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Pulling the Bible’s “Mnemonic Triggers”

Copyright © 20211

by
Jim Kerwin

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Title image for 'Pulling the Bible's 'Mnemonic Triggers'When you found that Old Testament quotation
in the New Testament this morning,
did you pull the “mnemonic trigger”?
If not, you probably missed a blessing!2

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that mnemonic3 isn’t an adjective that rolls off the tongue or that comes up in casual conversation. Neither is its related noun, mnemonics, which means a technique of improving memory. But I think I can promise that if we can understand these unfamiliar words, the concept of a “mnemonic trigger” will become a useful and powerful tool in our Scripture reading and Bible study.

It might help us fix these two unusual words in memory if we take a quick trip down Memory Lane to visit the name which gave birth to both words. The ancient Greeks enshrined the concept of memory in a goddess named Mnemosyne (Μνημοσύνη), and they associated with her all of the creative and academic disciplines that required a great deal of recall. And she didn’t just “give birth” to the words mnemonic and mnemonics. The way the Greeks thought of it, Mnemosyne,4 or Memory personified, was the “mother” of those memory-dependent disciplines, which they called the Nine Muses. When you think of these Muses and their functions, it’s clear how much the exercise of memory would have been required in pursuit of the subjects they represent. Mnemosyne’s “daughters” were Clio (goddess of the study of history) and her star-gazing sister Urania (astronomy). Two other girls in the family had a dramatic bent with a bipolar relationship — Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy). Since the Greeks passed on much of their knowledge by way of verse, the Muses Calliope (epic poetry) and Erato (lyric poetry) were special favorites. Rounding out the nine sisters were the note-able trio of Polyhymnia (responsible for hymns), Terpsichore (dance), and Euterpe (music).

Have you ever heard a speaker say something like, “In the first place” as he or she begins to enumerate the points of their speech? What is “the first place”? It goes back to the way the Greek schools of oratory sought to help students memorize their speeches. They were taught to mentally associate the points of their speech with locations or places; point #1 might be associated with the entry of their home, point #2 with the vestibule, #3 with the living room; and so forth. Those “places” were mnemonics or mnemonic devices, mental “hooks” on which to “hang” the various points of the speech.

In our day, when we rely on a smartphone, tablet, or computer to “remember” everything for us — appointments, addresses, phone numbers, basic facts, formulas, and common Bible verses — we have to stop a moment and marvel at the amount of information pre-computer generations could commit to memory and recall at need. In the world before computers, before the printing press, before bound books, people memorized. Before people frittered away their time on non-productive activities like TV watching, texting, social-media posting, and taking selfies, they committed things to memory out of necessity. They could recite their family trees back many generations. They committed to heart famous poems and could sing many dozens of verses of ballads. In the case of the Jews, they memorized large portions of the Tanakh (that part of the Bible which we call “the Old Testament”).

Retrieving Our Memories

Well, if you have a lot of material memorized and many experiences stored in your mind, what activates its retrieval from your memory? Often there is an event, a sensation (a sound, a smell, a sunset), or a phrase that will bring it all back. That’s what I call a trigger, specifically a mnemonic trigger.

Think of how that works. If you are part of the British Commonwealth and I were to hum a single line of the song — “God save our gracious Queen” — it’s a rare Briton, Aussie, or Kiwi who couldn’t recall and sing all three verses (four, for Canadians, who’ve added the verse that starts with “Our loved Dominion bless…”).

Perhaps I ought to stick to things I know better, namely, memory matters relating to the United States. I could hum that same line of music from “God Save the Queen” here in the States and it would a elicit very different result. For an American it would trigger the words to My Country, ’Tis of Thee. If you attended elementary school way back in the patriotic, God-and-country, post-World-War-II days when I did, you would remember all the verses, not omitting the fourth and last verse (which seems conveniently “forgotten” in today’s public patriotic performances):

Our fathers’ God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing!
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King!

It was a duty (and, although we young students didn’t realize it at the time, a privilege) to memorize famous speeches or parts of the Declaration of Independence. It would be an interesting experiment to test the various American “generations” (e.g., “Boomers,” “Gen X’ers,” Millennials, “Gen Z’ers”) with the following list of “triggers”:

Fourscore and seven years ago…

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

We, the people of the United States…

I pledge allegiance…

For many, the first line would evoke the 271 words comprising the ten sentences of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” The second line brings to mind the beginning of the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The third line should recall the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States. As for the fourth line, what American schoolchild didn’t learn by heart the “Pledge of Allegiance” and recite it at the commencement of every school day? All of the short phrases in my list act as mnemonic triggers.

Song lyrics work even better, because memory is aided not only by rhyme and meter, but also by the melody itself. As an example, I currently have a three-year-old granddaughter who is fascinated with the song Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. If you want to “wind her up,” just sing the first line of that nursery rhyme! Like her grandfather, she will know the lyrics of that song for the rest of her life.

