Learning How to Meditate
Perhaps nowhere are the Puritans so helpful as in offering guidelines for the process of spiritual, biblical meditation. Here's an outline of their method.
First, ask the Holy Spirit for assistance. Pray for the power to harness your mind and to focus the eyes of faith on this task. As Edmund Calamy wrote,
“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.”
Next, read the Scriptures, then select a verse or doctrine upon which to meditate. It may be best to pick out relatively easy subjects to meditate on at the beginning. For example, begin with the attributes of God rather than the doctrine of the Trinity. Also, 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’re 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’re financially afflicted, meditate on God’s wonderful providences to those in need.
Now, 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 your subject. Consider past sermons and other edifying books.
Use “the book of conscience, the book of Scripture, and the book of the creature” 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’s an example from Calamy's meditation 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, [and] all that the Scripture saith concerning sin.”
Two warnings are in order. First, as Thomas Manton 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.”
Second, if your mind wanders, rein it in, offer a short prayer for forgiveness, ask for strength to stay focused, read a few appropriate Scripture passages again, and press on. Remember, reading Scripture, meditation, and prayer belong together. As one discipline wanes, turn to another. Persevere; don’t surrender to Satan by abandoning your task.
Next, stir up affections, such as love, desire, hope, courage, gratitude, zeal, and joy, to glorify God. 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, in discussing meditations as a “private meanes” 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 travell to bring forth & a birth in due season: so when the soule by thought hath conceived, presently the affections are [moved], for the affections kindle on a thought, as tinder doth, when a sparke lighteth on it. The affections moved, the will is stirred and inclined.”
Now, 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. As William Fenner wrote,
“Dive into thy own soul; anticipate and prevent thy own heart. Haunt thy heart with promises, threatnings, mercies, judgements, and commandments. Let meditation trace thy heart. Hale thy heart before God.”
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?” Do not ask such questions legalistically but out of holy excitement and opportunity to grow in Spirit-worked grace. Remember, “Legal work is our work; meditation work is sweet work.”
As you apply this meditation, be sure to 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.”
And live-out this meditation (Josh. 1:8). Let meditation and practice, like two sisters, walk hand in hand. Meditation without practice will only increase your condemnation.
Next, turn your applications into resolutions. “Let your resolutions be firm and strong, not [mere] wishes, but resolved purposes or Determinations,” wrote Thomas White. 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.”
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. Or, as 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.”
Thank the Lord for assistance in meditation, or else Richard Greenham warned, “we shall be buffeted in our next meditation.”
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.
Joseph Hall wrote that he found much comfort in closing his meditations by lifting up his “heart and voice to God in singing some verse or two of David’s Psalms—one that answers to our disposition and the matter of our meditation. In this way the heart closes up with much sweetness and contentment.” John Lightfoot added, “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.”
Finally, don’t shift too quickly from meditation to engagement with things of this world, lest, as Thomas Gouge advised, “thereby thou suddenly quench that spiritual heart which hath in that exercise been kindled in thine heart.”Remember that one hour spent in such meditation is “worth more than a thousand sermons,” Ussher said, “and this is no debasing of the Word, but an honour to it.”
Previous articles in the "Learn from the Puritans" series:
- Being Shaped by the Word
- Marrying Doctrine and Practice
- Preaching Practical Piety
- Preaching Experientially
- Focusing on Christ
- Keeping with Catechizing
- Praying Without Ceasing
Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.
"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams
Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation, available in paperback through Soli Deo Gloria Publications
Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke
Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
 The Art of Divine Meditation (London: for Tho. Parkhurst, 1680), p. 172.
 Ibid., pp. 164-68.
 The Works of George Swinnock (reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 2:417.
 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), pp. 70-73.
 The Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 17:281.
 Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (unabridged reprint, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1998), pp. 579-90.
 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), p. 24.
 A Help to True Happinesse (London, 1635).
 The Works of William Bates (reprint Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1990), 3:145.
 The Use and Benefit of Divine Meditation (London: for John Stafford, 1657), pp. 16-23.
 James Ussher, A Method for Meditation (London: for Joseph Nevill, 1656), p. 39.
 The Works of William Bridge (reprint Beaver Falls, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1989), 3:153.
 The Art of Divine Meditation, 108.
 The Sermons of Thomas Watson (reprint Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), pp. 269, 271.
 A Method and Instructions for the Art of Divine Meditation (London: for Tho. Parkhurst, 1672), p. 53.
 Ibid, 269.
 The Works of the Reverend and Faithfvll Servant of Iesvs Christ M. Richard Greenham (London: Felix Kingston, 1599), p. 41.
 The Art of Meditation (reprint Jenkintown, Penn.: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1972), pp. 26-27.
 Christian Directions, shewing How to walk with God All the Day long, p. 70.
 A Method for Meditation, p. 43.