Contemplation, David, Eating, Food, Lectio Divina, Meditation, Psalms
A few weeks ago I explored the difference between contemplation and related spiritual disciplines such as meditation and introspection. More importantly, I explained contemplation in light of the traditional understanding of the lectio divina and its fourfold steps: Read, meditate, pray, contemplate. Following the monastic tradition, I compared these sequential steps to biting, chewing, savoring, and digesting/absorbing food. This post will further explain how contemplation and eating are analogous. I will primarily use Psalm 19 to do so.
Before diving into Psalm 19, it is worth noting that Scripture often compares the words of God to food. First, the word of God is necessary for nourishment. As God declares through Amos, “Behold, the days are coming . . . when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). The words of God are necessary, so much so that a lack of them is likened to a famine. Second, and related, the words of God are pleasant to taste. God’s words are “sweeter than honey to my mouth (Ps 119:103), and they are “the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). Lastly, the word of God allows the believer to grow. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet 2:2-3). Indeed, those who are immature need the “basic principles of the oracles of God,” whereas those who are mature can handle “solid food” (Heb 5:11-14).
The tentative point is simple: the analogy between food and God’s word is not without warrant. Therefore, the lectio divina and its fourfold step process—biting, chewing, savoring, and digesting/absorbing food—is a helpful way to understand one’s reading of Scripture. Indeed, Scripture is meant to be absorbed. David reflects this kind of perspective on God’s words throughout his psalms. These psalms reflect a deep pondering and application that is analogous to eating: biting, chewing, savoring, and digesting/absorbing.
In Psalm 19, for example, David takes a bite and savors the words of God. (He most often uses the term “law,” but this is a comprehensive term for God’s revealed will, that is, his word.)
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps 19:7-11).
David here contemplates the beauty of God’s word. He chews and savors the reality of the power and goodness of the word. He says that God’s word is perfect, certain, right, pure, clean, and true; it likewise gives life, wisdom, joy, enlightenment, and stability (vv. 7-9). David’s point is simple: when one beholds the words of God, one beholds something about God. In a similar way that God’s works in creation expose his awesomeness, so also Gods words in Scripture expose his majesty. As Derek Kidner reflects, David shows “the practical purpose of revelation, to bring God’s will to bear on the hearer and evoke intelligent reverence, well-founded trust, detailed obedience.” It is unsurprising that David concludes with a meditation: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14). Contemplation for David is an act of chewing, ingesting, and absorbing.
Additionally, in the first half of the psalm, David considers the works of God, that is, creation itself. As he contemplates creation, he ascribes to creation the ability to speak the word of God. The heavens “declare” God’s glory, and the skies “proclaim” his workmanship (v. 1). He continues strikingly:
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun” (Psalm 19:2-4).
As people gaze at the universe, they behold the creator God. God’s glory is so displayed that, just as “there is nothing hidden from [the Sun’s] heat” (v. 6), so also there is nothing in the universe hidden from God’s intricate detail. David thus also refers to creation as declaring and proclaiming words.
David’s poetic writings (in these and other instances) show a man who contemplated God. Along with Scripture as a whole, he often considered the words of God as an analogy of eating. This kind of argument finds warrant in how he writes his poetry in Psalm 19. (For more examples from David, which more comprehensively show David’s contemplative method, see Psalm 119 and 139.)
The word of God must be eaten; it must be read, savored, and contemplated. It’s a pretty simple idea with larger consequences. In the beginning was the Word, who created the universe. As we look upon and perceive the “proclamation” of creation, therefore, we are contemplating the creative result of this Word. The Word then became human flesh, dwelling among us. He is not only meant to be understood and known by humans; rather, he is to be savored and “absorbed” by his people through contemplation. (Remember Mary who lay at his feet?) He, the Word incarnate, is ultimately the object of contemplation and affection. The Spirit, thereafter, wrote the word of the gospel in Scripture to be read and contemplated by us today.
While one might not want to push this analogy through the wall, it is interesting to note the words of Jesus Christ at the first “Lord’s Supper:” he told his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine, which is, he says, “my body” and blood “for you” (1 Cor 11:24). We remember Jesus and contemplate him by eating him and drinking his blood. This eating is of course a spiritual eating, but the wording and scriptural allusions are certainly interesting and telling. Scripture forms an analogy between God’s word and food, suggesting the very intimate manner in which the believer ought to understand the Word; likewise, Jesus Christ, drawing from the scriptural imagery before, compares his disciples eating of food to a relationship with himself, the incarnate Word.
Contemplation may be likened to eating. It is biting, chewing, savoring, and ingesting the word of God.
(I said, “May be likened.” Remember, it’s a metaphor, people. J)
Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 117.
Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 117.
For an excellent overview of these verses, see Kidner, Psalms 1-72, 114-116.