“While I meditated, the fire burned”


Sitting in a cute (technical term for “slightly odd”) Welsh pub with fellow Master’s students on an intensive lectures’ week at Union School of Theology, I was delighted when the owner came over and lit the fire. I love a nice fire, and find nothing more satisfying than keeping it ablaze. Having taken ownership of keeping said fire alight, you can imagine how embarrassed I was, when all I seemed able to do was put it out! Thomas Goodwin, being of an era dependent upon fire, would have done a much better job than I, and as he did, perhaps would have shared with us something of a metaphor in that fire. “Thoughts and affections,” he wrote, “are sibi mutuo causea—the mutual causes of each other: ‘While I meditated, the fire burned,’ (Ps 39:3); so that thoughts are the bellows that kindle and inflame affections; and then if they are inflamed, they cause thoughts to boil.”[1] A biblical way to inflame our affections, to relight the fire, is to meditate. It is perhaps worth pushing the analogy too far, and saying that like me in the pub, this is not something we can do alone.

Let’s consider three ways to meditate: meditating on a verse; meditating on a “type”; and memorising a larger section. As we go through we will see our need for help, from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also from our brothers and sisters.

Memorising and meditating on a Bible verse

Even though princes sit plotting against me,
your servant will meditate on your statutes.
Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counsellors.”

Ps 119:23-4

It is fascinating to read the pages of the gospels in the light of this verse. Psalm 119 describes what we see on every page of Jesus’ life. As he is confronted with Pharisees hypocrisy, he rebukes them with the words of Isaiah: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). As he is tested about the greatest commandment, he shows that the desire to love God with all his heart soul and mind is hidden in his heart from Deuteronomy 6: “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.’” (Matt. 22:37–38). Through the distress of his crucifixion, though princes plot against him, he is meditating on the Scriptures, quoting for example Psalm 22: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Truly Christ could say, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps 119:11).

Of course, one may argue, he is the Word made flesh, what similarity can there be between our meditation and his? Macleod concludes in his book, The Person of Christ, never once do we see Christ deriving comfort from the fact of his own impeccability, all we see is his having recourse to the very same weapons as are available to ourselves: the company of fellow believers (Mark 14:33) the word of God (Matt. 4:4) and prayer (Mark 14:35).[2] As Christ is led into temptation in the desert, he fights the tempter with the words of Scripture hidden in his heart (Matt. 4:1–10), each time quoting from Deuteronomy 6–8, proving himself to be the perfect son that Israel had failed to be. The perfect meditation of Christ, that enabled him to endure, is our hope. We do not meditate perfectly but in Christ we come to the Father to ask for forgiveness. He gives us new hearts and his Spirit to enable us to learn his word and meditate on it throughout the day. It takes effort to memorise Scripture, but one helpful, scriptural tool is to use a memory aid.[3] For example, writing on things is a biblical way of remembering God’s words, though perhaps if you’re a campus student choose the pinboard rather than the doorframe (Deut. 6:4–9)! The Psalmist’s efforts were amply rewarded, as he found great comfort and delight in having God’s counsel always with him, whenever he needed it (Ps. 119:23–4, quoted above).

Meditating on a Type

Meditating on a type was an important way of reading for the early church fathers. According to O’Keefe and Reno:

Typological interpretation is rightly viewed as the most important interpretive strategy for early Christianity. Without typology it is difficult to imagine patristic theology and the concept of Christian orthodoxy it defines and supported as existing at all.[4]

A type includes a person, or event, anything prefiguring something that will be later fulfilled in the plan of God. Treier describes,

the most familiar examples are New Testament (NT) patterns of connecting something from the Old Testament (OT) with fulfilment in Jesus and the church, such as … the Noahic flood as a type for baptism in 1 Peter 3. These NT examples built upon OT instances of innerbiblical exegesis and upon Israel’s convictions about their God acting consistently in directing history to accomplish a redemptive purpose.[5]

“Innerbiblical exegesis” is a fascinating term, and I think opens up an interesting route of meditation for the more Biblically familiar reader. Origen gives us an example of this in his commentary on Song of Songs 3:11:

if then she [the soul] should chance to perceive him [the Word] to be present and from afar should catch the sound of his voice, immediately she is uplifted. And, when he has begun more and more to draw near to her senses and to illuminate the things that are obscure, then she sees him “leaping over the mountains and the hills.”[6]

Origen read patiently, expecting to glimpse Christ in the text, and as he did, his soul was uplifted.

