Memory Verses: Good or Bad?
by Alec Fisher
Growing up in the Lutheran Church required the memorization and recitation of bible verses. I can’t really put a number on how many verses I memorized, but it was a lot. As I grew older, I began to reflect on this practice. What was the point? Was this helpful? Furthermore, is it a good idea to artificially break up the writings of biblical authors only to take in bits and pieces leaving the rest by the wayside? After all, modern chapter divisions didn’t even really appear until the thirteenth century followed by versification in the sixteenth century. Before that manuscripts often contained capitula, or “section headings,” denoting larger sections of text (but even those were not written by the authors). It’s true that these things are invaluable for referencing very specific portions of text, but my concern is that with each of these developments, every book of the Bible has become increasingly fragmented.
For us as modern readers this poses a problem which is only compounded by a growing number of modern translations and editions. Additionally, versification of the text originating in a different language can often make little sense in English. Some verses are just plain grammatically awkward, others express incomplete thoughts, and others still have multiple things going on leaving you to think, is that all one verse? When I look at Bibles with all the chapter markers, all of the verse numbers, all of the cross references and footnotes, the double column pages of small print on thin paper, it seems to me like one big organized mess. And study Bibles are on a whole different level. Ultimately, I think that the individual, artificial versification, along with the rest of the meta-text, has eclipsed the narrative itself by becoming the primary interpretive tool among Christians. And yet, it’s something that the apostolic authors never could have imagined.
Just consider, how often people take these artificial verses out of context. What happens when I take Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”—and I ignore the context of Judah in the sixth century BC moving closer and closer to complete exile just so that I can casually apply it to my own life? For the record, I’ve never been a captive in Babylon for seventy years. Our overly-versified text can be used in ways that are unhelpful and even to our own detriment. Malachi 3:10 is a favorite among modern day prosperity preachers. The text says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” Financial problems? Solved! (Your pastor’s, not yours).
Verses are taken out of context all the time, because that’s what happens when you divorce them from the narrative in which they originated. The result is the Bible reduced to a collection of platitudes. Getting ready for the big competition? Philippians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Lose the big game? 2 Corinthians 12:10 says, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Need a way to defend your sin? Matthew 7:11 says, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Show up to yoga class but are too tired to exercise? Mark 2:11 says, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Need an excuse when your friends are giving you a hard time for not going out last weekend? Jonah 2:6 says, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.”
So, memory verses: good or bad? It might surprise you to learn that I’m a very strong proponent of them. I recently wrote an article about how we must internalize the Bible, and I do believe that memory verses can be a very effective way of facilitating that if they’re used to internalize the narrative as a whole. We see small portions of text used this way in the Bible itself. Have you noticed how the New Testament writers and the speakers within the narrative use sections of the Old Testament? They’re almost always using one small section to refer to an entire event or larger idea. Sometimes they quote sentences from multiple sources mixing and matching clauses. They do this without any standardized, artificial versification system, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. Other times they reference the whole story while barely even touching the original wording. We see this in Galatians 3–4, the way that Paul tells the story of Abraham, and we see it in Hebrews 11. These writers are concerned with the whole narrative, not just some individual verse, or some nice thought that makes them feel good about life. In fact, the focus on the narrative makes it impossible for them to reduce the text written before them to a series of platitudes.
Now it’s true that many small snippets from the Bible can pack a whole lot, but even John 3:16 is much better understood once the rest of John 3 is considered. If you’re intentional about the way that you memorize verses, you can use a verse or section like John 3:16 to understand what is happening in the whole Gospel of John and internalize the way that John tells the story. That’s what we should look for when we are seeking out verses or clauses to memorize. Take the Gospel of Luke for example. Luke has so many memorable sections of text that are just jam packed with all kinds of wonderful things to internalize. Make them a part of you! But there are some more humble passages, often overlooked as memory verses, that can go a long way in making the whole narrative stick with you. Consider Luke 9:51, which says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It seems humble enough. You won’t find it on an inspirational card. It’s probably not hanging on anybody’s wall at home. But if you know the narrative, then you know that this is the point at which Jesus wraps up his Galilean ministry and intentionally sets his sights toward Jerusalem to die. And it’s a major turning point in Luke’s Gospel, the way that Luke tells the story (which relies a lot on geography). Memorizing that verse goes a long way when it comes to internalizing the Gospel of Luke and remembering the whole story. With this verse in mind, you can also remember, he did that for me, he set his face toward Jerusalem for me.
I’m not saying that we should stop memorizing verses or do away with the current versification system. I’m suggesting that we don’t allow ourselves to be held captive by it. Memorize as much as you can and do it with the intention of internalizing the full narrative itself, and the nuances of the various writers. That’s how we should seek out our memory verses. The Bible is a story, not a selection of platitudes. We should memorize the artificial verses, the various clauses, sentences, full paragraphs in a way that helps us to remember the whole story, to constantly understand and reflect on our own lives as a part of that story, and to tell that story to others.