Category Archives: Devotions

The Lost Art of Biblical Meditation

 

Meditation in modern society has come to mean many things to many people, most common of which is a mystical practice rooted in a belief that emptying one’s mind of all thoughts will lead you into a higher, albeit relaxed, state of being.  Typically referred to as transcendental meditation[1], this unbiblical practice has been somewhat revitalized recently through various movements, not the least of which has been a resurgence of yoga practices and similar Buddhist-like activities, as well as by means of professing Christian movements such as the emerging/emergent church[2].

In contrast to this popular, pagan form of meditation, the biblical practice of meditation remains a lacking discipline in the lives of many followers of Christ.  Likewise, instructive teaching on it from either the pulpit or the pen remains deficient.  Ignorant to its proper meaning and spiritual benefits, we’ve shuffled meditation to the side treating it as a mystical stepchild to Christianity when the very practice is and has always been rooted in a desire to commune with God, better understand His Word, and reflect deeply upon it, ultimately leading to praise of God for His majesty and glory.

A brief survey of the biblical landscape finds a robust theme of meditation, explicitly among the Psalms but also as first observed in the patriarch Jacob, then in a command given to Joshua, and among Paul’s epistles, particularly in the instructions to young Timothy.  Additionally, other words and phrases are used to express the concept such as “think on these things” and “set you mind on” among others.  Basically, when we encounter passages of Scripture that call us to contemplate the things of God, it is generally a call to meditation.

With those biblical examples before us, let us then turn our attention toward further defining this much neglected practice.  What exactly is it? How is it performed?  Why should we meditate?  Upon what should we draw our meditative attention?  When and how often?

While it certainly would be possible to glean the answers to these questions by consolidating those verses and instances of meditation mentioned above, some of these questions and others are addressed and answered through the pen of Puritan Thomas Watson in an incredibly challenging work on the art of meditation, The Christian on the Mount.  In that treatise, Watson instructs us on the discipline of meditation by first defining it as a Christian duty.  All too often, duty has become a 4-letter word in modern Christian vernacular, perhaps one of the reasons for the neglect of this important practice.

Watson sees meditation as the “chewing upon the truths we have heard”[3] or read and that “meditation is like the watering of the seed, it makes the fruits of grace to flourish.”[4]  Going further in his definition we read that, “meditation is the soul’s retiring of itself, that by a serious and solemn thinking upon God, the heart may be raised up to heavenly affections”[5] and should be performed by way of locking up oneself from the world, which “spoils meditation” and rightly Watson rightly concludes that the “world’s music will either play us asleep or distract us in our meditations.”[6]

Using Scripture as our map and Watson as our tour guide we find that meditation is different than simply reading or studying, “study is a work of the brain; meditation is a work of the heart.”[7]  The argument could be made that a progression among these terms exists for the benefit a true gain or fruit from time spent in the Word.  First, the practice of reading followed by study then giving one’s thoughts over to the passage via meditation before settling on a practical application, which could be a new truth gleaned or wisdom for the day.

Watson then draws our attention to 15 objects for our meditations beginning with the attributes of God and concluding with meditation upon our experiences wherein we may have observed the hand of God working which may benefit us by 1) raising us to thankfulness 2) engaging our hearts to God in obedience 3) convincing us that God is no hard master 4) making us communicative to others.[8]

Summarizing our description of meditation we may conclude that it is the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  It is the difference between knowing the truths of God’s Word and loving the truths of God’s Word.  It is the difference between a sick man noticing medicine on the shelf and that same man ingesting said medicine for a cure.  Like the transcendence of the sun apart from the immanency of its rays, so too is God’s Word when read or heard apart from the practice of divine meditation.  Quite simply, failure in this duty is akin to experiencing light from a fire without heat.  The path from the mind to the heart is paved with the gold of meditation.  Why then are so few Christians engaging in this practice?

To answer this question bluntly, Watson sees a connection between the failure to practice meditation and the reason why there are “so few good Christians.”[9]  Notice how relevant his nearly four hundred year old words are to today, “It [the practice of meditation] gives us a true account why there are so few good Christians in the world; namely, because there are so few meditating Christians: we have many that have Bible ears, they are swift to hear, but slow to meditate.  This duty is grown almost out of fashion, people are so much in the shop, that they are seldom on the Mount with God….so many who go under the name of professors, have banished good discourse from their tables, and meditation from their closets.”[10]

We conclude our holding of Watson’s hand with his offer of several pieces of practical advice from his own experiences in order to introduce us to the practice of meditation, including the best time of day, he prefers morning, the duration, he suggests at least 30 minutes, and the types (occasional: on any sudden occasion; deliberate: which he sees as chief, some set time each day) among additional helpful guidance through this practice.

