Meditation According to the Psalms

Dr. Brian Allison


Meditation is a recurrent theme in the book of the Psalms. Its conspicuous recurrence suggests its importance. The practice of meditation is given prominence and respectability in virtue of its position at the beginning of the Psalmodic collection. Psalm 1 begins, "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in Hislaw he meditates day and night" (Ps. 1:1, 2). Meditation is also referred to in the closing sections of the Psalmodic collection - "I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands" (Ps. 143:5). These two references present the two-fold object of Biblical meditation, namely, God's words and works. It is interesting to note that Psalm 119, whose predominant theme is the revelation of God in its manifold expressions, and man's relation to that revelation, contains one third of all the references to meditation found in the Psalms. There are two basic words translated 'to meditate' in the original Psalmodic text. These words are hagah and sih. Hagah and its derivatives appear eleven times in the Psaltery. Sih and its derivatives occur ten times. In this paper, the Psalmodic teaching on meditation will be briefly considered.

Misconceptions Concerning Meditation:

An examination of the concept of meditation as presented in the Psaltery reveals some current misconceptions of the nature of meditation. One misconception is that meditation is simply a religious form of psychological manipulation and mind control. Meditation may have psychological significance and consequences, but the Psaltery's portrayal and presentation are that meditation is essentially a spiritual enterprise. It is a religious duty demanded by God of His people (Ps. 1:1-3). The design of Biblical meditation is religious growth and spiritual maturity through the assimilation of truth.

Another current misconception of Biblical meditation, refuted by the Psalmodic writings, is that meditation is too difficult and involved, and thus is an exercise reserved for religious ascetics. Meditation at this point is viewed as esoteric, rendering it both unnecessary and impractical. The Psalmodic writings, however, suggest that meditation is a spiritual discipline intended as a means of communing with God for all the true seekers and worshippers. Indeed, meditation is aligned alongside the other spiritual disciplines, indicating its importance, as well as its comparable prominence in the religious experience. This point is made in the following passages:

Be angry, and do not sin . Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still. offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord (Ps. 4:4,5).


Give ear to my words, 0 Lord, consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I will pray. My voice You shall hear in the morning, 0 Lord; in the morning I will direct it to You, and I will look up (Ps. 5:1 -3).

A third current misconception of Biblical meditation is that it is associated with mysticism as practiced by Buddhist monks and Indian gurus. William James concluded that there are four main characteristics of the mystical experience. First, there is the element of ineffability. The mystic claims to be incapable of describing adequately his experience. It is something 'felt and not telt'. It is purely subjective. This is contrary to the Psalmodic teaching. The elements of objectivity and describability are essential to Biblical meditation. Second, the mystic experience has a noetic quality. The experience supposedly involves new revelations or new interpretations and meanings of life and existence. There is an intellectual appreciation of the transcendent and incomprehensible. On the other hand, Biblical meditation does not necessarily involve new revelation, technically speaking, but rather deeper insight and understanding into established truth. There is a fuller appreciation of the revealed truth. Third, the mystic experience is transient. The 'eternal moment' quickly passes. There is also an elusive element to the experience, for he who experiences cannot voluntarily summon the experience. Conversely, Biblical meditation is personally controlled, determined, and directed. It is a methodical exercise which may be quite extended in duration, depending upon the person's preference and spiritual state. Fourth, the mystic experience is passive. It is an experience which comes upon or happens to the individual, rather than one initiated and directed by him or her. Again, the experience is involuntary. This quality is foreign to the Psalmodic teaching. In Biblical meditation, the meditator initiates and directs the meditation.

