We are approaching our subject from the end of extreme simplicity, and can imagine that some of our readers will smile at a place being given to such a childish proceeding as learning verses by heart. Be that as it may, we trust that none of our readers will finish this little section without having impressed upon them the importance, and almost necessity, for this exercise which should be continued, as well as Bible reading, throughout life.
We will suppose that our reader has been brought up in a Christian home, and had the advantages of training in a Scriptural Sunday-school. There has probably been the memorizing of at least one verse of the Bible for each Lord's Day in such cases. We know of Sunday-schools where this is still practised, though perhaps it has become too old-fashioned for some of the more "progressive" ones. By the time a pupil has reached the age of twelve to fifteen, he has in memory possibly as many as one to two hundred verses, embracing the great fundamental truths of sin, judgment, salvation, the love of God, the person and work of Christ, the necessity of faith, and many other blessed facts. Here is an arsenal supplying weapons ready at hand with which to meet the adversary, and small portions of meat in due season, and refreshment for weary saints or needy sinners.
Has the reader ever felt at a loss for a suited word of warning to some careless scoffer, or failed to find ready at hand the exact verse which will give assurance to an anxious soul? Why should this have been the case? Why should we not have ready at hand, stored in memory, an abundant supply for immediate use of various portions of God's precious word?
We have also already alluded to the great value of filling the minds of the young with the word of God, so that when the Spirit of God has awakened them to their true condition, He will have abundance of material with which to act upon them. This, of course, applies to the memorizing of verses.
We pass, however, to that which possibly will not be so readily admitted by the average Christian reader who has passed the age of youth. We will be told that persons more advanced in life are unable to retain that which they have committed to memory. It is just here that we wish to be distinctly explicit, and to claim for age as well as youth, the privilege of this most helpful exercise. We do not believe that our memories, or to speak more accurately, our powers of attention, become so enfeebled with age that we are incapable of committing passages of Scripture to memory. It is well known that there is nothing like neglect to weaken a power. If certain limbs are not kept in exercise they become atrophied from the lack of use. The busiest muscle in our whole body perhaps is the heart, which ceaselessly beats throughout the twenty-four hours of the day, snatching possibly briefest moments of rest between the diastole and systole, eighty times a minute. We should never lose our active interest in all useful affairs. Nothing is more pathetic than to see a cloud of indifference, or possibly morose and morbid selfishness, settling down upon an aged person. The brightest lives are those which keep in touch with what is going on about them of a proper character, up to the very last. Instead of weakening the powers and shortening the life, we have no doubt that the very reverse is true. How many an active man of business, after having earned a competency, has retired to devote the latter years of his life to comparative leisure and has found time hanging so heavily on his hands that he has been glad to plunge again into something that will occupy his mind; or failing in this, his life has become saddened and shortened by the helpless feeling that he is of no use to himself or any one else.
Now, all this applies to the study of the word of God, no small part of which consists in memorizing. It has been said, and probably is correct, that if one verse were committed to memory each day, the entire Scriptures would have been memorized in the course of twenty-five years. Imagine what rich stores would thus have been laid away in the mind if one had begun at ten years of age, and when thirty-five could repeat the entire Bible from memory! Of course, much might have been forgotten in that time, but as we shall see, provision could be made to guard against this, and at any rate, there would have been gained a familiarity with the Scriptures far beyond what is common to persons of thirty-five. And now, in the flower of life, with judgment becoming more mature, the student could begin at that age a systematic and careful review, mingling with the memorizing of our English version possibly many excellent emendations in the text and full quotations from the originals. Should life be prolonged up to fifty years, we have no hesitation in saying that the Bible would be practically stored in the mind, and a chapter could be "read" aloud in the dark by the bedside, in the hospital, or wherever one might be. And how much time would have been required each day, to have reached this most desirable end? Scarcely more than five minutes!
But we will not dwell upon ideals, and indeed even here would reiterate the solemn declaration of the word of God: "The flesh profiteth nothing; it is the Spirit that quickeneth." No knowledge of Scripture, however complete, can either save the sinner or sanctify the child of God apart from the exercise of a living faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. There is danger, too, of pride coming in because of our success in these directions. However, we are not to be deterred from the simple and blessed path of Christian activity because of the dangers that beset it, and therefore continue our subject.
Some of our readers will probably have said: "We do not think it desirable to learn the entire Bible. There are many of the historical books which we do not need thus to memorize, and much in the Prophets, too, that would needlessly cumber the mind." Just here it may be well to say that cumbering the mind is largely a figment. Nothing in the word of God really cumbers the mind, which is not a material storehouse which holds so much and no more. It is developed by the very act of acquiring and retaining knowledge, and, with due regard to the simple laws of health, is not in any danger of being overtaxed. We admit, however, that most of us will probably never attempt to memorize the entire Scriptures.
For such, we plan a more modest course and this we hope will not be considered extravagant. Who would not love to know every word of the Gospel of John, to be able to repeat the words of Him who spake as never man spake, and to have them before our minds as we lie awake, perhaps, a few minutes on retiring, or to have them speak to us in the morning? "He awakeneth mine ear morning by morning to hear as one that is taught." Similarly, the epistle to the Romans, particularly the first eight chapters, furnishes a most necessary framework for the whole truth of Christian justification; while Galatians in its entirety settles the thousand and one subtle questions arising in a mind not set free from the law.
