Is meditation in the bible?

If you are a Christian starting a meditation practice, you might ask yourself this question about meditation in the bible. And there are a number of good reasons you might ask it.

Finding meditation in the bible can be really helpful. As a christian, you probably take the bible to be normative for your faith and life in one way or another. So, you may even feel like you need to find meditation in the biblical text before you can really get into a meditation practice. Even if you don’t feel the need to find meditation in scripture, the way the bible portrays meditation is helpful.

Getting down to it, where is meditation in the bible? There are a number of places you can find it, though the bible doesn’t provide any step by step instructions. At least not in the way some other religious traditions do. However, the bible does describe the character and nature of meditation.

We’ll look at two passages to get a feel for meditation in the bible. First, we’ll look at an example from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Then, we’ll unpack a passage from the New Testament. There are a lot of texts within scripture which are helpful for this, so this isn’t exhaustive. The two examples here bring up both the look and feel of meditation. So I think they are particularly nice for our purposes.

Meditation in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s start with our example from the Hebrew Bible. I have seen this text quoted in a lot of writing about meditation for a Christian audience. One of the possible reasons for its popularity is that it shows a certain type meditation being commanded by God. Our example comes in the form of Joshua 1:8-9.

8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’

Joshua 1:8-9 (NRSV)

Context of Joshua 1:8-9

Really briefly, it helps to have some context for these verses. Joshua is about to cross the river Jordan into “the promised land.” Joshua was Moses’ “assistant” throughout a good part of the Israel’s wilderness wandering. God is speaking these word shortly after Moses’ death which took place just after he looked across the river to see the land that he had been seeking for so long. Now, it is time for Joshua to pick up where Moses left off and bring Israel into the promised land.

Verses 8 and 9, quoted above, are part of the commission that God gives to Joshua before he crosses the river into the land that God had promised. Before Joshua brings the people to the land beyond the river, he is told that the law will not leave his mouth. He will meditate on it and thereby he will succeed. In Joshua’s situation at the time, at least part of the success would surely be the successful invasion of the promised land.

No justification for violence

Unfortunately, Joshua’s entrance into the promised land isn’t peaceful (at least as it is told in scripture). It is the invasion of an outside army into already occupied country. I don’t want to spend a lot of time writing about this here, but it deserves mentioning briefly. Texts like these have been misused to excuse a variety of abuses. There is no justification for initiating acts of violence or engaging in persecutions of any form. If you find yourself using a bible verse to excuse any behavior that harms another person or our world for any reason, please (genuinely) look more closely at your motivation for doing so, and consider letting go of your defense of these actions.

Meditation in Joshua 1:8-9

Let’s move on to talk about meditation as it appears here. Joshua is told that he is to meditate on the law day and night. The word for “meditate” is the same word that is used in Psalm 1, hagah. Hagah means to growl, utter, speak, or (by implication) to ponder. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the same word is used to describe the growl of a lion eating its prey (Isaiah 31:4). A growling lion is maybe not the image that leaps to mind for meditation, but a sound of contented eating is really not so bad as far as images for meditation go. Let’s dig into it a little more.

Imagine the feeling you have when you are eating a really satisfying meal. We’re talking about a really delectable banquet, here. Maybe the food is delicious. Perhaps you are just really hungry. Either way, you may have a growl of your own. You know, a growl like “Mmmm.” This growl, as brief or unremarkable as it might be, comes from a kind of unselfconscious state, like an immersion in experience.

This is ecstasy of a kind. A moment, even a flash, in which you are outside of yourself. That is what ecstasy means if you break the word down. Ecstasy is the state of being outside of your self-consciousness. It is a state of being totally wrapped up in what is happening. In the case of Joshua reading the law, it is a being outside of self-consciousness in dwelling in the teachings of God.

Meditation, not bible study

This kind of reading is different than a bible study. Bible study is normally a fairly self-conscious process. Think about it. How much time do we spend in bible study asking what a particular verse means to us? That has its place. It just isn’t meditation.

An example from worship practices in ancient Israel open up the difference a little. Particularly, the way worshippers in ancient Israel would read scripture together. In this reading, each person reads the same text from scripture individually, at the same time, though not intentionally in unison. Each person is reading on their own together. It would be a cacophony of individuals caught up in reading the text. The act of reading is important in its own right here.

Reading the words of the law is meditation in itself. Attending to the words themselves. Saying them aloud. Listening to them internally and externally. Drinking them in. Dwelling in them. This is meditative. It is also different from studying the words of scripture.

