HOW BIBLE VERSE MEMORIZATION HAS STRENGTHENED MY WALK WITH CHRIST
Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Memorizing Bible verses is something relatively new to me. In fact, it wasn’t until about four years ago that I began to recognize any value at all in the exercise of it. But the process and the reward together have become one of the greatest blessings of my life. I can’t explain it. I just know what I’ve experienced, through God, having found Him in it.
I was thinking tonight about the handful of Bible verses I’ve committed to memory: 15 passages so far from God’s Word, His teachings, His prophets’ musings, and His commandments which we are told in Proverbs 7 to “write on the tablet of [our] hearts.” I don’t say this to boast, but to hopefully encourage others to the same.
Why I’ve memorized the verses speaks I think – at least partially – to my desire for and relationship with Christ. It also speaks to the inspiration and leadership of fellow believers.
It began for me with a disciplining effort initiated by my friend Tom Ryan, a fly-fishing expert and former church operations director who several years ago was leading a very close-knit weekly men’s group (Bible study) attended by, among others, a former Air Force F-4 Phantom flier, a bank financial advisor, a CPA, a university professor, my oldest nephew and me.
Tom kickstarted us into the effort, telling us that memorizing Bible verses was something he’d been heartily encouraged to do by his missionary friend Henry Clay; a member of the international Christian ministry, the Navigators, who by the way are veritable champions of Scripture memorization.
WE BEGAN WITH PSALM 1
The first passage Tom encouraged us to memorize was from the Old Testament Book of Psalms, the entire first chapter, which sounds unreasonably long. But PSALM 1 is not long at all. The chapter begins with “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…”
A truly inspiring passage (especially for a men’s group), which I will always remember as that which my nephew and I practiced by reciting to one another – he from the King James Bible, me from the New American Standard – over a cup of coffee in a local Panera.
Best line: “He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in its season.”
That group has since dissolved, though we are all still buddies. One guy left his position at the University of South Carolina here in Columbia, S.C. for a professorship at Bob Jones University in nearby Greenville. Another moved to another church closer to his home across town. My nephew married a beautiful Christian girl and they now have a little girl (who I’ll mention again momentarily), and Tom and his wife literally moved across the continent and up into the mountains of northern California.
But Psalm 1 always brings me back to those few good men (who led me to those words), the Biblical David (who said or wrote those words), Almighty God (who breathed those words) and that wonderful season where it all started.
JEREMIAH 29:11-14 (NIV 1984)
Then there was JEREMIAH 29:11-14; one of the most amazing, well-known albeit little-understood passages in the Old Testament that begins with “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future…”
There is so much more, especially in verses 12 and 13.
Why I chose that passage is a story in itself. Though I don’t have time to detail the experience here, I may write about it in a future piece. Suffice it to say that I really didn’t choose Jeremiah 29:11-14. God chose it for me in a most unexpected, impossibly unusual, truly miraculous way. So I really had no choice but to memorize it.
A couple years passed with no new verses memorized. I clung to Psalm 1, however, and Jeremiah 29:11-14, mastering them both verbatim, but fearing that if I worked on memorizing others, I might lose my touch or somehow degrade the memory of the other two.
Boy, was that the work of the enemy and his lies! As well as my own pride and failure to trust.
NEHEMIAH 9:6 (NASB)
Last summer, specifically Aug. 21, 2017, the day of the much-publicized total solar eclipse over North America, I decided to memorize a new verse as a means of upping the personal significance of the eclipse. I chose NEHEMIAH 9:6 which begins “You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens, The heaven of heavens with all their host…”
This spoke perfectly to me of the majesty of God in the heavens which those of us in the direct ecliptical path experienced in dramatic fashion on that day. It took me a few days beyond Aug. 21 to have it firmly etched on my heart’s tablet. But the eclipse was why I did so.
PSALM 18:1-3 (NASB)
Then there was PSALM 18:1-3, another passage, which I now often repeat in the middle of the night either before or after I’ve uttered the words of Nehemiah.
Psalm 18 begins, “I love You, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer…”
I’m not sure why I chose Psalm 18:1-3, other than there being something very martial about it (we Marines are a martial lot). There is a very ‘David hiding in the caves’ quality about it (again, we men can relate to that), yet at the same time there is something very safe and reassuring about it. All of that speaks to me.
JAMES 1:17 (NASB)
It’s fairly easy to explain my inspiration for memorizing JAMES 1:17 in the New Testament. I simply memorized it because it reminds me of my little grandniece who was born Feb. 13, 2017. The verse reads: “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”
I’m not sure if my grandniece or other such blessings would be the intent of the verse. But that is the personal association I naturally made. At any rate, I’ll never again hear or read this verse without thinking of God and His gift of her to my family and me.
Also, “Father of Lights” makes me think of He who created the stars in the heavens, which I’ll talk about further when we get to Job 9:8-10.
