Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. – Joshua 1:6-8 ESV
Joshua 1:8, every Sunday school kid worth his salt knows this verse. One of the most readily proffered interpretations is that you have to think about God and his word all the time. In some circles meditation is thought of as the means to deeper truths of God’s word. It is a means to gain a deeper understanding of God’s word. Perhaps, what makes Joshua 1:8 so attractive, is the promise of prosperity as a consequence of obedience.
In context God was speaking to Joshua commanding and encouraging him to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. God had given them a law so that he could dwell among his people. They could not enter the land without God being among them. The Law therefore was very vital for them to inherit the Promised Land. The law ratified the covenant God had made with Abraham with the then current generation. Their prosperity according to the covenant really did depend on their obedience. The point God was making however was hardly knew. Moses in Deuteronomy reiterated the finer points of the Law.
You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:18-21 ESV
God instituted many “memorials” among his people, from his very name YHWH, the Passover and to the stones of witness at Gerizim when they crossed the Jordan. It wasn’t just a history lesson that God wanted to remind his people of. They were important markers in his relationship with his people which was meant to speak to them for generations. They were lessons God wanted transmitted from father to son and from mother to daughter. The same way we celebrate birthdays and anniversary God used these things to commemorate his faithfulness to his people and remind them of their obligation to be faithful to him. These memorials kept the covenant in view. The Law of God given through Moses is itself a memorial, perhaps the most important. That is why Moses wanted the people to literally surround themselves with the word of God every moment. They were to sleep and wakeup with it, wear it, exit and enter their homes with it, talk about it on the streets. The word of God could be seen everywhere. I am just imagining what it would be like to live in a community where the graffiti was true word-art. I have read that the Egyptians used to bind written charms and spells in a similar manner to how Moses instructed the people of Israel to treat the commandments. Similar things even happen today. The protection and prosperity of the people of Israel was the word of the Lord. Truly, as Balaam said, there is no enchantment or divination against Israel (Deuteronomy 23:23.)
We set reminders on our phones and tell people to remind us of things because there are certain things we do not want to forget. Similarly God did not want his people to forget his word so he went the extra mile so to speak. Forgetting the word of God is a biblical metaphor for disobedience. To remember the word of God is to obey it. There are certain things you cannot do if you are unconscious of it or you simply ignore.
The Hebrew word translated “meditate” has a verbal dimension. It means to mutter. It is not quiet philosophical contemplation. God through Moses had told Israel to speak the word of God. He also says to Joshua that he should also meditate, that is ponderously mutter the word of God. This for me evokes the image of students trying to remember something by constant recitation. The essential purpose of meditation is not to give you a deeper understanding of God’s word even though that certainly can happen. The instructions to write it everywhere and constantly recite it were given because he didn’t want them to forget it. God wanted the memorial of his word set up in their minds. God’s word had to be literally unforgettable, their meat and drink for each day.
Repetition is itself a well-documented learning tool. Sometimes there is a popular song which you don’t like but is played constantly everywhere. After a while you will unintentionally learn the lyrics and you might even like the song! In The Worship of Study I said it is our duty to study the word of God. Our sacred duty of studying cannot begin if we do not actually know thoroughly the scriptures. I have observed that most Christians are incapable of quoting a full passage of Scripture save Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. Our inability to do contextual Bible studies is because we simply do not know the text. The number of misconceptions and misapplications of the Bible that could be resolved by reading beyond sectioned off verses and chapters would be immense. The ancient community of people to whom the oracles of God were given were not so selective.
Jewish boys in the first century formally started learning the written Torah at the age of five. At thirteen they could at least recite an entire book verbatim. The rigorous study of the Word of God was deeply ingrained in their culture. A cultural analogue that is perhaps more accessible to us are the Islamic schools where children learn to recite the Quran. Sadly in Christianity I don’t know of any church or denomination that approaches the word of God with a fraction of that vigour. I am not saying we should replicate first century Biblical methods today. The modern formal school system is demanding as it is. What I am advocating is that Churches and Christian homes need to take far more seriously the memorization of Scripture especially from childhood. It’s a sad thing to witness a Muslim who is better at quoting the Bible than a believer.
We do not really need to be impressed by that brother or sister who seems to know every passage and leaves you looking like you’ve never cracked open a bible before. Memorizing the scriptures is a good habit that is part and parcel of responsible handling of the Bible. Sometimes I think the correct attitude is shame not nonchalance at our ignorance.
Paul called the Scriptures sacred. This means our attitude to the word of God itself must be thoroughly consecrated. People always want “practical” preachers and generally shun the less exciting Biblical expositors. How can you practically live out the word of God when you don’t even know what it says?
The first Psalms opens with a benediction to those who meditate on the Law of God. This Psalm indeed set’s up our reading and understanding the Biblical hymn book. In it God’s word is regularly referenced and recounted in the Psalms. In fact, the very story of Israel, was found in the Scriptures. It was their reference point for their national identity. When you look at Acts when they preached they often traced their history in the Scriptures as the sermon. I believe the Gospel tradition found in the Scriptures is the touchstone for our identity as the Church. We need far more than a cursory knowledge of it.
Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name – Malachi 3:16 ESV
This is quite a curious passage since it talks about a “Book of Remembrance” written for those who talked about God. The Book of Malachi address the covenant of the Levitical priesthood which invariably means talking about the Law of Moses. If we remember what I said earlier about the meaning of meditation in the scriptures the God-fearing speaking among themselves harks back to the instruction of Moses for them to speak the law among themselves. These people God was referring to were those who kept the Law, that is, they remembered God and kept his commandments. Reading the verse in context will make it clear. God or his people remembering something did not mean the people or far less God himself had previously found it difficult recalling certain facts. Remembrance is important covenantal language in the Scriptures. It means faithfulness to the terms of the covenant. God remembered those who remembered him. He was going to show his faithfulness to those who had trusted in him.
The believer in Jesus is also part of the New Covenant people of God. Paul told Timothy,
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress – 1 Timothy 4:13-15 ESV
Our progress as the people of God is intimately tied to our fidelity to God’s word.
All the physical memorials and institutions that God gave his people could all be taken away and in 70 CE they virtually lost everything. God had repeatedly stressed on reciting and learning the Law because he wanted to setup an everlasting memorial in their minds that could never be taken away from them. Remembering God’s word is not a Bible Geek fad. God wants us to honour him daily with the sacred memorial of his word to us firmly enshrined in our hearts.