Rather than picking apart the words and analyzing them for meaning. Simply reading them allows you to hear them in new ways. In this way, the reader experiences the text, something like eating a meal. So you can really get into to the actual experience of reading. You can pay attention to it, like a growling lion pays attention to its food.

Turning to the New Testament, we get a sound similar to the growl in some respects. That sound is a sigh too deep for words.

Meditation in the New Testament

As is true for everything here, numerous passages teach something important for meditation. Like the verses from the Hebrew Bible, this verse gets to the heart of something instructive for meditating. Whereas the last example touched on reading scripture. This example is more focused on prayer, even prayer that occurs beyond words.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

Romans 8:26 (NRSV)

Just as we looked at the context around the verses from Joshua, we should take a look at the context to Romans 8:26 and then consider what it could mean for a meditation practice (which is not different from prayer).

The context of Romans 8:26

In Romans chapter 8, the apostle Paul is writing about life freed in the Spirit. In Chapter 7, Paul had just been writing about the struggles of life. Perhaps the most influential takeaway from that chapter is the insight that though we may want to do what we feel we ought to do, our actions don’t always match our intention. Instead, sometimes we do the opposite of the good thing we want to do.

Then, in the eighth chapter, Paul elaborates on how we are freed from this frustrated and pitiable situation. He writes about freedom and redemption. First, Paul writes about the hope of the whole world to be delivered from suffering, and uses a deep image to describe it. Paul compares the groans of creation to the cries of a woman in labor. Implying that though there is all sorts of pain in the world as we know it, something new is coming into existence. It is deeply hopeful stuff.

The “likewise” at the beginning of verse 26 of chapter 8, ties this verse about prayer to the groaning of all creation waiting to be set free. The deep intercession of the spirit is a plea for freedom that happens in a wordless sigh.

Meditation in the bible and learning to pray

If you were ever taught to pray, maybe as a child, but likewise as an adult, you were likely taught to pray using words. Sometimes, the person being taught to pray is told to imagine they are talking to God, and pray, then, in this conversational way. Other times, a teacher provides a “script” to use when praying, a predetermined set of words, like a table prayer or the Lord’s Prayer.

First of all, this is good. Praying this way is really edifying. Unfortunately, many people only ever learn to pray in this one sense. There are other ways. These ways, when they use words, use words differently than we do in speech or expression (like the meditative reading above). Sometimes, they don’t use words at all.

Many of the references to prayer in the New Testament refer to times where Jesus goes off alone to pray. I can’t imagine these references to Jesus finding a deserted or isolated place are all about Jesus find space to start speaking aloud or praying with words. Admittedly, though, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray in the Gospel of Luke, he gives them words (the Lord’s Prayer). So it is understandable that so much emphasis in prayer goes to spoken or thought words.

The sigh of the Spirit

This verse from Romans helps us balance the spoken with the unspoken. The spirit meets us in prayer and provides wordless intercessions. Provocatively, the translation usually goes “with sighs too deep for words,” implying there is a depth beyond words. Experience can’t be adequately grasped and communicated by language. This verse from Romans at least implies that prayer is in a similar position, so “we don’t know how to pray as we ought”. The depth of the Spirit’s prayer is too deep for our words, and the Spirit prays for us through these wordless depths. We can let go of our words, sit in silence, and so pray with and through the Spirit’s prayer.

This isn’t an encouragement, or a commandment, or a defense of meditation, but it opens a door to the freedom of prayer that isn’t focused on our speaking (either out loud or in thought). Meditation, sometimes called contemplation, can help us to move our emphasis in prayer from that which we say, to what is actually happening here and now.

Then, prayer can become more open and free. It can move beyond our activities and desires, into a generative silence. When prayer always asks for something, desire becomes everything. If prayer only takes place with words, silence loses its prayerful attention. Meditation provides a form of prayer that is simple and unencumbered.

A growing trend

If you have been paying attention to such things, you’ve probably noticed that meditation (or mindfulness) has become very popular. This is intimidating, perhaps frightening, for some. It certainly provokes a lot of curiosity. I think it is worthy of our consideration. People are discovering something life-giving in meditative and contemplative practices. They provide immense opportunities for growth and peace.

The freedom of the spirit that Paul describes is a freedom to live in hope and trust. A practice of meditation can bring more vitality to that hope and that trust. And it can do that without the feeling of compulsion. Meditation is something you can do in a spirit of freedom. You don’t need to meditate. No one will (or ever should) force you.

But, if or when you freely decide to meditate, what can it show you? What will you hear when you listen, and see when you look? I don’t know. The only way to find out is to find out for yourself, to really read when you read, to simply sit in the silence, to listen and look.

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