What Is Biblical Meditation?

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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."

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