This can be (and was) taken to extremes, where the original meaning and sense of the passage is abandoned in favour of playing a word association game, catapulting you from the text into any number of others. But for the early fathers, who were deeply spiritual, learned men, earnestly desiring to hear God speak to them through the text, and in Origen’s case familiar with the Bible languages, one cannot help but be moved by their evident joy at meeting the Lord in his Word. Indeed, there is a danger of going too far the other way and refusing to see Jesus walking off the pages of Scripture, as Jesus warned, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life,” (John 5:39-40). Christ expects us to meet him in his Word, to be able to trace the fulfilments of Old Testament themes in his coming, as he himself made explicit.[7]

Recently I learned Zechariah (see below for why…) and had a very blessed time meditating upon the idea of a shepherd through the book, and in other parts of Scripture. Reflecting more broadly on the ways leaders of God’s flock neglected their role as shepherd and how incredible it is that God should step in and shepherd the flock himself was a fresh, and deeply challenging way to meditate.

Memorising Larger Sections of Scripture

Kim Phillips has recently written an article detailing mediaeval manuscript evidence of techniques for memorising huge amounts of Scripture. “We can,” he writes, “surmise that these few words of the main content—alone—would have been enough to guide the reciter through the recitation of Book Three of the Psalter from memory.”[8] I’ve found this article so inspiring, thinking of that Jewish community (around the tenth to thirteenth century) taking so seriously the memorisation and meditation of Scripture that they would write out prompts on a manuscript to help them recall, meditate on and presumably pray through and share God’s Word. It has blown a real breath of fresh air through my devotional times. As I got to Zechariah in my reading plan, I decided instead of reading, to learn it in outline and pray through it in pockets of time in my day, and I’ve found the text come alive, and my heart much more responsive. I can’t wait to hear Phillip’s lunchtime lecture all about the mediaeval manuscript and practices of the community, on the Union Bridgend campus coming up in Nov! (Shameless plug, if you’re a student, contact Union for further details).

We can help one another in this—as indeed Kim Phillips, the mediaeval community, Origen and of course Christ, have helped me! An example of helping one another “relight the fire” is seen in the impact of Jonathan Edwards, a man who thought deeply about the relationship between filling the mind with knowledge and seeing that awaken affection for the Lord: “Holy affections are not heat without light … The child of God is graciously affected, because he sees and understands something more of divine things than he did before … Knowledge is the key that first opens the hard heart, and enlarges the affections.”[9] As Edwards contemplated divine things, his joy grew:

My mind was very much taken up with contemplations on heaven and the enjoyments there … I very frequently used to retire to a solitary place … for contemplation on divine things and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there.[10]

As a result the glory of God shone through his writing. This in turn stirred the hearts of others, as McCheyne testifies in his diary:

March 20 … Read part of the Life of Jonathan Edwards. How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun. But, even his was a borrowed light and the same source is still open to me.[11]

I hope that feeble as our spark of Christianity might feel, that through meditating on God’s Word we might find the fire in our hearts rekindled.


[1] Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin (United Kingdom: n.p., 1962), 527.

[2] MacLeod, Donald. The Person of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1998), 222–230.

[3] For examples of memory aids in Scripture, see Deuteronomy 11:18–20; Numbers 15:38–39.

[4] John J. O’Keefe, Russell R. Reno and R.R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (JHU Press, 2005), 69.

[5] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2008), 45.

[6] Janice McRandal, Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology (Fortress Press, 2016), 3.

[7] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Books, 2007). Section on Luke by David Pao and Eckhard Schnabel

[8] “I Have Stored up Your Word in My Heart: Manuscripts and Memorisation,” accessed 27/10/22, https://tyndalehouse.com/explore/articles/i-have-stored-up-your-word-in-my-heart

[9] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (repr.; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 3.4

[10] Jonathan Edwards and Sereno Edwards Dwight, The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974). “Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards,” xiv.

[11] Robert Murray M’Cheyne and Andrew Alexander Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1892). 14.

Picture of Linda Allcock

Linda Allcock

Linda is the author of Deeper Still: Finding Clear Minds and Full Hearts through Biblical Meditation, and Head, Heart, Hands Bible notes. Linda works alongside her husband Jonty in The Globe Church, Central London and lectures on the women’s ministry course at London Seminary.
Picture of Linda Allcock

Linda Allcock

Linda is the author of Deeper Still: Finding Clear Minds and Full Hearts through Biblical Meditation, and Head, Heart, Hands Bible notes. Linda works alongside her husband Jonty in The Globe Church, Central London and lectures on the women’s ministry course at London Seminary.