So then is meditation necessary in the life of a believer?  Let us allow Watson the final word on the matter, “The necessity of meditation appears in this, because without it we can never be good Christians; a Christian without meditation is like a soldier without arms, or a workman without tools.  1. Without meditation the truths of God will not stay with us; the heart is hard, and the memory slippery, and without meditation all is lost; meditation imprints and fastens a truth in the mind, it is like the selvedge[11] which keeps the cloth from raveling.  2. Without meditation the truths which we know will never affect our hearts.”[12]

 

 

[1] From Google: “a technique for detaching oneself from anxiety and promoting harmony and self-realization by meditation, repetition of a mantra, and other yogic practices, promulgated by an international organization founded by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ( circa 1911–2008)

Sometimes referred to as contemplative monastic meditation or centering prayer.

[2] Emerging Church

[3] Thomas Watson A Christian on the Mount. Google Digitized version, p. 198.

[4] Watson, 198.

[5] Ibid, 199.

[6] Ibid, 199.

[7] Ibid, 203.

[8] Ibid, 237.

[9] Ibid, 240.

[10] Ibid, 240-241.

[11] An edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unraveling – wiki

[12] Watson, 239.

A Hedge of Protection

 

The phrase “hedge of protection” is one of those sayings that can be classified as “Christianese”, or the language of specific words or phrases given Christian meaning and used in Christian circles.  It’s a phrase you’re likely to hear when someone is praying, “Put a hedge of protection around so and so”.  It may be more commonly heard from charismatic churches or backgrounds and it is typically employed in the context of spiritual warfare.  I suppose their biblical basis for this saying may be drawn from Job 1:10 where in that context Satan proposes that Job is untouchable because God has placed a “hedge of protection” around him.  So it’s not to say that this is an unbiblical or bad saying, even though its overused and probably abused.  However, what if there was another way to think of a hedge of protection.  Not one so much focused on protection from Satan, as with Job, but one erected by God to protect us from ourselves.

Generally speaking a hedge acts as a barrier to either mark a boundary or as an added layer of protection.  Used in this way it typically serves to keep what’s on the outside of the hedge, outside.  Rarely is it considered to keep what’s on the inside, inside.  But that is exactly how God uses this term through the prophetic message of Hosea.

“Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths.” Hosea 2:6

In the passage above, God is outlining His pending judgment on the Northern Kingdom of Israel by way of analogy with the relationship between Hosea and his wife of whoredom, Gomer.  As the threats of desolation unfold, we see God’s promise to “hedge up her way with thorns” with application, by way of the developing analogy, to Israel.  Verse 7 makes an important addition and clarification, “She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them.”

Here we see that the hedge of protection is not like the hedge that we hear so often in prayers or even the one referenced above from Job.  Instead, this hedge is for the purpose of keeping Israel from her lovers, namely the idolatrous relationships that she has so wantonly pursued and the syncretistic manner in which she has co-opted the religion handed down by God.  Thinking of it in this way, the hedge is not for the purpose of defending Israel from threats from the outside, but for defending Israel from threats from the inside and preventing her from acting on the adulteries of the heart.

Israel’s plight is not isolated to the 8th Century B.C.  If, like Calvin has said, our hearts are idol factories then we are in far greater need of a hedge to protect us from acting on these sinful desires.  Perhaps our tendency is to see ourselves too often as Job, the righteous sufferer in need of a hedge of protection from Satan and not more accurately as wanton Israel in need of a hedge of protection from the idolatries of our hearts.  Perhaps our prayers should reflect the recognition of this enemy within more often than to assume our greatest threat is from the outside.

Oh how in need we are of Almighty God to hedge us in from acting on our sinful desires, preventing us from conceiving with them to bring forth sin.  John Owen captures the intentions of sin and expresses well our need to be hedged in,

“sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, if it has its own way it will go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could, every thought of unbelief would be atheism if allowed to develop. Every rise of lust, if it has its way reaches the height of villainy; it is like the grave that is never satisfied. The deceitfulness of sin is seen in that it is modest in its first proposals but when it prevails it hardens men’s hearts, and brings them to ruin.”