And it would be a rare American who would need a “cheat sheet” to sing the entire first verse of our national anthem. All they need to hear is the first part of the opening question of the song: “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light…?”, and they can join in. They’ve heard and sung it so many times, that the mere mention of Oh, say, can you see…? triggers the memory of the rest of the verse.

Soaked in Scripture

The amount of material deliberately locked up in our memories, especially when it comes to Scripture, is a faint shadow of the wealth stored up in the hearts and minds of First-Century Jews and Jewish Christians. Books (scrolls, really) were painstakingly hand-copied by skilled scribes. Since such “publications” were so labor-intensive and time-consuming to produce, books were relatively rare and very expensive; much longer multi-scroll “books” like the sacred scriptures were even more expensive. Nevertheless, pious Jews were diligent to pass on the knowledge of God and the Scriptures from generation to generation, as the Lord had commanded through Moses:

6“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Deuteronomy 6:6-75

Timothy seems to have been a typical product of such an upbringing (and this despite the fact that he had a Gentile father):

…from childhood6 you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation.…

2 Timothy 3:15

Imagine a system of teaching, one largely without books, a system based on rote memorization and repetition. Listen to young children at home and in the synagogue schools reciting passages from the Law together. Hear the families singing psalms together at home on the sabbath, and the caravan congregations singing the Songs of Ascent7 as they travel together to Jerusalem for the annual festivals of the Lord. Join in the congregational responses from the Scriptures during weekly synagogue services. All of this from memory!

Such exercises and activities continued throughout adulthood. David’s words may well show us the typical result of such a life:

Your word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against You.
—Psalm 119:11—

Considering how much of the Bible was “learned by heart,” stored and treated like treasure for the soul, readily available for retrieval from memory, perhaps we can appreciate more the effect of Old Testament verses used by preachers, teachers, and writers in the New Testament. Nowadays, in our ignorance of and unfamiliarity with the Bible, especially the Old Testament, many of us barely recognize a quote from the Law or Prophets or Psalms. But in the first century, the majority of verses quoted that way would have acted as mnemonic triggers. That is to say, the quotation of a single verse would have triggered the context of the entire passage.

Pulling “Triggers” From the Cross?

As a case in point, think of Jesus quoting Psalm 22:1 as one of the phrases He gasped out while hanging on the cross:

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?

This one quotation (in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34) from the beginning of this psalm has generated endless words about God forsaking Jesus on the cross. Such an argument fails to consider that Jesus never ceased to be God, and that God, while Three Persons, is indivisibly One. Yet right after quoting this line, Jesus speaks three other “words from the cross” in rapid succession:

  • “I thirst!” (John 19:28). This is the climax of the theme of “the cup” Jesus must drink, a thread that runs through the Gospel of John.
  • “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Here is a divine declaration to God and men that the Ultimate Passover sacrifice has been completed. Perhaps this is the word that both Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) tell us that “Jesus uttered with a loud cry.” Or…
  • …they may be referring to Jesus’ final word, which Luke says that Jesus delivered, “crying out with a loud voice, ‘Father, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” ’ ” (Luke 23:46). Thus, Jesus’ last, “dying words,” were a quotation from Psalm 31:5 (another mnemonic trigger, as we shall see).

If Jesus — God Incarnate — wasn’t declaring that God had forsaken Him, what was He doing in quoting those words? In His role as the heaven-sent Teacher and Rabbi, even with the last shreds of energy within His physical body, He was sharing a mnemonic trigger, the first line of the Messianic Psalm that explained everything the witnesses at Calvary had been seeing over the last six hours. Read through Psalm 22 prayerfully and carefully, and you’ll see the prophetic details from the psalm that were fulfilled in those few hours on the cross:

  • The method of His crucifixion: “They pierced My hands and feet” (v. 16).
  • The destructive physical consequences of crucifixion: “All My bones are out of joint… I can count all My bones” (vv. 14, 17); the dehydration — “My heart is like wax; it is melted within Me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue cleaves to My jaws” (vv. 14-15).
  • The public humiliation, and the mocking of His enemies (vv. 6-8).
  • Even the dividing of His garments by the Roman soldiers and gambling over His seamless robe is prophesied — and fulfilled — for all to see (v. 18). The Apostle John, the only apostle or male disciple who was a front-row-center eyewitness to the crucifixion, though He doesn’t mention Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1, tells you what he “saw” once Jesus’ mnemonic trigger awakened his memory:

    23Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. 24So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be”; this was to fulfill the Scripture:

    “They divided My outer garments among them,
    And for My clothing they cast lots.”

    25Therefore the soldiers did these things (John 19:23-25).

