The word meditation may conjure up all kinds of “woo woo” mental images, of soft sitar music and murmured chants and being told to “use your inner eye to look inside yourself” while candles and incense burn. In other words, something we as Christians want nothing to do with. This kind of New Age meditation has nothing to do with the bible, but the bible has much to say about meditation and its critical role in Christ’s disciples’ lives.
Of the four main spiritual “tools” we have for growing closer to God and becoming more like Him—prayer, bible study, fasting, and meditation—biblical meditation may be the least understood. However, it’s the element that ties the other three together and makes them truly productive, so it’s paramount that we gain a better understanding of how we should be using it in our daily lives.
Meditation in the bible
The largest concentration of “meditation/meditate” in the bible is in Psalms, and that book gives us a huge amount of insight into the concept of meditation. Interestingly, the actual word isn’t used much in the New Testament at all, but the concept is still there (we’ll get to that a little later).
The Hebrew word used the most for “meditate” is hagah, which means to murmur (in pleasure or anger), to ponder, imagine, mourn, mutter, roar, speak, study, talk, or utter. While it’s translated as “meditate” in many places, it is also translated as talk, utter, speak, imagine, and study in other places (particularly Proverbs), as well as mourn, mutter, and roar in the Prophets. Clearly it’s a fairly broad word. A couple related words, higgayon and haguth, are also used—these have a similar meaning (meditation, murmuring, solemn sound).
Here are some major places hagah is used, to get a feel for context:
- Josh.1:8 – “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe 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.”
- Ps. 1:1-2 – “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night”
- Ps. 63:6 – “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches”
- Ps. 71:24 – “My tongue also shall talk of Your righteousness all the day long”
- Ps. 19:14 – “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight”
- Ps. 49:3 – “My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall give understanding”
The other word used most for “meditate” is siyach, which means to ponder, converse with oneself, utter, complain, meditate, muse, or pray. It’s actually almost never translated “meditate”—in the 20 times it’s used, it’s only translated that way in several of the Psalms. It is very similar to hagah in meaning and use. Here are a few examples:
- Ps. 119:15 – “I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways”
- Ps. 119:48 – “My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on Your statutes”
- Ps. 119:97, 99 – “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day…I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation”
In fact, hagah and siyach are used in the same verse and used somewhat interchangeably in a number of the Psalms.
- Ps. 77:12 – “I will also meditate (hagah) on all Your word, and talk (siyach) of Your deeds”
- Ps. 143:5 – “I remember the days of old; I meditate (hagah) on all Your works; I muse (siyach) on the work of Your hands”
It’s interesting to note two things from context and usage:
- Neither of these words indicates a solely positive or peaceful experience, but simply the process of contemplating or mentally processing. Meditate (or one of the other iterations of hagah or siyach) is used several times in Isaiah and Jeremiah, translated as mourn, roar, mutter, or even “your heart will meditate on terror”, among others (Is. 33:18, Is. 59:13, Is. 53:8).
- When the word “meditate” is used as a verb, it always has an object—something that is meditated ON. It’s not a vague concept of meditation, it is meditating on God’s word or laws or ways or fill in the blank. It is active.
So, based on that, what is biblical meditation—and what is it not?
Meditation bridges the gap between instruction and application. It is the key to productive bible study. It is the depth many of us are missing in our prayer and fasting. It helps us take what we’ve read and figure out what it means for us, how to apply it in our lives today.
God’s word is an instruction manual—it’s full of some concrete do’s and don’ts but also lots of historical events, just plain weird stories, cryptic examples, prophecies, strangely specific commands, and allegory. Yes, sometimes God is very clear about what He wants, but in many cases He gives us the pieces and we have to put together the puzzle (without the box picture to work from). “Oh, how I love Your law!” says David, “It is my meditation all the day…I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:97, 99). Earlier in the book he says, “My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall give understanding” (Ps. 49:3). Meditating on—mulling over, thinking about, wondering about—God’s word helps us gain greater understanding of His ways and what He wants from us.
It’s important to note that meditation is not necessarily a silent undertaking (go back and read through the meanings of hagah and siyach). Both the meaning of the words and how they’re translated in various places and translations indicate that meditation often includes muttering or talking to ourselves or to God, musing out loud, even discussing with others. Our brains are wired to gain deeper understanding of concepts and work through problems by talking through them out loud, or writing things down. If we try to keep everything completely in our minds and silent, we will struggle more with focus, purpose, retention, clarity, and really getting the most out of meditation.
