How Should We Meditate? Let the Puritans Be Your Teachers by Dr. Joel R. BeekeWhat the Bible says about Godly Meditation through the Word
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Perhaps nowhere are the Puritans so helpful as in offering guidelines for the process of spiritual, biblical meditation. They said to begin by asking the Holy Spirit for assistance. Pray for the power to harness your mind and focus the eyes of faith on this task. As Edmund Calamy (1600–1666) exhorted, “I would have you pray unto God to enlighten your understandings, to quicken your devotion, to warm your affections, and so to bless that hour unto you, that by the meditation of holy things you may be made more holy, you may have your lusts more mortified, and your graces more increased, you may be the more mortified to the world, and the vanity of it, and lifted up to Heaven, and the things of Heaven.”1
Next, the Puritans said to read the Scriptures, then select a verse or doctrine upon which to meditate. Be sure to pick out relatively easy subjects to meditate on at the beginning, they advised. For example, begin with various attributes of God rather than the doctrine of the Trinity; consider subjects one at a time.
In addition, select subjects that are most applicable to your present circumstances and that will be most beneficial for your soul. For example, if you are spiritually dejected, meditate upon Christ’s willingness to receive poor sinners and pardon all who come to Him. If your conscience troubles you, meditate on God’s promises to give grace to the penitent. If you are financially afflicted, meditate on God’s wonderful providences to those in need.2 Then, memorize the selected verse(s), or some aspect of the subject, to stimulate meditation, to strengthen faith, and to serve as a means of divine guidance.
Next, fix your thoughts on the Scripture or a scriptural subject without prying further than what God has revealed. Use your memory to focus on all that Scripture has to say about the subject. Consider what sermons and edifying books say about the topic.
Use “the book of conscience, the book of Scripture, and the book of the creature”3 as you consider various aspects of your subject: its names, causes, qualities, fruits, and effects. Like Mary, ponder these things in your heart. Think of illustrations, similitudes, and opposites in your mind to enlighten your understanding and enflame your affections. Then let judgment assess the value of what you are meditating upon.
Here is an example from Calamy. If you would meditate on the subject of sin, “Begin with the description of sin; proceed to the distribution of sin; consider the original and cause of sin, the cursed fruits and effects of sin, the adjuncts and properties of sin in general and of personal sin in particular, the opposite of sin—grace, the metaphors of sin, the titles given to sin, all that the Scripture saith concerning sin.”4
Two warnings are in order. First, as Thomas Manton (1620–1677) wrote, “Do not bridle up the free spirit by the rules of method. That which God calleth for is religion, not logic. When Christians confine themselves to such rules and prescriptions, they straiten themselves, and thoughts come from them like water out of a still, not like water out of a fountain.”5 Second, if your mind wanders, rein it in, pray for forgiveness, ask for strength to stay focused, read a few appropriate Scripture passages again, and press on. Remember that reading Scripture, meditation, and prayer belong together. As one discipline wanes, turn to another. Persevere; do not surrender to Satan by abandoning your task. Next, stir up affections, such as love, desire, hope, courage, gratitude, zeal, and joy,6 to glorify God.7 Hold soliloquies with your own soul. Include complaints against yourself because of your inabilities and shortcomings and spread before God your spiritual longings. Believe that He will help you.