'Ephesians, too. Can we afford to do without its wondrous unfolding of the Christian position in Christ? and Colossians as it tells us of the perfections of Him who is the Image of the invisible God; Philippians, with its powerful appeal to the affections, and furnishing the ideal of Christian experience? We cannot do without one of them, and indeed may we not claim that we need these not merely conveniently in our pockets in a portable Bible, but in our minds as well?
The same, of course, could be said of the epistle to the Hebrews, and that of 1 Peter and 1 John, so that without being extravagant, we might easily say that it is most desirable that the Christian should know by heart at least two-thirds of the New Testament.
Turning to the Old, there are single chapters, such as Gen. 1; Gen. 49; Exodus 12; Exodus 20; Lev. 16; Lev. 23; Num. 19; Deut. 8; Deut. 26; Joshua 1; Judges 5; Ruth 1; 1 Sam. 9; 2 Sam. 7 and 23; Solomon's prayer in 1 Kings and 2 Chron., the closing chapters of the book of Job, many of the Psalms, and a few chapters of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah 1, 6, 12, 28, 35, 40, 53, 54, 55, 60—but we all have our favorite portions which we would most covet to learn, and need not multiply them here.
The question now recurs, Is it possible for the average Christian, with his life full of busy duties, to be able to accomplish a tithe of all this? We answer, Not all at once. The great thing is to make a beginning, to learn one verse, and to proceed quietly in this way. Perhaps we will be astonished at the end of a month how much we have committed to memory. Let us begin, say, at the age of twenty. We will suppose that one is fairly familiar with the New Testament and is growing in acquaintance with it and the Old through the daily reading such as has been already suggested. Let such an one begin, for instance, with the epistle to the Galatians. Already, many verses are familiar, and often as many as three or four can be fully learned in a few minutes. A chapter is mastered, we will say, in a week. It is then reviewed at some leisure time, on Lord's Day. Perhaps a number are interested in the same work, and by hearing each other will have their interest quickened and their memories brightened. It is probably always better to repeat what we have learned aloud, first to ourselves and then, if possible, to some one else. We will find that the words are more firmly embedded in the mind by this. The daily family reading would be a good time for this, and an hour on Lord's Day might be happily and profitably occupied in reviewing the week's work.
In a month or six weeks, the entire epistle will have thus been learned. This is not expecting too much, but let us cut it, if you please, in four parts and suppose that in six months we have learned the epistle to the Galatians, in another six that to the Ephesians, and in four months more, Philippians. By the end of two years, we will have become fully acquainted with the most of the small epistles and will be astonished at the ease with which we continue to memorize. Frequent reviews will keep what we have learned fresh in the mind.
We now turn to the Gospel of John and will probably find that one year and six months will enable us to recite practically the entire book. The remaining six months of that year could be devoted to the epistle to the Hebrews. Thus in four years, a person of ordinary intelligence, by spending from five to ten minutes a day upon it, could have committed these portions to memory and have formed a habit which would go with him through life, so that in all probability by the time he was thirty years of age the somewhat lengthy list of Old Testament passages also would be safely housed within his heart.
But perhaps you remark with a sigh, "I am not a young man of twenty or even of thirty. I have passed the fifty year mark or more, and my memory has become so weak that I often forget persons' names and familiar events. There is, of course, no use for me to attempt any of this that you speak of." Indeed, there is. Your memory is probably weak from long disuse. Like persons, the memory loves to be trusted and if we, so to speak, prove our confidence in it by testing it, it will improve. Long disuse, as has been said, may have caused it to seem so weak that there is no use of attempting to exercise it, but let a single verse be tried. Take the first verse of John and devote a day to learning it, and the next morning see if it is remembered. You smile as though we were teaching you the A, B, C again. In all probability a very few minutes would suffice. All that we mean is, do not attempt to do too much at once, but what you do, take up thoroughly and as far as possible, regularly. Regularity, system, are most important. Remember five minutes a day means thirty hours a year, and thirty hours are not to be despised.
Persons who have reached a mature age, who might shrink from coming into competition with younger and brighter minds, can go along at their own quiet pace, learning a few verses each week with very gratifying and profitable results. Let us then begin, if we have not yet done so, to learn verses by heart, and with the determination by God's grace to continue this as we do our Bible reading, throughout life. Our blessed Lord, we may be sure, had God's word hid in His heart. He had its letter as well as its spirit, and when assailed by the tempter during His time of fasting, could quote—we may be quite sure He did not read—passages from the word of God.
In closing, then, we would suggest that older persons take up the first chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians and commit it to memory. It may take them considerable time, but will encourage them to go on in what will prove a happy and profitable employment for a few minutes of each day. As we go on the train or street cars, we see perhaps three-fourths of the occupants busily engaged in the morning with the newspaper, spending perhaps half an hour over it. Returning in the evening, we find the same absorption. How much of the word of God could be memorized in the daily journey to and from work!
Copied for Wholesome Words from How to Study the Bible by S. Ridout. New York: Bible Truth Press, [n.d.]. Part 1: Methods of Bible Study, Chapter 2.