    There’s a wonderful curiosity in the context of John’s words. Just preceding these words, John recounts the protest of the Jewish leaders about the sign the governor had ordered affixed to Jesus’ cross: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews” (John 19:19-21). Then in verse 22 John records, “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ ” In verse 25, John writes, Therefore the soldiers did these things.” Bracketing this garment-dividing vignette with Pilate’s words and this prophetic-fulfillment explanation of why the soldier’s did what they did, it’s almost as though John is saying, “Pilate wrote what he wrote and wouldn’t change a word; and God wrote what He wrote and it had to come to pass exactly the way He said.”

Do you see just how much Jesus could communicate to those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear,” through a single mnemonic trigger? Even though He can barely speak because of dehydration, to a Scripture-soaked people, with the single opening line of Psalm 22 He can evoke the entire Messianic psalm with all of its minute prophetic detail. Despite appearances, He can direct those who hear to the theme of hope and praise and victory that run through the psalm and bring it to a climactic ending.

And just in case someone missed the point of this purposeful evocation of the psalm, Jesus’ very last words were also a mnemonic trigger, this time from Psalm 31:5—

Into Your hand I commit my spirit.

This psalm of David speaks of God being a “refuge” and a “fortress” in the midst of physical and spiritual conflict. The psalmist is beset by enemies, adversaries, “nets,” grief, sorrow, and brokenness, but through it all, he looks to God for help, strength, and victory. Anyone for whom Jesus’ citation had triggered the contents of this psalm would have arrived at its concluding passage (vv. 19-24) —

19How great is Your goodness,
Which You have stored up for those who fear You,
Which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You,
Before the sons of men!
20You hide them in the secret place of Your presence
from the conspiracies of man;
You keep them secretly in a shelter from the strife of tongues.
21Blessed be the Lord,
For He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me in a besieged city.
22As for me, I said in my alarm,
“I am cut off from before Your eyes”;
Nevertheless You heard the voice of my supplications
When I cried to You.
23O love the Lord, all you His godly ones!
The Lord preserves the faithful
And fully recompenses the proud doer.
24Be strong and let your heart take courage,
All you who hope in the Lord.

We have only waded in the shallows of what Jesus’ two mnemonic triggers from the cross were meant to evoke. Think of a godly, Scripture-soaked Jew, one like David or Timothy, who from childhood, from infancy, had “hid God’s word in his heart, so he might not sin against Him,” someone who meditated in the Scriptures “day and night.” Hearing these triggers, having the words touched by the Holy Spirit, he might have had an explosion of insight and revelation into the things of God.

How About Today?

Alas, few among those who now claim Christ’s name are Scripture soaked. For so many, an Old Testament verse quoted in the New Testament is just that — a single verse, with no further meaning, weight, or import. Without a heart full of Scripture which is treasured in the memory, there is nothing to “trigger.”

Yet all is not lost! We may not have imbibed God’s word since our infancy, and we may not have been taught from childhood by our fathers and mothers in our homes and “synagogues.” Don’t despair! We have a Heavenly Father who is willing to teach us every day. In fact, He has provided us with a Personal Tutor, the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus said would be sent to “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), to “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26).

Nevertheless, that doesn’t happen “magically” to those who are lazy, undisciplined, or unmotivated. We must “seek out the book of the Lord and read” (Isaiah 34:16). We must meditate on it (Psalms 1:2; 119:97) and “hide”8 God’s word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).

Let me speak to this “hiding” in the heart. From a perspective of over 50 years as a follower of Jesus Christ and a regular reader-through of the Bible, I don’t necessarily think this primarily means memorization, despite what I’ve shared above. In my second year as a Christian, I committed over 500 verses to memory. That seemed “cool” and “spiritual” at the time, and it was helpful for that period in my spiritual walk. It was, perhaps, a means of grace for me in my spiritual infancy and childhood. Thus, I’m not denigrating Bible memorization. Generally speaking, the Holy Spirit can’t “withdraw” anything from “the bank account of your soul” if you haven’t been making regular “deposits.”

However, as I grew in Jesus, I found that Bible verse memorization actually can have a down side. How is that? Because, unlike in ancient days, rather than memorizing whole blocks of Scripture — that is, whole chapters and even books — we focus on memorizing individual verses or small two-to-three-verse passages. For me, at least, the ultimate effect was atomization of the Scriptures; that is, possession of these tiny fragments kept me from understanding the whole, the context, the flow, the greater meaning and principles I was meant to see. And it seems like for the last twenty years of walking with Jesus, most of what the Spirit has opened to me has come from seeing the context, seeing past the verse to the overall meaning.

