Prayer, Meditation, and Trials in Psalm 119: Martin Luther’s Instructions for Studying Theology as a Biblical Hermeneutical Method (Part 4 of 6)

The articles in this six-part series are from an oral address presented by Dr. Rob Plummer at the Southeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society meeting, March 2005, and are posted here with his permission.  Quotations of Luther’s preface are from the following English translation: “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 63-68.  An online version of Luther’s preface is located at


IV. Meditatio


In addition to being a prayerless people, we in the western church are a hurried and unreflective folk. We may respond to forty ministry-related emails in one day and daily read large sections of our Bible, but where is the chewing, ruminating, and deep reflecting on the text that causes it to sink down in our souls – and by God’s grace, change us. The great scandal of the church, one modern pastor has said, is large buildings filled with undiscipled people. Like skates on a frozen lake, the Word has skirted over our minds and hearts with little measurable effect.


Luther warns of the danger of unreflective Bible study. He writes, “And take care that you do not grow weary or think that you have done enough when you have read, heard, and spoken [the words of Scripture] once or twice, and that you have complete understanding. You will not be a particularly good theologian if you do that, for you will be like untimely fruit which falls to the ground before it is half ripe.” (p. 66)


In some recent popular Christian writings, we are seeing a reaction to our unreflective and hurried lives. Is it any wonder that a minority, but growing number of Western Christians, are being drawn to the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence as they seek to unclutter their souls. Unfortunately, in some books on this subject, it seems to me that a form of unbiblical Eastern meditation (maybe via Oprah or Hollywood) has been adopted. The highest goal of this meditation seems to be some sort of ethereal, ineffable experience of relating to God with an “empty mind.” From the Scriptures, however, it seems that God would have us meditate on his Word. Yes, we may seek moments of silence and solitude, but those are moments when God tries and tests our hearts – bringing to mind Scriptures, failings, obligations, words of encouragement, or challenges. Not an empty mind, but a mind convicted, filled, focused, and transformed by God is the goal of biblical meditation.


We are inclined to think of biblical meditation as sitting quietly and simply thinking about a text over and over. This is biblical meditation, but it is also much more. Luther rightly points to the multitude of ways in which David meditates on the Word of God in Psalm 119. The Reformer writes,


Thus you see in this same Psalm how David constantly boasts that he will talk, meditate, speak, sing, hear, read, by day and night and always, nothing except God’s Word and commandments. For God will not give you his Spirit without the external Word; so take your cue from that. His command to write, preach, read, hear, sing, speak, etc.., outwardly was not given in vain. (p. 66)


Thus, meditating on the Bible is not simply quietly reflecting on a passage, but singing, reciting, memorizing, and writing the word. Meditating on the Word is using whatever intellectual and creative energies God has given us to focus on his revelation in thought, action, speech, or image.


In the Epistle of James, chapter 1, verse 25, we read, “The man who looks intently into the perfect law, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it, he will be blessed in what he does.” How desperately we as professors, pastors, students, and Christians in the pew need to be people who look intently into God’s perfect Word – and to be transformed into people who do not simply hear the word, deceiving ourselves, but do what it says.


With added attention to the Word of God, some other things will likely have to be scaled back – such as attention to secondary literature. I recall with personal delight I. Howard Marshall’s address on this campus in which he lamented the unnecessarily large number of books being published these days. I add my hearty “Amen,” as I find it nearly impossible to even read a summary of all the publications in my field in New Testament Abstracts. Might it, in fact, be a good thing, to spend less time in secondary literature and more time in the Bible?


With his own “Amen” to this idea, Luther writes:


I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all remain in obscurity and go by the board. Among other reasons, I shudder to think of the example I am giving, for I am well aware how little the church has been profited since they have begun to collect many books and large libraries, in addition to and besides Holy Scriptures, and especially since they have stored up without discrimination, all sorts of writings by the church fathers, the councils, and teachers. Through this practice not only is precious time lost, which could be used for studying the Scriptures, but in the end the pure knowledge of the divine Word is lost, so that the Bible lies forgotten in the dust under the bench (as happened to the book of Deuteronomy, in the time of the kings of Judah). (p. 63)


Becoming a more prayerful and meditative people will come at a cost. Could the popular “less is more” principle be true when it comes to our theological intake?


NEXT TIME: Tentatio (Trials)


Dr. Rob Plummer serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.   He is author of Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission:  Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006). 


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