“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Ps 119:11, ESV
The first chapter of the Book of Psalms is commonly considered as the introduction to, and the theme of, the whole Psalter. This first psalm distinguishes the way of the wicked from the way of the righteous:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Ps 1:1–2 ESV
The first two verses promise a blessing to all who meditate on the Word of God throughout the day. This teaching is conveyed in the expression “day and night”. The Hebrew asher, translated as “blessed”, connotes an estate of enviable happiness. But this psalm’s prescribed way of the righteous would be awkward to implement if contemplating God’s Word meant carrying around a scroll of the Scriptures wherever one went. It would have been impossible for a pious Israelite to get any work done in a day if that had been the case.
The only practical means by which to obtain the promised blessing of Psalm 1 is to have the Word at the ready at all times in your heart. This is the approach David teaches throughout Psalm 119, and expressly in verse 11. David loved the Lord, and in this magnificent psalm, he greatly exalts God’s Word. David had memorized portions of God’s word in order to recall its teachings at a moment’s notice throughout the day. In this way, David was kept from sinning against God.
You might think that the technological advances in electronics and memory devices that we enjoy today would enable us to attain the blessing of Psalm 1 more easily than our forefathers. Sadly, this is hardly the case. The use of human memory has fallen in proportion with our increased reliance on memory chips. Technology has enabled vastly greater amounts of information and entertainment to reach us. This has become a distraction and a hindrance to us, displacing the contemplation of the Word of God with a steady stream of temporal concerns. So “we allow ourselves to be taken captive by the patterns of this world and fill our heads with its passing idle pleasures and fantasies instead.”
But as James Montgomery Boice observes, “if we are to meditate on the Bible day and night, we must have at least some of it committed to memory, which is what Christians in past ages of the church did.” As unlikely as it may seem to us today, “it was not uncommon for people to memorize Psalm 119.” Indeed, the acrostic structure of Psalm 119 in its original language greatly helped the ancient Israelites to memorize its 176 verses.
John Calvin wrote of the necessity of memorizing God’s Word if one is to overcome temptation: “Here we are informed that we are well fortified against the stratagems of Satan when God’s law is deeply seated in our hearts. For unless it has a fast and firm hold there, we will readily fall into sin.” Our only defense against the wiles of the devil, he says, “lies not in a slender knowledge of his law, or in a careless perusal of it, but in hiding it deeply in our hearts.”
According to Calvin, to prevent taking the perilous path of the wicked, we must enrich ourselves with a robust treasury of Scripture. So, he emphatically admonishes all Christians to make use of their memory. Paul directs us to store up the Word of God in our hearts in Colossians 3:16 — “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Commenting on this verse, Calvin writes,
“For, unquestionably, Paul here addresses men and women of all ranks; nor would he simply have them take a slight taste merely of the word of Christ, but exhorts that it should dwell in them; that is, that it should have a settled abode, and that largely, that they may make it their aim to advance and increase more and more every day.”
Are you in sympathy with Calvin and David in their resolve to memorize portions of Scripture? Will you advance more and more in this discipline? It will certainly require your time and attention, so you will need to count the cost. Be assured that the added comfort and security afforded by memorizing Scripture, and the continued blessing of God upon your life, are his sweet compensation. God’s blessing will pave the way of the righteous until the heart’s treasure meets its Delight (Psalm 37:4,5).