One night several years ago I sat up into the wee hours, engrossed in a book I’d picked up at a yard sale. In the Presence of Mine Enemies was the memoir of Vietnam POW Howard Rutledge, who was shot down over North Vietnam on November 28, 1965. When his plane was hit, Howard bailed out, but he descended into thick mud near a large village and was soon surrounded by a crowd welding knives, machetes, and sticks. Forming a ring around him, the townspeople blocked his escape and descended on him, pounding him with blows, stripping off his clothing, and dragging him into their little jail, half dead. Shortly thereafter, he was transported to the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he was brutally interrogated and tortured.
Howard described how, in an initial set of tortures, his legs were forced into rough shackles, with his arms hog-tied in an excruciating position. He was deprived of clothing, food, and sleep and forced to lie on a cold slab in a mucky cell. The walls, floors, and ceilings were caked with filth, and a large rat shared his space.
Until his incarceration Howard had felt little concern for spiritual things; but now he desperately tried to recall snatches of Bible verses, hymns, or sermons he had heard in his childhood. Fortunately as a youngster he had attended a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a Sunday school that had stressed the importance of Scripture memory. There in the POW camp, he racked his brain for every single verse he could recall. During the rare moments when he could communicate with other POWs, he found them seeking to do the same.
“Everyone knew the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm,” he said, “but the camp favorite verse that everyone recalled first and quoted most often is found in the Book of John, third chapter, sixteenth verse: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
With a friend’s help, Howard even managed to reconstruct verses 17 and 18.
Howard wrote, “How I struggled to recall those Scriptures and hymns! I had spent my first eighteen years in a Southern Baptist Sunday School, and I was amazed at how much I could recall; regrettably, I had not seen the importance of memorizing verses from the Bible. . . . Now, when I needed them, it was too late. I never dreamed that I would spend almost seven years (five of them in solitary confinement) in a prison in North Vietnam or that thinking about one memorized verse could have made a whole day bearable. One portion of a verse I did remember was, ‘Thy word have I hid in my heart.’ How often I wished I had really worked to hide God’s Word in my heart. I put my mind to work.”
In his memoirs Howard described days and nights of tortures that made my skin crawl as I read about them; but he also testified of being able, as time progressed, to recall more and more Bible verses from the recesses of his mind. His recollection wasn’t word perfect, but he was amazed at how many phrases and sentences from the Bible lay buried deep in his memory, waiting to be discovered.
Those Bible verses literally kept Howard Rutledge from losing his mind. The memorized snippets of Scripture in his brain were potent. They faced down death, rallied his spirits, steeled his nerves, and tapped into the deepest strength known in the universe. They beat back the torture, stifled the despair, subdued the terrors he felt, and maintained his sanity even when he was immobilized for days in a stifling hut, chained to a metal frame, lying in his own waste, and covered with ants, flies, and biting insects.
Those verses, long ago learned by heart, proved more restorative than any tonic. They dispensed strength and were sufficient to the pain; and they bolstered his mind and his mood with the strongest thoughts of an omniscient God in the midst of humanity’s most sadistic ravings. They were the reason he came home alive.
“That first New Year’s Eve in Heartbreak Hotel,” he wrote, “I had resolved never to be without a Bible again. Those verses of God’s Word that I had memorized or that I had scrounged from other prisoners’ memories had been a living source of strength in my life.”6
Most of us will never be POWs in a concentration camp, but all of us occasionally check into Heartbreak Hotel. Life is hard, full of anguishing moments and dangerous temptations. We need strong minds—brains that think clearly, emotions that remain calm and steady.
Bible verses, committed to memory and applied by the Holy Spirit, are the most powerful medications in the whole world. They’re a balm for sore hearts, an elixir for low spirits, an immunization for bad habits, a booster shot of high spirits, a pick-me-up for dreary days, and a stimulant for positive nerves.
How many Bible verses could you reconstruct from your memory banks if push came to shove? How about your children? Are they hiding away God’s Word in their hearts, storing up the precious seeds of the Scriptures against the coming famine? Do your teenagers know the Bible verses they need to withstand the temptations they’ll face?
The Bible was written to be memorized. Take Psalm 25, for example. If you’ll turn there in your Bible and notice it, it has twenty-two verses. The Hebrew alphabet has twenty-two letters; so when we find a passage like this with twenty-two verses, it’s likely an acrostic. In the original Hebrew of Psalm 25, for example, verse 1 begins with the Hebrew equivalent of our letter A. Verse 2, with the Hebrew equivalent of our letter B. And so forth.
Why is that important? It was a mnemonic, a device to aid in memorization. This psalm was intended for memorization. Its message was so important that the writer wanted to make it easy to memorize.
The longest chapter in the Bible—Psalm 119—is actually composed of twenty-two segments arranged as an extended acrostic. The passage about the wise woman in Proverbs 31 likewise has twenty-two segments.
In other words, these were composed to be memorized. In the days before the printing press, many people didn’t have access to their own copies of the Bible so they memorized vast portions of God’s Word. How tragic that now, with all our modern versions and translations, we’re memorizing it less and less, if at all.
But remember, whenever we store away a verse in our minds, it becomes a concealed weapon. It’s a light, a lamp, a vault of gold, a hive of honey, and a two-edged sword. It’s available day and night for practical purposes. It helps us “fix” our thoughts, and we fix our thoughts by fixing them on Jesus via His praiseworthy Word.
Fix your thoughts on Jesus. (Hebrews 3:1 NIV)