Biblical Insight: Chewing on the Text

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful 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.

Joshua 1:8 (ESV)

An increasing number of psychotherapists recommend a Buddhist meditation technique. The practice is called “mindfulness meditation,” through which therapists help clients solve emotional issues by instructing them “to foster an awareness of every sensation as it unfolds in the moment.”1 Yoga continues to gain popularity as well, with its goal of “highest Joy that comes from the Realization in direct experience of the center of consciousness.”2 Then there is New Age meditation, which takes strategies from Eastern philosophy, yoga, mysticism, and Buddhism for spiritual and ethical guidance. The range of contemporary “meditation” options can easily cloud the understanding and application of meditation as a Christian spiritual discipline.
Joshua 1 marks a key turning point in Israel’s history. Moses, their longtime leader, has died, and God transfers the role to Joshua. The covenant promises given to the patriarchs are beginning to flower, as the nation is poised on the brink the Promised Land (1:11). Before this momentous event, however, the Lord commissions Joshua and gives him several commands. Central to these imperatives for the new leader is the command concerning the Book of the Law.
The imperatives “shall not depart” and “shall meditate” form the backbone of verse 8. To modern sensibilities, it seems odd that the Lord would focus on the mouth instead of the eye (to read), but in the Ancient Near East, reading was commonly done aloud. This could help to explain why the book was not to depart from Joshua’s mouth.
Meditation essentially means a slow, intentional “chewing” on the text. In fact, the term “meditate” denotes something like mumbling or speaking under the breath. This can be seen today in rabbinic practice. Whether in private or at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, many Jews mouth the words of Scripture quietly.
God does not command the new leader to meditate for mere scholarly purposes; instead, He binds meditation with ethical living. “…so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.” Psalm 1 paints the same picture: the blessed man is the one who meditates “day and night” rather than walking in the way of sinners.
Meditation is not meant to be a mindless escape from reality or reflection on one’s own problems. Instead, Christian meditation always focuses on God and His Word for the purpose of holiness and obedience. A believer pauses with God’s Word open before his heart and his mind, prayerfully seeking to understand and apply the Lord’s directions. For meditation to be effective, the mind must be full of God’s inerrant Word, not man’s mere thoughts or yearnings. Indeed, this practice marks the believer “day and night,” leading to holiness and Christlikeness.
1 Benedict Carey, “Lotus Therapy,” New York Times Website, May 27, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/27/health/research/27budd.html?ex=1369627200&en=243cf577038c27b1&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink (accessed June 8, 2010).
2 “The Joy of Traditional Yoga Meditation, Contemplation, and Devotion,” Traditional Yoga and Meditation of the Himalayan Masters Website, http://www.swamij.com/ (accessed June 8, 2010).