7 Helpful Ways to Memorize Scripture
“And upon that law does he meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
“Thy word have I hid in my heart...” (Psalm 119:11)
To meditate on the word of the Lord in the middle of the night requires one to know it. So, someone–the writer of the first Psalm–has been memorizing Scripture.
Since people in biblical days had no books as we do, when they heard the Word read, they seized upon it eagerly and worked to remember as much as they could. No doubt that, more than anything else, accounts for the way Scripture is quoted throughout the Bible: never verbatim. They were going by memory.
You and I have Bibles all over the house and rarely give a thought to memorizing it.
Perhaps we’re like Einstein. According to the story, which may be apocryphal, when asked for his phone number, the great man went to the phone directory and looked it up. His visitor was incredulous. “You don’t even know your own phone number?” Einstein said, “I refuse to clutter my mind with information that is easily accessible elsewhere.”
I suppose that’s why we don’t memorize the Word. All we have to do is open our phones or laptops or pull down the volume from a shelf, and it’s all there. But if this is our plan, it overlooks a major factor: Christians need the Word inside us, not just alongside us.
I started memorizing Scripture as a child. And kept it up as a pastor.
Most of what I preach these days in my retirement ministry is scripture I’ve long known and loved and “hid in my heart.” (Or, as we used to say, “I know it by heart.”)
The host pastor heard me preach throughout the week. One day he asked, “Do you memorize the scripture for all your sermons?” I teasingly answered, “No, I just preach the parts I’ve memorized.”
Okay. This is the point where I would ordinarily brag about what scriptures I know, what entire chapters I can recite for you, and such. But I think I’ll pass and cut straight to the point: How to memorize the Word.
There are two primary answers to the question, as least in my own experience.
1. Indirect: Don’t try to memorize texts. Just read them again and again and again. Eventually, you’ve memorized them.
2. Direct: Make a conscious effort to memorize a passage using whatever devices you can come up with.
First, the indirect approach.
By repetition, primarily. You read it again and again. You read it out loud. You reflect on it. Eventually , it’s yours.
Yes, it’s that simple.
And then, the more intensive, direct approach.
One: Write it out. By longhand, even.
Two: Write a few verses on one page, in large print so you can read it easily.
Three: Post that page in two or three primary places. On the dashboard of the car, near the bathroom mirror, and on your desk, are places the come to mind. (By suggesting you post this in the car, I’m not suggesting you read it while driving. But at traffic lights, you glance at it and refresh your memory. Passengers might read it to you and even listen as you attempt to recite it.)
When Dr. James Dobson was a child, he watched as his parents did this very thing in the car. His father would ask Mrs. Dobson to “Check me on this,” and he would recite a passage of Scripture. The small boy in the back seat was forever impressed by the example of his parents.
Four: Read it repeatedly. Aloud, when you can.
Five: Think of what you are reading. Reflect on what it’s saying. Discuss it.
Six: Come up with devices to help you keep lists in order, to remind you of transitions from one verse to another.
Here are some ways I’ve done that.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress? Persecution or famine, nakedness, danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) Here’s how I memorized that list…
I imagined scoring a TOUCHDOWN wearing my PF flyers (tennis shoes) for my high school IN DOUBLE SPRINGS, Alabama. (PF Flyers were a well-known sneaker when I was a kid.) From that I got TD and then PF and then DS. Get it? TD = tribulation, distress. PF = persecution, famine. N = nakedness. DS = danger, sword.
“I am convinced that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities nor powers, things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
So, I thought of DAT (New Orleans Saints fans call out “Who Dat?”) for death…angels…things present. I thought of a PHD, for powers, height, and depth. And I thought of ACT, Any other Created Thing.
Is this silly? Only to someone else. But never to the one doing it.
Jerry Lucas, NBA Hall of Famer, wrote a book once on how to memorize massive sections of Scripture. We had him speak in our church and talk about this very thing, creating word pictures to help you remember word associations, lists, transitions between scenes, etc. I will admit that most people found his system cumbersome. I sure did. However…
I recommend using it a little. Whenever we are having difficulty memorizing a tough passage or a long list of items, this may be just the ticket.
Seven: After you have memorized a passage, you must repeat it often. Otherwise, like every other unused thing in your brain, it goes away.
At one point, many years ago, I decided to memorize the entire New Testament book of Hebrews. And I got as far as the 7th chapter. The problem is that reciting all 7 chapters would take 45 minutes, and that became a burden. I was not enjoying it, but having to make myself do it. And that, I decided, was to defeat the purpose. So, I let it lapse.
How to decide what to memorize…
The Holy Spirit has drawn you to a passage or a verse. It rings your bell, calls your name, has your number. Maybe you’re not even sure why, but you know your spirit resonates to those words. Then, that’s for you.
Memorize it. Hide it in your heart. Add it to your life.
Twenty years ago, while serving on an associational committee for collegiate ministry in New Orleans, we had our quarterly meeting in a Sunday School classroom of one of our larger churches. I was struck by a verse of Scripture professionally written across the walls, all around the room: “The Lord God is a sun and a shield; the Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” Psalm 84:11.
Having the verse displayed in such huge letters made it so striking that my spirit fell in love with those words. I quickly set about memorizing it, and have kept it as a mainstay in my spiritual arsenal ever since.
After all, if we are to “meditate day and night,” as Psalm 1 enjoins, we’d better have God’s words in our heart and mind, always ready to feast on their riches and enjoy their insights.
Billy Graham says one of his biggest regrets is not having memorized more scripture in his younger years when the mind could achieve that more easily. My observation is none of us will ever be younger than we are at this moment.
So, let’s get on with it now.
Publication date: June 1, 2016
Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.