What Is Biblical Meditation?

What Is Biblical Meditation?

The biblical foundation for meditation is discovered in the great reality of God speaking, teaching, and acting that lies at the center of the scriptural witness. God brought the universe crashing into existence by the word of his command. God said, "Let there be light," and the big bang occurred. In the Garden, Adam and Eve talked with God and God talked with them—they were in communion. Then came the Fall, and in an important sense the experience of perpetual communion was ruptured, for Adam and Eve hid from God. But God continued to reach out to his rebellious children, and in the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and so many others we see God speaking and acting, teaching and guiding.

Moses learned, albeit with many vacillations and detours, how to hear God's voice and obey God's word. In fact, Scripture witnesses that God spoke to Moses "face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Ex. 33:11). There was a sense of intimate relationship, of communion. As a people, however, the Israelites were not prepared for such intimacy. Once they learned a little about God, they realized that being in his presence was dangerous business and told Moses so: "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die" (Ex. 20:19).

This marked the beginning of the great line of prophets and judges, Moses being the first. But it was a step away from the sense of God's immediacy, the sense of the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Then, under Samuel, the people clamored for a king. This disturbed Samuel greatly, but God told him not to be discouraged, for "it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king" (1 Sam. 8:7). Under Moses they rejected God's immediacy; under Samuel they rejected God's direct rule. "Give us a prophet, give us a king, give us a go-between so we do not have to come into God's presence for ourselves," they said.

Still, in the fullness of time Jesus came and taught the present reality of the kingdom of God and demonstrated what life could be like in this kingdom. Jesus showed us God's yearning for the gathering of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at its heart, as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant. Jesus established a living fellowship that would know him as Redeemer and King, listening to him in all things and obeying him at all times.

Jesus in his intimate relationship with the Father modeled for us the reality of this life of constantly hearing and obeying. "[T]he Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does" (John 5:19). "By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear" (John 5:30). "The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work" (John 14:10). When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, they could understand what he meant, for he was abiding in the Father. Jesus declared (and continues to declare to us today) that he is the good Shepherd and that his sheep know his voice (John 10:4). He made it clear that the Comforter would come, the Spirit of truth who would guide his people into all truth (John 16:13).

In his second volume (Acts), Luke clearly implies that after the Resurrection and Ascension Jesus continues "to do and to teach," even though the people can no longer see him with the naked eye (Acts 1:1). Both Peter and Stephen point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15 that a prophet like Moses would arise who would speak and whom the people would hear and obey (Acts 3:22; 7:37. See also Deut. 18:15-18; Matt. 17:5; John 1:21; 4:19-25; 6:14; 7:37-40; Heb. 1:1-13; 3:7-8; 12:25).

In the Book of Acts we see the resurrected and reigning Christ, through the Holy Spirit, teaching and guiding his children: leading Philip to new unreached cultures (Acts 8), revealing his messiahship to Paul (Acts 9), teaching Peter about his racial prejudices (Acts 10), guiding the believing fellowship out of its cultural captivity (Acts 15).

And the wonderful news is that Jesus has not stopped acting and speaking. He is resurrected and at work in our world. He is not idle. He is alive and among us as our Prophet to teach us, our Priest to forgive us, our King to rule us, our Shepherd to guide us, our Friend to come alongside us.

Two Enriching Words

Two Hebrew words deeply inform and enrich our understanding of meditative prayer: haga and si'ach. Our English Bibles most often translate both of these words with the simple word "meditate." Actually these two Hebrew words convey a host of nuances: to mutter, to moan, to whisper, to reflect, to rehearse, to muse, and even to coo like the dove (Isa. 59:11).

Often the emphasis of these words is on silent reflection upon God's works in nature (Ps. 143:5; 145:5) or God's Word (Ps. 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78, 148). At other times it involves audible murmuring, especially when the object of our meditation is Torah, or the Law of God: "Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it." (Josh. 1:8).

This passage from Joshua underscores a central element of the biblical view of meditation: obedience. This is in marked contrast to the various forms of meditation in many religions around the world. The biblical stress is always on ethical change, character transformation, obedience to the Word of the Lord.

