There are two ways to state the ultimate goal of life, one positively and one negatively. Positively we could say: the ultimate goal of life is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Or negatively, we could say: the ultimate goal of life is not to sin. They both mean the same thing because sinning is falling short of glorifying God by embracing other things as more enjoyable.
So if we could learn how to glorify God by enjoying him, we would know how not to sin. And if we could learn how not to sin, we would know how to glorify God by enjoying him.
Psalm 119:11 tells us one of the keys to not sinning. It says, speaking to God, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against thee.” The way not to sin is to treasure the word of God in your heart. Which means that the way to succeed in the ultimate goal of life — to live for the glory of God by enjoying him forever — is to treasure the word of God in your heart.
So let’s focus for a moment on what this means. Take the three key phrases: (1) Thy word; (2) I have treasured; (3) in my heart.
The word the psalmist has in mind is not a subjective impression that comes to his mind when he prays for God’s will to be revealed. It is the revelation of God in his written word, primarily the Torah, the books of Moses, but also the writings of the prophets whom God sent to Israel. You can see this in the way he piles up familiar words for God’s revealed written word in the context. For example, verse 10b: “Do not let me wander from thy commandments.” Verse 12: “Blessed art thou, O Lord; teach me thy statutes.” Verse 13: “With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of thy mouth.” Verse 14: “I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies.” Verse 15: “I will meditate on thy precepts.”
These words — commandments, statutes, ordinances, testimonies, precepts — are all words that the Bible uses to refer to the written word of God, especially in the books of Moses, but by implication to all God’s revealed written work. Today we would say “Thy word” refers to the Bible in its entirety. So what the psalmist is referring to in verse 11 is not subjective impressions but objective teachings of God in Scripture. “Thy word — that word I have treasured in my heart.”
Next take the phrase “in my heart.” The point here is mainly to say: inside of me, not just on a tablet outside of me. The words of God are not just kept in writing for the psalmist to consult outside of himself. They are kept for his consulting inside of him — in his heart. The heart in the Old Testament is a place of both thinking and feeling (Genesis 6:5; Job 36:13). So these words of God are being treasured in a place where they can be thought about and felt.
Finally take the middle phrase: “I have treasured.” “Thy word I have treasured in my heart.” You might ask, “How do you know that the word of God is ‘in the heart,’ rather than only the act of treasuring being in the heart while the word is on the scrolls outside the heart?” For example, I could say, “My wife have I treasured in my heart,” and would not mean that my wife is in my heart, but only that I treasure her with my heart.
The reason we know that the word of God is in the heart is that the Hebrew word “I have treasured” (tsaphan), in its more than thirty uses in the Old Testament, almost always means “hide” or “store.” It only secondarily comes to mean “to treasure” since hiding was what you did with your treasures in the days before there were banks (see Job 23:12; Proverbs 2:1). So we know that when the psalmist says, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart,” he does not just mean that the act of valuing happens in his heart, but that the word is being hidden and stored up there as something valuable — like a treasure.
So the teaching in this verse is that one way to keep from sinning — one way to attain the ultimate reason for being, to live for the glory of God by enjoying him forever — is to store up the word of God in our hearts as something very precious. When we have the word of God stored or hidden in our hearts, and treasure it like gold and silver, that word will function to keep us from sin.
It’s not just one thing, but two things that keep us from sinning and move us to glorify and enjoy God. It is not just having the word stored. Nor is it is just valuing the word. It is both. Both are crucial. We value the word and therefore we have it stored in our hearts. And the two together give us the power to stand against the temptations to sin. It is a (1) superior treasure, (2) present and active, that conquers sin.
So I believe that the Bible teaches us to memorize Scripture the way an ant gathers food in summer: because it is so valuable and will be needed in the winter months. “[The ant] prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her provision in the harvest” (Proverbs 6:8). Memorizing Scripture is not a discipline for its own sake. It is because the Scriptures are a treasure and will be needed before the day is done to help you escape a sinful attitude and live a life that glorifies God.
We on the staff believe that a church-wide Bible memory challenge will be revolutionary for our lives. Dallas Willard, who is famous for his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, said,
As a pastor, teacher, and counselor I have repeatedly seen the transformation of inner and outer life that comes simply from memorization and meditation upon Scripture. Personally, I would never undertake to pastor a church or guide a program of Christian education that did not involve a continuous program of memorization of the choicest passages of Scripture for people of all ages. (150)
That is what we are planning to do beginning today.