David tells us many times throughout the Psalms that he sat and thought about God’s commands, pondered His promises and actions, mused on His intents for man, talked about His law. They were a part of his day from when he woke up until when he was lying in his bed at night trying to sleep. Why was he so focused on this? To put it simply—God wants our thoughts to be in line with His thoughts, so that our actions will be in line with His actions.
One of the most important aspects of meditation is that it should be mindful. It is not emptying our minds, as the pagan mystical religions would have us do. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the natural human mind is enmity—hatred, think of how two magnets repel each other—to God (Rom. 8:7). If you leave your mind open, something will fill it but it will almost certainly not be God. Biblical meditation is about emptying the mind of ourselves and our natural thoughts, and then filling it with God. In Isaiah, God tells us, “’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Is. 55:8-9). Meditation is about consciously choosing to think about something, a process Paul says entails “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10:5).
David gave additional insight into this process when he prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight” (Ps. 19:14). This imparts two principles—that what we meditate on in our minds and what comes out of our mouths are linked (Matt. 12:34, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”), and that there is an unacceptable kind of meditation (we’ll come back to this in a minute).
Say you sit down and read the bible for half an hour. You read through a few passages, then close the bible and go on with your day. What good has that bible study done you or your relationship with God? Did it affect the quality of your day and your interactions with others? Or was it gone the minute you closed your bible, a box ticked off on your to-do list for the day? Meditation is taking that passage we read, that message we heard, that conversation with brethren we had last week, and rolling it around in our minds. Coming back to it, giving it a little poke, picking up a thread and pulling a little to see what comes out. It is actively ruminating on what a particular bible passage means, what other passages it relates to, and what God intends for us to do with it. Ultimately, it should produce action in us. In Joshua we’re told, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe 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” (Josh. 1:8). The endgame is obeying God’s commandments, growing in godly character, and succeeding in our calling.
Psalm 77, a psalm of Asaph, gives us a fascinating glimpse into his personal meditation and the journey his ruminations took him on. It’s a good example of the questions our minds ask, the things we should think on, and what our ultimate conclusions should be:
“I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times. I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search. Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He be favorable no more? Has His mercy ceased forever? Has His promise failed forevermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah [pause and reflect]. As I said, ‘This is my anguish; But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old, and I will also meditate on all Your work, and talk of Your deeds” (Ps. 77:5-12)
While meditation should be purposeful and active, it isn’t necessarily always intentionally linear. There is a time for unstructured meditation, allowing the mind to wander within a topic, letting the brain make connections and problem solve. It is not daydreaming, however. We have to keep the mind on a tether, keep it on track to a certain extent. These days our brains are trained to channel surf—jump from thought to unrelated thought—rather than work through something from start to finish. Every Sabbath I go on a long hike and listen to a sermon. The walk is a good way to keep my mind fairly focused without distractions of phone and computer. Often I find my mind digressing off from the sermon onto a different train of thought, maybe thinking about how a statement in the sermon connects to a different study I’m doing. I usually find this valuable, as it helps me mine connections and clarify thoughts. But sometimes my mind goes off on all kinds of tangents without warning, like an upcoming trip, a problem I had with a co-worker, or what I need to pick up at the grocery store. Much of the time I don’t even realize it’s happened for a while and I have to struggle to bring my mind back onto the topic at hand—those things are not productive or worthwhile during meditation time.
As mentioned above, not all meditation is created equal, and there are definitely “meditations of the heart” that God deems unacceptable. One kind of counterproductive meditation that I’m an expert at is thinking about something (a situation, a relationship, etc.) and just worrying over it, feeling more anxious, maybe replaying how a conversation went and getting angrier each time. This type of meditation is like the sore tooth that you can’t help continuously poking at with your tongue, which only aggravates the problem. When we let our thoughts go down this path for very long, we tend to try and rationalize our behavior or anger, and the outcome of the meditation leaves us worse off than when we started. I’m prone to letting myself get caught up in what I call the “downward spiral of anger”, where I think about something that happened (or even sometimes hypothetical scenarios) and what I should have said, how I could have responded, how what the other person said was so unfair. Ten minutes later I realize that nothing has been solved and I’m now in a terrible mood for the rest of the day. Allowing ourselves to wallow in this kind of thinking validates wrong values and priorities, and ultimately distracts us from thinking about God and letting Him work in our lives.
What are we supposed to meditate on?
Well, let’s go back to Psalms, where we started. In Psalms alone, we’re told that David meditated on God’s law, His righteousness, His word, His deeds and works, His precepts, His ways, His testimonies, and God Himself. If we stopped right there, we’d be in a pretty good place.
