If you want to understand John Piper and why he does ministry the way he does, I think you must understand David’s bold claim in Psalm 119:99: “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.”
Understanding God’s word rests on personal meditation, not simply in surrounding yourself with the sharpest academic minds. This text proved vital to Pastor John’s early formation in ministry. The broader context of Psalm 119:97–100 is important too. On the podcast we talked briefly about this text once, back in APJ 1533. There, Pastor John, you talked about why, when we have so much good Bible scholarship, we still must be trained to study the Bible for ourselves. And on Twitter, you’ve cited verse 99 a few times. Here are two of those tweets, both provocative. “In my 20s I knew I could not out-read my liberal professors. But I took heart from this verse that I could out-meditate them. So can you” (6/15/20). And a couple of years earlier, you tweeted this on the same text and said, “One true citation from God’s word may silence a whole semester of human speculation” (6/16/18). Wow.
So I was wondering, Pastor John, can you don your biographical hat? Can you take a Bible truth and apply it with one life — in this case, applying Psalm 119:97–100 to your own formation?
Well, I will try. Let’s read the psalm. Not everybody knows these verses. So, they are very, very precious, and I hope they are to the folks who are listening or will become so. And by the way, just a little comment here before we read it. It is not even in my notes. Torah, the word for “law,” means, basically, “instruction.” So, if people have in their mind that law just means “rules” — that’s all it is; it’s just rules, rules, rules — you need to get that out of your brain. It’s more like, “Oh, how I love your instruction. Oh, how I love everything you say.”
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep your precepts. (Psalm 119:97–100)
Awakening Heart and Mind
Now, I think the first thing to say here is this: When I was undergoing an awakening to the life of the mind at Wheaton College between 1964 and 1968 under the influence of Clyde Kilby; C.S. Lewis; Stuart Hackett, my philosophy teacher; Francis Schaeffer, indirectly; and the whole English department, where I was a major, two things were growing in me, which relate to this text.
One was the deepening and intensifying of my affections — my emotions, my heart response — to the good, the true, and the beautiful, and ultimately, of course, the highest good and the highest affections for God himself and his word. That’s one thing. The other was a similar intensifying of my analytical bent toward probing, and questioning, and scrutinizing, and defining, and dissecting — all the while, as a lit major, knowing that Wordsworth had warned, “We murder to dissect.” I said, “I get that. I’m sorry, William. I’m not killing anything. I’ve tried not to.” But it is a danger; it is. If you dissect something, you kill it first.
“I love your instruction, Lord. I value it. I embrace it. I cherish it. I enjoy it. I long for it. I admire it.”
So I have always felt like I am two kinds of person in one: a highly analytical question-asker and a romantic pursuer of deep and authentic, satisfying emotional responses to what I see and experience.
So when I read Psalm 119:97, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” the two persons inside of me latch on to those two words. One of me took hold of the word love: “I love your instruction, Lord. I value it. I embrace it. I cherish it. I enjoy it. I long for it. I admire it. I eat it. I drink it. It makes me happy. It awakens life and joy and hope in me.” And the other me took hold of the word meditation: “I will think about your law. I will probe into your law. I will ask questions of your law. I will analyze your law and press for definitions in your law until I squeeze from your law every drop of reality juice that I possibly can.”
So that double response to Psalm 119:97 — (1) loving God’s word and (2) meditating on God’s word — set the course of my life. It really did. I think that everything I have done, written, or spoken has been shaped by the double grasp of God’s word in these two ways.
As the Word Works
Now, what you pointed out in those tweets was that over the next six years of my seminary education (three years) and doctoral studies (three years), I found that my bent toward loving the reality that biblical texts were seeking to communicate and spending long hours staring at the texts — wrestling, digging, querying, praying — paid more dividends for me than if I had spent all of that time reading secondary sources. That’s what I discovered.
Now, I wish — I’ve dealt with the Lord a lot of times on this, and I’ve had to have him rebuke me because of my discontent. But I could wish that I read faster, and comprehended more quickly, and remembered things long enough that I could be a person who is both widely read and intensely focused on particular biblical texts. But I’m not that person; I’m not. And so, I have opted to be a very focused text analyzer and reality lover, rather than being a widely read scholar.