So how do we hide God’s word in our hearts? You can include memorization, if you wish, as the Lord leads. But in the long run it will be of the greatest benefit for you to:

  1. Read through the Bible cover to cover every year. Start now. (Don’t wait until January 1st because the helpful Bible-reading chart you’ve acquired starts on New Year’s Day.) This is the only way to get fully familiar with the Scriptures. Most Bible-reading plans will encourage you to read one or more passages in the Old and New Testaments every day, and this is a good thing. It’s impossible for me to fully comprehend or express the blessing the Lord has brought me for over five decades through this discipline. I started the night I gave my life to Jesus.
  2. When you find one of the many passages in the New Testament that quotes from the Old Testament, take the time to explore the original quotation — not just the verse itself, but its context. Think of our example of Jesus quoting Psalm 22:1a. Taken by itself, out of context, it would seem to underscore the supposed despair and defeat of Jesus’ statement. But once 22:1 is read in the context of Psalm 22, a whole new revelation shines forth. You’ll find that one exploration will lead to another, revealing other passages in Scripture that are related to your current reading.

Cover of Jim Kerwin's message 'Pulling the Bible's Mnemonic Trigger'Available in e-book format for
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A “mnemonic trigger” has nothing to trigger if you aren’t hiding God’s word in your heart by regular reading; hence the exhortation to read and keep on reading. And a trigger does nothing unless you “pull” it, that is, unless you follow the quote back to the Old Testament and read it in context.

The process of “hiding” the Scriptures in your heart takes discipline and time; it occurs over a lifetime of faithful reading and meditating. The more you have stored, the more often the Holy Spirit will be able to trigger those wonderful, illuminating “ah ha!” moments in your reading and study. Meanwhile, allow these trigger points, especially the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament, to function in another way — as invitations to meditate, as portals to explore God’s foundational revelation, as windows allowing a peek into the mind of God and helping you gain insight into the themes of redemption throughout His Book.

The next time you come across a “mnemonic trigger” in the New Testament — pull it!

 


Endnotes:

  1. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book The John the Baptist Experience. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are taken from New American Standard Bible (nasb) Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA. All rights reserved. Used by Permission. www.lockman.org
  2. Title image is created by Jim Kerwin using a licensed graphic (the red word “MNEMONIC”) from 123RF.com overlaid on a photo of a Bible page provided courtesy of CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.
  3. Remember: When pronouncing mnemonic in English, the initial “m” sounds like the letter “p” in pneumonia. (Yes, that’s a joke; both letters are silent in English.)
  4. Some Christian readers might be offended at the mention of “those which by nature are no gods” (Galatians 4:8), because God said through Moses that His people were to “make no mention of the names of other gods” (Exodus 23:13; Joshua 23:7). But this prohibition is about worship and devotion, not about history. After all, making regular appearances throughout the Old Testament are names of false gods and goddesses such as Dagon, Ba‘al and Ashtoreth, and Molech.

    And the Book of Acts would be incomprehensible in certain parts if we didn’t know something about the identities of Artemis (or Diana, to use her Roman name; Acts 19:21-41), Zeus and Hermes (or the Roman Jupiter and Mercury, for whom Barnabas and Paul were mistaken in Acts 14:11-13). We would miss Luke’s wry humor in Acts 28:11 when he notes that the double-figurehead of the post-shipwreck vessel on which he and Paul’s party journeyed to Rome was the “Twin Brothers.” (These twins, Castor and Pollux, were thought to be gods who protected travelers.) And when the natives of Malta saw the viper bite Paul’s hand, they decided that even though Paul had escaped drowning, Δίκη (Díkē) — the goddess Justice — had “not allowed him to live” (Acts 28:4). (Of course, after a few hours, they changed their verdict, and decided “that he was a god” — Acts 28:6 — but which god Luke doesn’t tell us.)

    Ironically, hermeneutics — the science and art of studying and preaching and teaching the Bible in its various contexts — derives its name from the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was always the spokesman of the gods, relaying their messages to men and women. In the same way, those who preach and teach the word of God are acting as God’s spokespeople, hence the name of this most needed discipline of hermeneutics.

  5. Note that these two verses immediately follow the Shema (i.e., “Hear, O Israel… you shall love the Lord your God,” etc.), which command and exhort us to love the Lord our God with everything in us. Apparently, part of that heart/soul/mind/strength love is shown in diligently teaching the way of God and the things of God to our children and grandchildren.
  6. Some translations (e.g., ISV, NIV, Weymouth) substitute the word infancy for childhood.
  7. Psalms 120-134 comprise the so-called Psalms of Ascent, or Pilgrim Psalms, sung by worshipers approaching Jerusalem for the three annual Feasts of the Lord.
  8. The idea of hiding comes from older translations like the King James and finds a home in such versions as the NIV. We find the verb rendered stored and stored up in the ISV and ESV, respectively. My favorite, though, is treasured from the NASB.
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