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Hebrew Spirituality: The Jewish Roots of Meditation (part 3)

Post Title: The Content and Sound of Meditation

In the texts we've been examining (Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:1-2), the word meditate comes from the Hebrew root, hagah. This is fascinating, the basic meaning of hagah is to utter or mutter a low sound. Hagah is used of a dove and the sound that it makes.

We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. - Isaiah 59:11

This phrase "moan sadly like doves," is the primary Hebrew word for meditate (hagah). We moan sadly here in Isaiah, like the plaintive sound of the dove. Hagah speaks of a low sound, a muttering, a whispering, meditating.

Interestingly, Isaiah also uses it to describe the sound of a lion who is resting over its prey, its meal. Have you ever seen those wildlife programs where you hear the lions and they sound almost like a cat purring? That is the sound of hagah, the source of the first of two major Hebrew words for meditating.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. - Psalm 19:14

Notice the parallelism between "words of my mouth" and "meditation of my heart" in this psalm. Meditation and the mouth go together; that is important. Going back to our earlier reading of Joshua 1:8 we see the same parallel, This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night [...]." Why? So that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. Why? For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

What does all this mean to us?

Principle One: Hebrew meditation—unlike Eastern meditations—has content. The content is God's words, and God's works, indeed, God himself.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,

and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,

when I remember you upon my bed,

and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,

and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;

your right hand upholds me. - Psalm 63:5-8

This is the Hebrew view of meditation. You have content, God himself. Singing to him, speaking to him, bringing your attention on him. It can be God's word, it can be God's works. Psalm 77:12, "I will meditate on all your works." New Age meditation is contentless. The goal is to try and empty the mind, quiet the body, and remove all content. One metaphor typically used is to still the pond of your soul so there are no ripples in order to perceive your true identity. That kind of meditation doesn't bring clarity or peace, it only brings confusion.

The Word of God wants to bring clarity as to who you are based upon whose you are. You are not to turn in you are to turn out. To turn within is to look only upon your brokenness. Like looking at fractured mirrors, your soul is cracked, broken, and bent. If you try to still everything and examine your soul, you simply get reflections of brokenness, confusion, and false images.

Principle Two: Hebrew meditation—unlike Eastern meditations—has intentional sound.

Unlike New Age meditation, it is not silent. Nor is it some mindless, meaningless repetition of a name, or words, or a mantra. It has sound. What is the sound? Speaking to God. Speaking of God. Telling the truth about him—who he is, and what he does.

We need to be reminded that Scripture was originally intended to be spoken. Reading silently is a relatively modern event in the history of human civilization. The Bible has such narrative power when it is spoken aloud.

Some of the Psalms are acrostics. Each verse corresponds to one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, to aid memorization so you can recall and recite God's Word. One of the things that will greatly benefit in the transforming of your mind, in the formation of your Christian spirituality, will be to read the Psalms and the Scripture aloud. Even if you are by yourself. It can be in a quiet voice, it can be a murmuring, but when your mouth speaks, your ears hear, and your heart is informed in a way that is more than just reading in your head.

The biblical word for meditation (hagah), points us to the verbalizing of our thoughts before God. To articulate in some focused and fervent way, thoughts of worship, of wonder, of praise. It can occur anywhere at any time. I have set the LORD continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. - Psalm 16:8

What we say is so important! Jesus himself says in Luke 6 that, "Out of the abundance of your heart, your mouth will speak." Paul encourages the church in Ephesians to, "Sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord." Interestingly, hagah can actually be translated, in some contexts, as melody.

Next, let's turn our attention to another Hebrew word used for meditation.

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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

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