Philosopher Ken Bryson of Nova Scotia observes, "Old Testament meditation moves through silence to dwell on a spirituality of words, namely, the precepts, statutes, words, and commandments of the Torah." So in the biblical witness, we have this dual nature of meditation: stillness and action. This is why I constantly seek to define Christian meditation in terms of "hearing and obeying." Always this double emphasis. On the one hand we are called to silence, to stillness, to quieting "creaturely activity," as the old writers often put it. On the other hand we are called to action, to right behavior, to obedience to the will and ways of God.

Hearing and obeying. Always hearing and obeying.

Beyond Earthquake, Wind, and Fire

Elijah and his shattering experience in the cave at Mount Horeb might become for us something of a paradigm for meditation. A metaphor for listening prayer, if you will. You may remember the story recorded for us in 1 Kings 18 and 19. How Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. How Jezebel sought to kill him. How Elijah ran for his life. How, exhausted and frozen with fear, Elijah asked for death under the broom tree: "I have had enough, Lord, … take my life" (1 Kings 19:4). How the angel of the Lord touched Elijah and gave him a hearty breakfast … twice. How on the strength of those meals he journeyed forty days and forty nights until at last he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And how he entered a cave and spent the night there … desolate, lonely, defeated.

You know, sometimes the pressures of my own life crowd in and I want to cry out, "Move over, Elijah. Let me crawl into your cave with you." Perhaps you too have known times of discouragement and depression and have wanted to join Elijah in his cave. Mount Horeb's cave is a place of despair, desolation, and dejection.

But now we will see why Elijah's story on Mount Horeb is a metaphor for meditative prayer. God coaxes Elijah out of his cave of depression and onto the mountaintop: "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by" (1 Kings 19:11). Those words, "the Lord is about to pass by," call to mind another mountain—Sinai—where in dramatic fashion God met with Moses and gave him what we today call the Ten Commandments. We remember the story well, of course … and so did Elijah. The burning bush. The tablets of stone cut by the finger of God. The fangs of lightning. Boulders split apart. Trees reduced to embers. Roaring winds and deafening thunder rolling out across the canyons.

Then we remember—and so did Elijah—how Moses hid in the cleft of the rock as the Lord God, the Almighty, passed by in a heart-stopping display of divine glory. And now, here on Mount Horeb, God is about to pass by Elijah. On Sinai, God's presence came forth in a massive display of natural phenomena. On Horeb there were also ferocious winds, shattering earthquakes, and scorching fires, but God was not in any of those things. This must have been a shock to Elijah. Nothing of God was in the earthquake, wind, or fire. It was only after all of nature's fireworks passed away and there was perfect stillness that God came to Elijah in a still small Voice, in the divine Whisper, in "a sound of sheer silence" (1 Kings 19:12 NRS). The Lord speaks to Elijah not in the ferociousness of nature but in silence, in "the soft whisper of a voice" (1 Kings 19:12 TEV).

On the mountaintop, Elijah stands in utter humility before God. His humility flows from the desperation seen in his terror of Jezebel and his own desire to die. And it is in that humility of heart that Elijah heard the word of the Lord. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote:

Breathe through the heat of our desire Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm.

Oh, may we in quiet humility adopt the heart of Elijah. May we with humility of heart heed the counsel of the psalmist: "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him" (Ps. 37:7).

You may remember that Elijah stood upon yet another mountain of God: the mountain of the transfiguration. There he stood alongside Moses—together representing the law and the prophets. There on that mountain they saw Jesus, the Christ, transfigured: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (Matt. 17:2). There on that mountain Elijah and Moses carried on an intimate conversation with Jesus, experiencing the fulfillment of all they had longed for, dreamed for, worked for (Matt. 17:3). What a conversation that must have been!

The Story Continues On

Since that moment, for two millennia faithful disciples of Jesus have witnessed to the reality of a with-God life, the reality of "our communicating Cosmos." How unfortunate that we today know so little of the vast sea of literature on Christian meditation by faithful believers throughout the centuries! From Catholic to Protestant, from Eastern Orthodox to Western Free Church, we are urged to "live in his presence in uninterrupted fellowship." The Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse said, "To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you." The 20-century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when asked why he meditated, replied, "Because I am a Christian."

The witness of Scripture and the witness of the devotional masters both invite us to experience, in the words of Madame Guyon, "the depths of Jesus Christ."

Adapted from Sanctuary of the Soul, by Richard J. Foster, chapter 1, copyright(c) 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press; PO Box 1400; Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

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