The final current misconception of meditation is that it is not a Christian discipline, and thus is impractical and irrelevant. Liberal teaching espouses that the twentieth century man has evolved and matured in his religious, psychological, and sociological life, surpassing the more primitive or medieval behaviours and practices of human history, behaviours and practices whichare now restricted exclusively to religious deviants and fanatics. This teaching continues to propose that the Christian life is now simple and is not to be saddled with ascetically-flavoured rites. In response, taking this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion could result in one arguing that such practices as fasting, attendance on the Lord's Supper, and even extended prayer sessions are now outmoded, and therefore should be rendered obsolete. Some liberals are extreme enough to adopt this position. It should be remembered that the book of Psalms is the original hymn book of the church, which implies its unchanging religious value and corporate application. We read in Ephesians 5:19, a specific directive to Christians, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (cf. Col. 3:16). Also, a close examination of Psalm 1 reveals a general thrust of the duty of meditation, which indicates a transcultural and transhistorical aspect to the practice. The Psaltery teaches that meditation is ordained as a means of grace, designed to strengthen faith and produce obedience and religious virtues. Meditation is indisputably a New Testament duty.

What Biblical Meditation IsNot:

The Psalmodicteaching on meditation does not present it as a means to transcend conscious reality or awareness. This transcendence of mind is technically called transcendental meditation. This is often the meditation of the materialist. This kind of meditation commonly involves the repetition of mantras. With this kind of meditation, one need not believe in a spiritual realm. Notwithstanding, advanced forms of transcendental meditation adhere to a spiritual framework. In either case, the goal is mental control, and the results are physiological and emotional well-being. Again, Biblical meditation is a spiritual enterprise. It is God-oriented, not self-oriented. The Psalmist states, "I will also meditate on an Your work, and talk of Your deeds" (Ps. 7:12). In this connection, Biblical meditation is not mental passivity. The mind is very active and continuously aware. So, Psalm 77:6 reads, "I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search." The Psalmist establishes a direct relation between meditation and diligent search. Gill claims that meditation is "to be understood in a diligent reading and serious consideration of it; and of the employment of the thoughts, and of deep study upon it, in order to find out the sense and meaning of it."

Second, Biblical meditation as taught in the Psalms is not a means of becoming united with the world soul, eternal spirit, or ultimate reality as understood in Oriental thinking or Eastern religions. Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, teach that the way of release from this material or physical reality into ultimate reality is by meditation. By meditation, one supposedly passes through different levels of consciousness in an effort to empty the mind in order to achieve the removal or dissolution of self-conscious identity. Reality then becomes purely and completely homogeneous. The objective-subjective relationship and distinction are totally eradicated. Contrariwise, Biblical meditation is not a means to achieve absorption into the being of God through the eradication of one's personal and distinct identity, but rather is a means of accentuating one's distinct and personal identify in the full realization of the Creator-creature relationship in the context of worship. The Psaltery clearly teaches that meditation is a form of worship, a prescribed means to approach God. The Psalmist writes, "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. May my meditation be sweet to Him; I will be glad in the Lord" (Ps. 104:33,34).

Finally, Biblical meditation is not a turning in upon one's mind and becoming lost or absorbed in one's personal thought life. This is wholly self-oriented thinking. Biblical meditation, though of necessity related to self, is not self-directed; it is not a pre-occupation with self. Biblical meditation has a spiritual object and purpose. For instance, the Psalmist testifies, "I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word. Princes also sit and speak against me, but Your servant meditates on Your statutes" (Ps. 1 19:1 5, 16, 23). Bridges confirms, "The habit of meditation is the exercise of the mind on spiritual objects for spiritual purposes, fixing a clear and permanent impression of truth." Biblical meditation is not chiefly a means of self-discovery, but rather a discovery of God; though one discovers naturally more of himself in the discovery of God. The soul is spiritually drawn out to God through truth entering the mind.

In conclusion, the goal of meditation is not mind control, not salvation and union with ultimate spiritual reality, not self-discovery and psychological improvement. The goal of meditation is a mind conformed to the knowledge and will of God, with an end to spiritual maturity and religious growth. Biblical meditation is the prescribed means for enhancing the reception and security of the truth. This, of course, is necessary if there is to be any worthwhile spiritual development. Truth must take root. It is not truth in the abstract that changes one internally, but rather truth becoming a personal possession and experience. Manton asserts:

The end of study is information, and the end of meditation is practice, or a work upon the affections. Study is like a winter sun, that shines, but warms not; but meditation is like a blowing upon the fire, where we do not mind the blaze, but the heat. The end of study is to hoard up truth; but of meditation to lay it forth in conference or holy conversation. We do not meditate that we may rest in contemplation, but in order to obedience.