Paul Baynes (1573–1617), in discussing meditation as a “private means” of grace, compared it first with the power of sight to affect the heart, then with the process of conception and birth: “Now look as after conception, there is a travail to bring forth & a birth in due season: so when the soul by thought hath conceived, presently the affections are [moved], for the affections kindle on a thought, as tinder doth, when a spark lighteth on it. The affections moved, the will is stirred and inclined.”8
Following the arousal of your memory, judgment, and affections, apply your meditations to yourself, to arouse your soul to duty and comfort, and to restrain your soul from sin.9 As William Fenner (1600–1640) wrote, “Dive into thy own soul; anticipate and prevent thy own heart. Haunt thy heart with promises, threatenings, mercies, judgments, and commandments. Let meditation trace thy heart. Hale thy heart before God.”10
Examine yourself for your own growth in grace. Reflect on the past and ask, “What have I done?” Look to the future, asking, “What am I resolved to do, by God’s grace?”11 Do not ask these questions legalistically, but out of How Should We Meditate? Let the Puritans Be Your Teachers holy excitement and opportunity to grow in Spirit-worked grace. Remember, “Legal work is our work; meditation work is sweet work.”12
Follow Calamy’s advice, “If ever you would get good by the practice of meditation, you must come down to particulars; and you must so meditate of Christ, as to apply Christ to thy soul; and so meditate of Heaven, as to apply Heaven to thy soul.”13 Live out your meditation (Josh. 1:8). Let meditation and practice walk hand in hand. Meditation without practice will only increase your condemnation.14
Next, turn your applications into resolutions. “Let your resolutions be firm and strong, not [mere] wishes, but resolved purposes or Determinations,” wrote Thomas White (c. 1577–c. 1610).15 Make your resolutions commitments to fight against your temptations to sin. Write down your resolutions. Above all, resolve that you will spend your life “as becomes one that hath been meditating of holy and heavenly things.” Commend yourself, your family, and everything you own to the hands of God with “sweet resignation.”16
Conclude with prayer, thanksgiving, and Psalm singing. “Meditation is the best beginning of prayer, and prayer is the best conclusion of meditation,” wrote George Swinnock (c. 1627–1673).17 Watson said, “Pray over your meditations. Prayer sanctifies every thing; without prayer they are but unhallowed meditations; prayer fastens meditation upon the soul; prayer is a tying a knot at the end of meditation that it doth not slip; pray that God will keep those holy meditations in your mind for ever, that the savour of them may abide upon your hearts.”18 Thank the Lord for assistance in meditation, or else, Richard Greenham warned, “we shall be buffeted in our next meditation.”19
The metrical versions of the Psalms are a great help in meditation. Their metrical form facilitates memorization. As God’s Word, they are a proper subject for meditation. As a “complete anatomy of the soul” (Calvin), they afford abundant material and guidance for meditation. As prayers (Ps. 72:20) and as thanksgiving (Ps. 118:1), they are both a proper vehicle for meditation and a fitting way to conclude it. John Lightfoot (1602–1675) said, “Singing God’s praise is a work of the most meditation of any we perform in public. It keeps the heart longest upon the thing spoken. Prayer and hearing pass quick from one sentence to another; this sticks long upon it.”20
Finally, do not shift too quickly from meditation to engagement with things of this world, lest, as Thomas Gouge (1605–1681) advised, “thereby thou suddenly quench that spiritual heat which hath in that exercise been kindled in thine heart.”21 Remember that one hour spent in such meditation is “worth more than a thousand sermons,” James Ussher (1581–1656) said, “and this is no debasing of the Word, but an honour to it.”22
1. Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation (London: for Tho. Parkhurst, 1680), 172.
2. Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 164–68.
3. George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 2:417.
4. Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 178–84. Cf. Thomas Gouge, Christian Directions, Shewing How to Walk with God All the Day Long (London: R. Ibbitson and M. Wright, 1661), 70–73.
5. Thomas Manton, The Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 17:281.
6. Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (unabridged repr., Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1998), 579–90.
7. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), 24.
8. Paul Baynes, A Help to True Happinesse (London: R. Y[oung] for Edward Brewster, 1635).
9. William Bates, The Whole Works of the Rev. W. Bates D. D., ed. W. Farmer (repr., Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1990), 3:145.
10. William Fenner, The Use and Benefit of Divine Meditation (London: for John Stafford, 1657), 16–23.
11. James Ussher, A Method for Meditation (London: for Joseph Nevill, 1656), 39.
12. William Bridge, The Works of the Rev. William Bridge (repr., Beaver Falls, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1989), 3:153.
13. Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 108.
14. Thomas Watson, The Sermons of Thomas Watson (repr., Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 269, 271.
15. Thomas White, A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation (London: for Tho. Parkhurst, 1672), 53.
16. White, A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation, 53.
17. Swinnock, Works, 1:111–17.
18. White, A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation, 269.
19. M. Richard Greenham, The Works of the Reverend and Faithfull Servant of Jesus Christ M. Richard Greenham (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), 41.
20. John Lightfoot, The Art of Meditation (repr., Jenkintown, Pa.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1972), 26–27.
21. Gouge, Christian Directions, 70.
22. Ussher, A Method for Meditation, 43.