to fill the mind while engaging and nourishing the inner person.
God made plain the necessity of the leaders of his people meditating on his words, as he said to Joshua:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. (Joshua 1:8)
“If we are to gain any true and lasting benefit from lingering over God’s words, we must depend on his help.”
So also with all of his people, as we find in Israel’s songbook. The Psalms frequently celebrate the kind of life formed and filled by meditating on God’s words day and night (Psalm 1:2; Psalm 63:6; 119:97). Such meditation happens by fixing our eyes (Psalm 119:15) on God and his wondrous works (Psalm 119:27; 145:5), pondering him (Psalm 77:12; 143:5) in our hearts (Psalm 19:14; 49:3; 77:6). Meditation reveals our true loves. We will meditate on what we love (Psalm 119:48, 97), and also that on which we meditate, we will grow to love more.
Meditation, strictly speaking, is an Old Testament word. However, the concept of steeping our souls in the words of God is very much a Christian practice, and expectation. Jesus rebuked Peter for “not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33). The apostle Paul, in one of the most important chapters in all of Scripture, warns,
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5–6; also Philippians 3:19)
As Christians, our meditation will have a certain center of gravity. We “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2) and find that at the center and heart of those heavenly things is a person. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). We meditate on God’s written words in light of God’s Word incarnate. We seek to abide in him (John 15:4–10), and “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Colossians 3:16).
Four Prayers for Meditation
How, then, does our meditating on God’s words relate to our words to him called prayer? In two ways. Through prayer we both ask for help before we hear from God in his word and we respond to God after steeping our souls in his word. First, we ask for help to hear, and then we delight to have his ear.
On the first kind of prayer, the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith confesses that “prayer is the indispensable handmaid of meditation.” By that, we mean that prayer serves meditation on God’s word. We, then, specify four specific requests that we make of God, via prayer, for meditation:
- for the inclination to turn from the world to his word
- for the spiritual ability to see his glory in his testimonies
- for a soul-satisfying sight of his love
- for strength in the inner man to do his will.
“We will meditate on what we love, and also that on which we meditate, we will grow to love more.”
If we are to gain any true and lasting benefit from lingering over God’s words, we depend on his help. Without him, our hearts gravitate toward the world, rather than his word. Without him, we cannot see true glory in his word. Without him, our souls will not be satisfied in him. Without him, we will not have strength to do his will. And so, we pray. Prayer before and during our meditating on God’s word is vital in asking God to give spiritual effect and power to our pondering.
Delight to Have His Ear
But what about prayer after meditation? Perhaps less widely understood today is how meditation also serves prayer. Thomas Manton (1620–1677) captures it well:
Meditation is a middle sort of duty between word and prayer, and hath respect to both. The word feedeth meditation, and meditation feedeth prayer; we must hear that we be not erroneous, and meditate that we be not barren.
Prayer is not only meditation’s handmaid but also its apex. We not only pray that God will give us eyes to see, but also once we have seen, and been aptly moved by his words, we respond back to him in adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. The general principle is that God’s word comes first, then our prayers. First he speaks to us in his word, and we welcome what he has to say. We listen. We linger over it. We meditate on it. And then, once we have heard him all the way through, then we respond in prayer. We reverently “talk back” in the wonder we call prayer.
Prayer, as the words we speak to God, is a fitting response to hearing and meditating on the words he speaks to us. God means for his words to inform and shape how we respond to him in prayer. As creatures, we don’t mainly “dial him up,” like even pagans are prone to. That’s human instinct apart from the revelation of the true God. The true God speaks first. He initiates. He tells us about himself, and about ourselves as his creatures, and about the world he made, and his Son and Spirit. And prayer is our response to God in light of what he has revealed to us.
To make it tangible: instead of our prayer lives being list-driven, it would be fitting that our prayers be word-driven. That prayer would not only lead to and saturate our hearing and studying and meditating on God’s words, but also (and mainly) that prayer, as our response to God, having heard his words, would be informed and shaped by his words.
Here’s an example, from this morning. As I read John 12, I stopped in my tracks at verse 43, which is about various authorities who believed in Jesus but would not confess it because of their fear of the Pharisees. Why? John explains,
They loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God. (John 12:43)
“What we say to God in prayer is our response to God in light of what he has said to us in his word.”
I paused to feel the weight of this statement. What a tragedy and horror! Then, after I finished reading the section, I came back to verse 43 to meditate. Verse 43 is cast in negative terms about those who feared man. So I turned it around, to make it about those who truly believe: They love the glory of God more than the glory of man. No, not just they. This is meditation: We. This should be true of every genuine Christian, that we love God’s approval more than man’s. That we fear him, not man. That we seek his smile, not human praise. That we live for his commendation, not man’s.
As I kept chewing, the truth became increasingly sweet to my soul. How could I not now turn in prayer to express this heart to God, and ask for his grace? First for myself: “Father, make me to love — and to keep loving — the glory that comes from you far more than the glory that comes from man.” And for my wife. My sons. My daughters. Our church. Our friends and family. And might you, O God, use me to make it true for our neighbors?
Rediscover the Lost Art
I took John 12:43 as a word to me from the mouth of God, and having heard him speak, and pondering his words, and trying to hear them all the way to the bottom, I then turned, in relationship with him, to respond in prayer. It was not a hard pivot from cerebral reading to rehearsing a prayer list. Rather, it naturally progressed from hearing his words through reading, to meditating on them in the heart, to speaking back to him in prayer, asking that he make this precious reality true of me, my loved ones, our church, and our city.
So, I invite you to discover with me this lost art of meditation. Let’s hear God’s voice in the Scriptures, pausing over his words in an unhurried manner. Let’s take them, each day, as a word from God’s mouth to us. And then, as our ears have listened intently and deeply to his words, let’s open our own mouths in reverence and joy, savoring the gift, in Jesus Christ, of having God’s ear in prayer.