What Biblical Meditation Is:

Foster writes that meditation has been a traditional spiritual discipline, composing an essential part of true Christian devotion, in the lives of God's people through the centuries. He says, "It is a sad commentary on the spiritual state of modern Christianity that meditation is a word so foreign to its ears. Meditation has always stood as a classical and central part of Christian devotion, a crucial preparation for and adjunct to the work of prayer."

The Psalmodic literature is clear on what Biblical meditation is. First, it is heightened or intense mental activity. The faculties of the mind are fully engaged. The Psalmist declares, "My heart was hot within me; while I was musing [meditating] , the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue" (Ps. 39:3). The Psalmist was conscious of his sin and the just results of it (see Ps. 39:11). He apparently had become penitent and was now assuming stringent means in order to prevent himself from sinning again. He supposedly had purposed not to utter another word, even if it concerned rebuking the sin of the wicked. This self-imposed silence caused him great grief and agitation, and subsequently caused him to engage in intense thinking and reflection on his present situation and dilemma. While he meditated, he became more frustrated and discontented. He finally spoke. Another appropriate text in this connection is Psalm 49:3 - "My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall bring understanding." There is a direct relation between the practice of meditation and the presence of understanding and wisdom. Meditation results in understanding and wisdom. This again implies that meditation is an intense or heightened mental activity.

In Biblical meditation, there is a focusing or riveting of the attention. In this sense, meditation can be viewed as "ruminating thinking." Bridges writes, "There is no movement from the heart till truth is clearly exhibited to the mind, set strongly and constantly in view, deeply pondered, and closely applied." Augustine in similar fashion says, "You may look lightly upon a Scripture and see nothing; look again and you will see a little; but look seven times upon it; meditate often upon it, and there you shall see a light, like the light of the sun." Thus, the attempt must be made to shut out external stimuli and extraneous influences. Accordingly, Biblical meditation requires a solitary place. The description of the manner in which Isaac meditated is worth noting. Genesis 24:63 reads, "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening." Furthermore, Biblical meditation also requires a quiet place, a place free from annoyances and interruptions. Accordingly, the Psalmodic teaching associates meditation with the night season in which the mind is more probable to be free from distractions. Psalm 119:148 says, "My eyes are awake through the night watches, that I may meditate on Your word." Psalm 77:6 reads, "I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search."

Second, according to the Psalmodic teaching, Biblical meditation is regulated mental activity. It is a special kind of thinking, dictated by certain principles and guidelines. Obviously there are different kinds of thinking. There is creative thinking which deals with the entertainment of new ideas. There is calculative thinking which deals with such matters as deductive reasoning and problem solving. There is deliberative thinking which deals with the judging of circumstances and facts in order to arrive at a decision. The kind of thinking which characterizes Biblical meditation is both imaginative and vocalized.

Imaginative thinking concerns the forming of images. It is mentally creating the scenes, incidences, happenings, and points which the truth or information presents or suggests. This aspect of meditation is implied in the idea of meditate in Psalm 2:1 - "Why do the nations rage, and the people plot [meditate] a vain thing." The word translated 'plot' is a Hebrew word involving the idea of planning. So, Psalm 38:1 2 reads, "Those also who seek my life lay snares for me;those who seek my hurt speak of destruction, and plan [meditate] deception all the day long." Biblical meditation is imaginative thinking. Hulme states, "Meditation makes positive use of the imagination which is a very powerful human faculty . . . Image-ing is at the heart of Jesus' method of teaching. In fact, according to the Gospels, he taught nothing to people except by parable." Of course, in the light of Exodus 20:4, imagining the likeness of God is forbidden.

