by Robby Gallaty.
As unbelievable as it sounds, ultra-Orthodox Jews committed the entire Babylonian Talmud—all 5,422 pages of it—to memory.
You read that right. If you stuck a pin into any of its sixty-three sections, they could recite every word on the page. These feats of memory are harder to come by today, but in the first century, memorization was critical. The only way to store and transmit information was to meticulously copy it by hand, so people had to be able to quickly commit things to memory if they wanted to keep it around.
Sadly, in most churches, memorizing verses of the Bible is a task reserved for the children. Once a child moves into “big church,” the discipline of Scripture memorization is usually abandoned. It is difficult to persuade most church members to read the Bible on a daily basis, much less memorize portions of it. Some people may have a few verses memorized here and there, but few and far between are those who have entire sections of Scripture ready to be recalled.
But for those of us who desire to be fully-devoted followers of Christ, we take Scriptural exhortations like Colossians 3:16, “let the word of Christ dwell richly among you,” seriously.
Memorization Leads to Meditation
The ancient Jewish people had very good memories, but they also had good methods for making memorization easier. We can actually see it in Scripture. Look at God’s instructions to his people through Joshua:
This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to meditate on it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do (Joshua 1:8).
It turns out that the secret to making God’s Word dwell inside of you is to meditate on it, or recite it, day and night. When you hear “recite,” you may think of giving a formal recital or a class assignment in which you need to memorize a poem or passage from a book and deliver it in front of your peers. That’s not at all what “recite” means here.
When ancient Jews recited Scripture to themselves, it was more like murmuring. It’s a word that’s related to “mutter,” “ponder,” or “study.” The image that should come to mind is someone walking down the street not exactly talking to someone, but uttering something under his breath. But in this case, it’s not just someone talking at random.
When a cow eats, it swallows and the food goes into the first compartment in the stomach. After a little bit, the food comes back up to its mouth, where it chews it some more and swallows it again, just for it to go to a different part of its stomach. A cow does this several times in a complete digestive cycle so that it can get the most out of the nutrients in the food.
This is what happens when someone murmurs, recites, or meditates on the Word of God. You wake up and take in the Word through reading. Then, throughout the day, you keep bringing up what you read earlier and “chewing” on it so that you can fully digest what God’s Word is telling you.
Memorization Fights Temptation
In Psalm 119:11, David wrote something simple that has incredibly profound effects on us.
I have treasured your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.
David says that keeping God’s Word inside of him so that it takes root in his heart will do something crucial: it will provide a measure of stability in his life to keep him from sinning.
Now, of course, David didn’t stop sinning altogether—nobody in history but Jesus has lived a life without sin—but the principle David teaches here is important: being focused on the Word of God will keep the commandments of God close to your heart, leaving less room for the multitude of ways sin and temptation try to squeeze in.
How Should I Memorize?
First, part of what helps immensely in memorizing Scripture is having a trusted Bible translation to rely on. The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is a great translation that captures the Bible’s original meaning faithfully without compromising clarity. This proves to be extremely helpful for me as I memorize Scripture. You will find it, as I have, easy to read and to meditate on the richness of the original languages without being fluent in Greek and Hebrew.
When committing the Word of God to memory, there are a variety of ways that can help you. Whatever the method, there are two things behind the “how” of memorization: discipline and review. Some find it easy to use flash cards, some download memorization apps on their phone, some use journals—whatever best helps you to meditate on or recite Scripture throughout the day.