You may doubt that you can do this, especially if you are older. But ask yourself this question: If I offered you $1,000 for every verse you memorized in the next week, how many do you think you could memorize? Yet God says of his word in Psalm 19:10–11, “They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them thy servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” The real value of the word is far greater than $1,000 a verse. The question is this: Do you believe it? Believing this will be the crucial motivation you need.
Nor is the task beneath you and only for children. The Lord Jesus memorized Scripture verbatim. We know he did, because when he was fasting in the wilderness there were no libraries or books, and with every temptation of the devil he quoted a passage of Scripture to defeat the devil (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10).
This is why we are calling the 52 passages prepared for all of us this year (one a week) “fighter verses.” Jesus defeated the devil’s temptations with the use of a memorized passage of Scripture. And in Ephesians 4:17, Paul called the word of God “the sword of the Spirit.” We cannot successfully overcome sin and Satan without the present treasure of precious words of God — “fighter verses.”
You can do this. When Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, became a Christian in 1926, he was driving a truck for a lumberyard in Los Angeles. While driving, he would work on memorizing a verse a day. During the first three years of his Christian life he memorized his first thousand verses (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 40–41). If he can do that, you can do 52 in a year.
How is your faith? Is it strong or weak? I have never known a strong Christian who did not have much Scripture memorized. There is a reason for this. God designed faith to feed on the promises of Scripture all day long. Faith depends for its life on steady access to precious Biblical truth. Look at how Proverbs 22:18–19 puts this: “It will be pleasant if you keep [the words of the wise] within you, that they may be ready on your lips. So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have taught you today, even you.”
How is your trust? Your confidence? Your peace and joy and assurance? Are they strong or weak? God says that he has given us his word so that it will be within us and that we may trust in him. Faith rises or falls to the degree that it feeds hourly on the treasure of God’s truth stored in the heart.
If you choose against Bible memory (not our program in particular) you choose against the food of faith and will, at best, become a weak Christian and, at worst, prove to be a false Christian. Far better to say with Psalm 119:9, “how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day.”
I can’t think of a better way to encourage you to accept this year’s Scripture memory challenge than to tell you some stories from my own life of how valuable memorizing scripture has been.
[For those reading this manuscript, I do not include, in the following, the entire anecdote or explanation, but only a brief reference and the text that I learned and the situation where it proved precious. For time’s sake I was only able to tell some of these stories as a conclusion to the sermon. Others were told on the following Wednesday night. The version is RSV because this is what I have used for Bible memory since 1966, and it is very hard to change.]
1. My mother’s early preparation for me to leave home and walk with God — Proverbs 3:5–6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
2. The verse that navigated me through a change in career plans in 1966 — Galatians 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
3. My father’s send-off as I left New York for graduate school in Germany — Isaiah 41:10:
Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
4. My bike ride to theological seminars in Germany — Psalm 23:
Der Herr ist mein Hirte, mir wird nichts mangeln. Er weidet mich auf einer grünen Aue und führet mich zum frischen Wasser. Er erquicket meine Seele. Er führet mich auf rechter Straße um seines Namens willen. Und ob ich schon wanderte im finstern Tal, fürchte ich kein Unglück; denn du bist bei mir, dein Stecken und Stab trösten mich. Du bereitest vor mir einen Tisch im Angesicht meiner Feinde. Du salbest mein Haupt mit Öl und schenkest mir voll ein. Gutes und Barmherzigkeit werden mir folgen mein Leben lang, und ich werde bleiben im Hause des Herr immerdar.
5. In my early days as a pastor, the weapon against discouragement — Psalm 42:5–6a:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
6. Deloris Erickson’s near-death — Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her right early. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has wrought desolations in the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, he burns the chariots with fire! “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
7. The fountain of encouragement I go back to keep the value of memorizing clear — Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
8. A season in my life when this passage preserved my God-centeredness against many dangers — Psalm 73:25–26:
Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
10. Passage I use most often when I am in the presence of death — Romans 14:7–9:
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
11. Most often used to encourage myself in the presence of failing strength and faculties — 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
12. Most often used to encourage myself that God will hear and answer prayer — Matthew 7:7–11:
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
13. Most often used to encourage myself that God has it all under control and it will turn out for my good — Romans 8:28–32:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.