So I tweeted, “I knew I could not out-read my liberal professors. But . . . I could out-meditate them.” Or I wrote, “One true citation from God’s word may silence a whole semester of human speculation.” In a sense, that’s my biographical living out of Psalm 119:98–100, the other part of the text you cited:
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my [graduate-school] teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged [I was in my twenties then],
for I keep your precepts.
“One true citation from God’s word may silence a whole semester of human speculation.”
So there’s a double progression here. It moves from enemies, to teachers, to elders. And I can out-understand them all, it says. And it moves from “your word is with me,” to “your word is my meditation,” to “I obey your word.” There’s a progression in both the people and in the action. So, the overall point, it seems to me, is the more seriously and diligently and lovingly you dig into God’s word, and let it dig into you, the more likely it is that you will be wiser and more insightful than those who get their learning another way — no matter how much older than you they are.
So I know it would be utterly presumptuous now to draw the inference: “I have been wiser than all my teachers and all my enemies and all my elders for these fifty years.” And the reason that would be absolute folly to talk like that is — there are several reasons — there are others besides me who meditate on God’s word, of course.
But here’s what I will say with a couple of anecdotes. When I was in seminary, I took every possible course with the teacher who valued this kind of rigorous attention to the text. This is Daniel Fuller. One time, a well-known visiting scholar came to the seminary. You would know his name, Tony. Lots of our listeners would know his name. He’s not living anymore. But he came to just teach one course. He was a world-class New Testament scholar. I said, “Man, I’m signing up for that class.” And I was so eager to learn from this giant.
About two or three classes in, my hands are just up, sticking up. I’m raising my hand regularly in the class and asking particular questions about the texts and about why he’s using them. This man was not used to that. His face would turn red, and he was manifestly unhappy with such questions. So do you know what I did? I dropped the class. I said, “Look, for me, education meant, not being lectured to with what I could read in his books, but having my capacities of seeing and savoring deepened and ripened and intensified by rigorous observation and analysis and celebration with someone who’s better at it than I am. Help me do this.” And so, I signed up for another class with Dan Fuller, because, man, was I growing in leaps and bounds in my capacities.
Text Plus Reality
One more anecdote. When I got to Germany for graduate school, I had formed habits. So now for three years, I’ve been forming these habits. I had formed habits of observation and analysis and text querying that were very fixed in my methodology. I knew how I profited from Scripture. They were so fruitful. My methods were so fruitful in what they yielded from meditation, that nothing could dislodge them. In fact, I came to tears sometimes sitting in classes, grieving over what the students in my classes were having to deal with, because they were so inadequate. I didn’t see anything in the German methodology of those days in that school that came close to the fruitfulness of the methods of observation and analysis that I had learned.
And my love for the reality that the authors of Scripture were trying to communicate had created a habit of mind that was impatient with mere textual gamesmanship that stayed at the grammatical, logical, historical level, while never pushing through the words to the reality that was driving and animating everything in the Bible.
So, these two habits — rigorous analysis of text plus earnest love for the reality behind them (Psalm 119:97) — proved to be very unusual among my fellow graduate students in Munich, Germany, in the early seventies. And I say this as a tragedy: there was such a fascination with almost everything but the actual nitty-gritty of the wording of the text and the glorious reality that the text was trying to communicate. Time and again — and this is embarrassing even — in discussions, I would listen for a while, and then I would hesitantly ask a question to my three or four fellow students who were talking. I would ask a question about some grammatical particularity in the biblical text that seemed to have an implication for reality that they were not latching onto, and there would be silence. You hit your ball over the tennis net, and it never comes back.
So, to this day, Tony, my personal testimony is that my limited scholarly focus has not suited me to be a world-class scholar, but that very limited focus on loving the instruction of God and the reality behind it, and meditating assiduously on God’s expression of that reality in his word, has taken away from me any sense of being intimidated when it comes to a confident rendering of what God is communicating in his word.
And I think that is tremendously encouraging for young aspiring pastors to hear: if they will love God and love his word, and if they will give themselves untiringly to careful handling, meditation, on God’s text, they will never have to be cowed by their enemies, their teachers, or the aged — even the aged John Piper. They will be able, on their own, to get what they need and preach the word.