JOHN 3:16 (NASB)
What about JOHN 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
We’ve all heard those words and are deeply comforted by them. I must confess however that I also often think of the now-famous “eye black” worn by former NFL QB and current MLB outfielder Tim Tebow when the Heisman recipient was calling signals for the Gators. Written across his eye black was ‘John 3:16.’
ROMANS 8:1 (NASB)
ROMANS 8:1 says, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
In Oct. 2017, when I was thinking about this, I wrote: “I often grieve over my sin. I know I’m forgiven, but I still grieve because of the pain and unhappiness I’ve inflicted on others over the course of my life so far. I grieve not because of any consequences. I grieve because I feel I have let God down.”
I had been praying about this quite a bit for several weeks. Then on a Sunday morning before church I was praying hard about it, and thinking about and reading Romans 8:1. An hour or so later at the beginning of the worship service, the pastor, who had no idea what I had been praying about or specifically reading, had us read aloud Romans 8:1. That was surely God speaking to me.
MATTHEW 5:1-12 (NASB)
Then there is MATTHEW 5:1-12. After memorizing the fairly lengthy Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 29:11-14, I felt it was time I memorized yet a longer passage, perhaps for discipline’s sake.
I chose Matthew 5:1-12 (the Beatitudes) because I had so often, ever since I was a child, imagined Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount. And so I thought what a magnificent exercise in verse memorization to read and meditate on Christ’s words in that chapter – “Blessed are…”
MATTHEW 2:1-2 (KJV)
In MATTHEW 2:1-2 we have the first two verses in the story of the magi (or wise men) who asked, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.”
I love this story and have researched it quite thoroughly. I memorized the verses from the King James version before a Sunday School lesson I taught during the Christmas season, 2017, because these verses seem to read more artfully in that early 17th-century translation of the Scriptures.
JOHN 1:1-5 (NASB)
JOHN 1:1-5 begins “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
This passage continues with “Life” and “Light” and the absolute supremacy of Light over darkness. This short passage speaks volumes about the power, deity, and omnipotent power of Christ. It also speaks volumes about the power of “The Word,” which is Christ, the Logos, the Language, the Truth. I felt that if I were to memorize any part of Scripture, John 1:1-5 had to be one of the passages.
EPHESIANS 4:32 (NASB)
EPHESIANS 4:32, which a friend introduced me to several years ago, reminds us to “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
Finally, we turn back to the Old Testament, and the four most recent I’ve written on the tablet of my heart.
PROVERBS 21:21 (NIV 1984)
PROVERBS 21:21, which I first came across many years ago, tells us “He who pursues righteousness and love; finds life, prosperity and honor.”
By the way, I don’t think this means “life” and “prosperity” and “honor” in the way the world has corrupted the meaning of those three graces. I think it means if one pursues “righteousness and love,” then “life” will be found in the pursuit of those two. Also if one “pursues righteousness and love,” he or she will “prosper” in that pursuit. Same with “honor.” Think about it.
ISAIAH 53:5 (NASB)
ISAIAH 53:5, written by the great prophet Isaiah about 700 years before the birth of Christ, says of Christ, “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.”
How did he know these things unless they were true? But they are true, praise God. I had to memorize this. And I did so recently in the wake of so many friends and fellow believers who were and are suffering.
JOB 9:8-10 (NIV 1984)
JOB 9:8-10 reads in part, “He [God] is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south.”
I love the stars. Always have [please also read God and His stars], which is why I memorized these verses.
The Book of Job is widely held to be the oldest book in the Bible (yes, older than Genesis). No one is sure when it was written. Maybe as late as 700-600 B.C. from an oral tradition stretching back to perhaps as early as 2,000 B.C. But I’m stirred by the fact that the very same constellations I was looking at earlier tonight – the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades – were seen and talked about by Job thousands of years earlier.
JOSHUA 1:9 (NASB)
Then there is JOSHUA 1:9. In the first chapter of the Book of Joshua, God commissions the great military commander who will lead the Israelites into Canaan, the land which their armies will conquer. And in Joshua 1, God tells Joshua three times, “BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS!,” one of those times in verse nine, which is the verse I’ve committed to memory. Then at the end of the chapter, the men of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh – pledging their loyalty to Joshua (at least as I am able to understand it) – repeat God’s words to him – “Be strong and courageous!”
I love these words, especially as I read them in verse nine. They have always encouraged and meant so much to me, and to others with whom I’ve shared the verse. Several times while hiking across the South Carolina countryside, I have taken a stick and scrawled ‘JOSHUA 1:9’ across a dirt road. I’ve now also written it on the tablet of my heart.
These are the ones I’ve memorized so far. There will be others. And I encourage all of you who see this now to revisit a favorite passage, or choose today a new more relevant one, and write it on the tablet of your heart.
I cannot explain what you will begin to experience; but I can tell you, the experience is real.
– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling editor and military technical advisor. Visit him online at uswriter.com.