The main word translated as “meditate” in the New Testament is meletao (G3191), which means to revolve in the mind, imagine, or meditate. The main time it’s used, Paul is exhorting Timothy to be an example in conduct, love, spirit, faith, purity, giving attention to reading and doctrine, and cautioning him against neglecting the holy spirit. He tells Timothy to “meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all”—note again that meditation is expected to produce something in us (I Tim. 4:15).
While the word “meditate” isn’t widely used in most translations of the New Testament (particularly the KJV), the concept itself is. The word logizomai isn’t usually translated directly as meditation, but implies the same thing—to take an inventory, conclude, estimate, reckon, suppose, or think on. One of the most well-known uses of logizomai gives us a mission statement on meditation topics:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:6-8)
Between that verse and the Psalms verses, you can literally make a laundry list of meditation “do’s”. While it’s not exhaustive, it will keep you busy for quite a while. Keep the list at work, in your car, and on your couch so it’s always at-hand. When that negativity spiral starts, bring it to a halt and choose something off of the list to focus on instead. It seems like an oversimplification, but it’s a tangible action that can build a habit. Which brings us to how meditation fits into our lives in actuality, versus theory.
What does meditation mean in our day-to-day lives?
The goal of biblical meditation is to internalize and personalize the scripture so that the holy spirit can work in us to alter how we think (our attitudes) and how we live (our actions). God made clear to the Israelites that they were to meditate on all His commands and that it was to produce something in them, and Paul’s letter to Timothy concurs (Josh 1:8, I Tim. 4:15).
The objectives or outcomes of intentional meditation—directed thought toward God—can largely be grouped into the following:
- Motivation/encouragement/comfort, including problem solving
- Understanding/instruction/education in God’s way
- Reflection/worship, contemplating the greatness of God
- Change/transformation of our minds, hearts, lives
It’s important to hit all of these different areas over time. If we only spend our meditation time trying to work through our life problems and no time thinking about bible passages or what areas of our character or emotions we need to work on, we ultimately will never solve those problems (because we’re probably part of the problem).
The greatest enemy of meditation is busyness and noise. The world is doing its utmost to keep us moving and plugged in every single minute of the day, overstimulated from the minute we wake up until we exhaustedly crawl into bed. Daniel describes our age, saying, “Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall increase” (Dan. 12:4). The amount of information we’re bombarded with every day is astounding, and unfortunately the concept of doing nothing, of sitting or walking or driving somewhere in silence (no music playing, no TV on in the background), is seen as wasting time. In order to be successful in meditation, we have to cultivate a quietness of mind. As you meditate, try to figure out if you’re tuning in to God. Like a radio, we have to be on the same channel and frequency to pick up His signal.
We must set aside time for intentional meditation. It takes discipline, which is probably part of why it’s one of the most neglected aspects of following Christ (particularly among young people, who live at a faster, constantly plugged-in pace). It’s easy to download an app to give you a daily verse or spend a few minutes praying while lying in bed. Setting aside time to think, though, is more nebulous, and thereby more difficult. I struggle with nebulous—I like things more concrete—so below I’ve outlined some tangible actions that can help build a long-term habit of daily meditation. They’re so simple that I almost feel silly writing them down, but sometimes the most simple things can be the most transformative.
- Start small.
Like many other changes in life (losing weight, for instance), if you try to make a massive change like setting aside an entire hour of your day for meditation, there’s a good chance you’ll end up discouraged and give up altogether. Start with 10 minutes and then over time increase that by five-minute increments. Shoot for a half hour eventually, or an hour if you have the kind of schedule that allows it (everyone’s life is different).
- Schedule time.
You make time, you will never find it. Put it on your phone’s or computer’s calendar if you use one (I literally would never get anything done without mine), and set a reminder. Put a sticky note on your fridge or bathroom mirror if you’re at home all day. Purposefully carve 10 minutes out of your day and treat it like you would an appointment or meeting. Try to make it the same time or part of your day (i.e. when you get up, during lunchtime, when the kids go down for their nap, etc.) so that it becomes part of your routine. And when you begin your meditation, if you’re a compulsive watch/phone-checker, set an alarm and then put your clock somewhere you can’t see it—this isn’t about marking time.
- Location, location, location.
Because successful meditation relies on a quiet and focused mind, it’s important to pick the right time and place. We’re told that Isaac went out to meditate in the field in the evening, someplace quiet and away from distractions, where he was surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation (Gen. 24:63). As mentioned above, it is critical to withdraw from the confusion and noise of the world for a time. Go for a walk by yourself, find a comfy place to sit where you can be alone and maybe write down your thoughts, maybe even find an out-of-the-way conference room or sit in your car during lunch at work. If you drive long distances (not in traffic or cities, but open road), that’s a great time for sitting in silence with your thoughts.