Additionally, may we note that as God hedges against acting on unholy desires, He also redirects those desires towards Himself.  The second half of Hoses 2:7 reflects this well, “Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’”  As a result of the hedge, Israel would be unable to pursue her lovers and would consequently turn back to her Husband.  In the midst of judgment they would find mercy.

May this be the case with us; that our hearts would be kept from idols and our desires redirected to all-satisfying Savior.

May our hearts sing with the Psalmist, “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins” Ps. 19:13a

May sin not have its own way in us.

And may God’s restraining hand act always as a hedge of protection against the idolatrous desires of our hearts.

A Great Light

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9:2

The Scripture’s great contrast between light and darkness is here on display through the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning, in the near, hope in the midst of the Assyrian invasion, yet in the far, a future greater in hope found in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, which like so much of Old Testament prophecy looks toward the future and sees an amalgamation of events (often called prophetic perspective) this prophecy is set in the midst of the coming judgment on Israel as God-ordained punishment for their apostasy from God. The darkness expresses the hopelessness of the current situation, yet the language of Isaiah, “…have seen a great light” is that of the prophetic perfect, used to express the surety of a future event as though it has already happened. Commenting on this passage Calvin writes,

“He speaks of future events in the past tense, and thus brings them before the immediate view of the people, that in the destruction of the city, in their captivity, and in what appeared to be their utter destruction, they may behold the light of God. It may therefore be summed up in this manner: “Even in darkness, nay, in death itself, there is nevertheless good ground of hope; for the power of God is sufficient to restore life to his people, when they appear to be already dead.”[1]

Certainly, a restoration from the hands of Israel’s captors is in view, yet we must not limit our understanding of this prophecy to the events surrounding Israel and Assyria, particularly since this passage is referenced elsewhere.

Written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Gospel of Matthew 4:15-16 cites this passage from Isaiah 9 in the context of Jesus beginning His earthly ministry

“12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:12-17

This further illumination by the Spirit of God, the Divine Author of Scripture, aids in our understanding of the fullness or fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah, namely that found in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the great light that offers hope in the midst of a darkened world. Turning again to Calvin we read,

“If, therefore, we wish to ascertain the true meaning of this passage, we must bring to our recollection what has been already stated, that the Prophet, when he speaks of bringing back the people from Babylon, does not look to a single age, but includes all the rest, till Christ came and brought the most complete deliverance to his people. The deliverance from Babylon was but a prelude to the restoration of the Church, and was intended to last, not for a few years only, but till Christ should come and bring true salvation, not only to their bodies, but likewise to their souls.”[2]

Christ Himself makes this connection in John 8:12 when He states,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

In John’s Gospel, this statement is buttressed with the truths about Christ being the Light from chapter 1, verses4-5, 9 and chapter 3:19-21. Our Lord’s declaration that He is light has profound biblical meaning. Primarily, it asserts His deity bringing to mind such Old Testament declarations such as Exodus 13:21, where the pillar of fire led the way for the Israelites in the wilderness; Psalm 27:1 “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear”; Micah 7:8; Isaiah 60:20; as well as 1 John 1:5. The declaration of light is a declaration of purity and holiness, in which there is no shadow or defect (James 1:17).  Additionally, several Old Testament passages assert that God’s Word is light (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 6:23) adding to the profundity of John 1:1.

Secondarily, by stating He is light, Christ assumes the role that God had intended for Israel to occupy as a city on a hill whose light was to shine forth to the world, yet because of their disobedience failed to properly fulfill the mission of God. Therefore, God has appointed His True Servant Israel, His Son, to go forth as a light unto the nations bringing salvation to the ends of the world. Isaiah 42:6; 49:6

This advent season, may our eyes be drawn to the Light of the world. May we realize that He alone can shine forth in a world of darkness. This Light alone possesses the light of life. Walking in spiritual darkness, dead in our trespasses and sins is a hopeless and dire situation that leaves us under the wrath of God and destined for the experience of His everlasting judgment. May we look toward the light, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and see Him as our only hope. Surety in a world of darkness and a beacon for all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

 

 

[1] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. VII Isaiah 1-32, Baker 2005, pg. 298.

[2] Calvin, pg. 299