One primary purpose of meditation is to change the state or temper of the mind. Mediation provides the sod in which truth may take root and become permanently embedded. Incidentally, imagination, particularly in its clarity, is the key or means to effective memory. Here we observe God's wisdom in prescribing meditation for the reception and security of the truth. Wingfield-Stratford writes:

You remember clearly what you imagine clearly, and a healthy memory is a healthy imagination. So when you talk of retentiveness, what you really mean is the habit of forming clear images strengthened by the bodily health that is the foundation of all mind-training . . . The habit of seeing things clearly and unforgettably is, from the standpoint of literary technique, the secret of the Bible. What made the Hebrew the perfect story-teller made him also the supreme visionary. The simplest as well as the most sublime experiences are visionary and recorded with the same naive directness of statement . . . That clarity, that directness of vision, that is the secret of great art, is the secret also of memory. If once you have seen a thing really and definitely seen it - it is there in your mind, and you cannot help remembering it. And to train yourself in memory is to train yourself in vision.

Through imagination truth sinks deep and takes root.

Biblical meditation is also vocalized thinking. There is an inward speaking in the addressing of truth. There is a talking through and about the truth being considered. Henry writes, "To meditate in God's word is to discourse with ourselves concerning the great things contained in it, with a close application of mind, a fixedness of thought, till we be suitably affected with those things and experience the savour and power of them in our hearts." The Psalms state, "Hear my voice, 0 God, in mymeditation;" and "Give ear to my words, 0 Lord, consider mymeditation" (Ps. 64:1; 5:1). The mind is to questioningly and searchingly approach both the revelation of God in nature, as well as the revelation of God in the Scriptures. The Hebrew word hagah also involves the idea of reading in an undertone or pondering by talking to one's self. Speaking to one's self is a means of crystallizing thinking, and thereby enhancing the grasp of truth; and in speaking to one's self, one can more effectively apply the truth. Worship and dally obedience then assume a whole new meaning and freshness.

The Fruit and Consequence of Biblical Meditation:

The objects of Biblical meditation are twofold, namely, God's general revelation and His special revelation. This distinguishes Biblical meditation from other forms of meditation. As one meditates on God's nature, providence and acts (general revelation) (Ps. 77:12; 104:33 34; 105:15), as well as His word, law, precepts and statutes (special revelation) (Ps. 1:2; 119:15,23,48,78,97,148), he will derive much spiritual fruit and consequence. The spiritual fruit is two fold, namely, spiritual strength and spiritual productivity. Here, the relationship of the state of the mind and the personal character and behaviour is underscored. There is a cause-effect relationship. The relationship is as follows. Biblical meditation results in spiritual mindedness. Truth in the heart becomes truth of the heart. The mind assumes the character of the information it possesses. Spiritual mindedness results in a spiritual character and conduct. As a man thinks, so is he. Smith writes, "To submit [the] mind to the revelation of Himself, reprogramming it according to that revelation, aligning my thought process to eternal wisdom . . . It is their unveiling of His word to us that new thought patterns and a new life style come into being." This acquisition of a spiritual character and conduct is first understood in terms of spiritual strengthening - "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water . . . whose leaf also shall not wither" (Ps. 1:3ac); and then in terms of spiritual productivity - "that brings forth its fruit in its season" (Ps. 1:3b). There is, by the economy of God, the internal experience of divine power through the imparting and infusion of grace. Spiritual productivity naturally flows from spiritual strengthening.

Joshua 1 :8, the foundational and parallel text, equates spiritual strengthening and productivity with obedience. It reads, "This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it." Truth implanted in the heart produces a mind-set for obeying God, with a will bent on conforming and submitting to His will. Meditation produces obedience; but not haphazard and infrequent meditation. But rather, a constant and regular meditation that is profitable, meditation which is "day and night." The consequence of Biblical meditation, according to the Psalmodic teaching, is prosperity, simply because personal obedience results in divine blessing and favour; and obedience ensues from meditation. True meditation is life-transforming, Psalm 1:3d states, "And whatever he does, shall prosper;" and Joshua 1:8b states, "For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success." To prosper means to thrive, to become strong and flourishing, or simply to fair well and succeed.

The preceding has been a brief presentation of the Psalmodic teaching on meditation. Again, meditation holds a significant and prominent place in the Psaltery. In closing, Murphy's words are worthy of note, "Meditation is that well of thought from which flow the streams of word and deed. If the foundation be pure and healthy, so will the streams."