- Have a purpose or plan of action going in.
Since meditation is directed thought about something, it’s important to begin with a topic or purpose in mind. Remember the scheduled meeting analogy—this is a recurring appointment you’ve set up with God, and you should come to it prepared and use the time productively. Every day will be a little different. Sometimes you have lots of things on your mind and it’s just a matter of picking one of them and focusing. Other days, if you’re lacking inspiration you may have to just choose a topic or passage from a running list (I highly recommend keeping a running list of questions and study topics). Here are some ideas and lines of inquiry/analysis to get the ball rolling:
- If you have a problem that’s weighing on your mind, meditation is a good time to analyze the situation and use God’s word and spirit to work through it. Lines of thought could include things like: How am I contributing to the problem, and how can I stop? What steps can I take to bring about reconciliation and mend the relationship? What is the ethical and godly decision to make? What does the bible say about this issue, and how can I apply that to this situation?
- Read a passage in the bible, then sit and then immediately spend time meditating on it. What does it say? What does it really mean? Why might God have included it in His word? Maybe paraphrase it in words you normally use to make it more real. Are there words used that I haven’t really thought about before? How do I apply this to my life? How does it connect to other scriptures I know? I’ve heard meditation described as working your way through the implications (i.e. what does it mean for me?) of what you already know the bible to say, which I thought was a good way to put it.
- Ask God in prayer to show you where you’re falling short, and then in your meditation time try and contemplate these areas without bias or justifications. How does this failing affect my life? Why am I doing (or not doing) this? What are actions I can take to overcome, with the help of God’s spirit, this problem?
In all of these examples, you should be asking God to guide your thoughts and give you understanding and wisdom. God tells Solomon that “the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you” (I Chron. 28:9). Some questions will be more productive than others, depending on the day. The important part is that your mind is totally focused on God, His words, His intents, His commands, and how these apply to your life. As you can see from the examples, the meditation involves musing, mulling over questions, analyzing, and then also taking action.
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15)
Unintentional meditation—the content of our minds
It’s clear from how “meditate” is defined, translated, and used different ways that meditation is not exclusively the time you set aside to think about God, but ultimately also includes all of the thoughts, intents, and imagingings of your mind and heart as well as the actions that those thoughts bear. This is why we must guard our thoughts at all times and make sure that they’re set on the right things. When we start to recognize that technically all our thoughts throughout the day are the “meditations of my heart” and think about David’s prayer that the meditations of his heart be acceptable in God’s sight, that becomes a somewhat terrifying thought—and puts into stark perspective how much control we should be exerting over our minds.
Paul uses logizomai a bunch in Romans, as “reckoned”, “imputed”, “concluded”, and in other books it’s translated accounted, thought, counted. There’s an accountability here, that the things we think on will be recorded and attributed to us later, that we are accountable for our thoughts because these thoughts produce actions and are the mirror of ourselves. Proverbs 27:19 tells us that the real you is shown in what you meditate on—“as in water face reflects a face, so a man’s heart reveals the man”.
To tackle this aspect of the meditations of the heart, the first step is becoming consciously aware of what we think about throughout the day. What do you spend your time thinking about? Make notes (again, I know this sounds dumb, but rather like a food journal it tends to painfully reveal the truth). If I were keeping a list of my thoughts, a heavy proportion would be about how stressed I am, how much I have to do, how tired I am, and occasionally how frustrated I am with so-and-so. Notice that I am very prominent in these thoughts, and that they’re not largely positive thoughts.
The second step is, when you catch yourself in a negative or unproductive thought, consciously choose to throw it away (picture it in your mind if that helps), and replace it with something good. Again, it seems over-simplistic, but it works. Choose to think a positive thought about that person, think about something that you’re thankful for, or even better, think back to your last meditation session and give those thoughts another go. But you have to refuse to let negative thoughts take up permanent residence in your brain (I have to picture blocking them with karate chops sometimes—they are stubborn buggers). Some people will struggle more with this than others, but a mind that largely dwells on negative thoughts will never be fertile ground for the holy spirit to work its transformative magic.
Paul exhorts us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Because ultimately that should be the outcome of purposeful meditation and learning to control the unconscious meditations of our hearts, of the prayer and bible study we do—we are to be transformed from the petty, carnal creatures God in His infinite mercy called, into new, pure, agape-filled, children of God.