Do I Have “Torah” Written on My Forehead? (The Importance of Daily Devotions)

184589_bible_readingThe Divine Service is the main course of a wholesome, spiritually nutritious diet.  There’s nothing quite like the gathering of the saints—past and present—around Word and Sacrament.  This is no ordinary meal; it’s the very Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9)!  But just as we don’t wait an entire week between eating meals, neither do God’s people limit themselves to a single serving of God’s Word per week.  At best, this would leave our faith famished and malnourished.  At worst, we’d starve to death!  As central as the Divine Service is to our faith, it is equally vital that we let God nurture our faith all week long through daily devotions.  As Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:5–9:

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, 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. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Did you notice how intense Moses is here?  He describes a way of life that is totally saturated with God’s Torah (Word), inside and out—to the point of what many today would consider overkill.  The Word should be internal, “on your heart”, and on the hearts of our children.  God’s Word is an ever-present reality on the hearts, minds, and lips of His people, not just something we read or hear once a week.  It should occupy our conversations (“you shall talk of them…”) and actions (“sitting” or “walking”) at all times (“when you lie down, and when you rise”). [endnote 1]

Taking Moses’ words at face value, some of the stricter branches of Judaism required its adherents to literally write portions of the Torah on their forehead!  As Moses said, “You shall bind them on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”  Accordingly, passages such as Exodus 13:1—10, 11—16, Deuteronomy 6:5—9, and 11:13—21 were written on strips of parchment and put into small leather capsules called tefillin, which were worn on the forehead and the upper arm.  The Talmud (c. 200—500 AD) stipulated that the tefillin were to be worn at all times.  However, by the Middle Ages the practice became relaxed and tefillin were usually worn only during weekday morning prayers. [endnote 2]  Also during this time, debates over whether or not these passages were meant to be taken literally began to arise.

IMG_0619 (1)While Jesus never tells us whether or not we should write “Torah” on our forehead or risk losing property value by engraving  Hebrew words on our doorposts, the New Testament is clear about the importance of consuming God’s Word on a regular basis.  As Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).  Jesus’ disciples are those who abide in His Word (John 8:31), who keep their eyes fixed constantly on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2), the Word made flesh (John 1:14).  As the first Psalm says, the righteous are those who “delight in the Torah of Yahweh,” who meditate on it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2).  In the Collect for the Word, the Church prays that God would grant us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures.  One serving per week just won’t cut it!

Spending time in God’s Word each day is an important part of a healthy spiritual diet.  The use of a basic, repeated liturgy in the home, like what Luther offers in the “Daily Prayers” of his Small Catechism can help keep God’s Word fixed in the heart and mind.  A slightly expanded version of Luther’s “Daily Prayers” can be found in the “Daily Prayer for Individuals and Families” section of Lutheran Service Book (p. 194—198).  Like a multivitamin, these short devotions contain the essentials and are simple enough for young children to use, while still being edifying for even the most mature Christian.  The daily prayer liturgies can easily be supplemented with a variety of other good devotional resources. [endnote 3]  Making use of the prayer offices (Matins, Vespers, etc.) is another great way to enrich your spiritual diet.

One of the Church’s greatest devotional treasures is Her hymnody.  Augustine is often credited with having said, “he who sings prays twice.”  If you aren’t comfortable singing, the hymns can also be spoken as prayers.  The hymns in Lutheran Service Book are based on Scripture and several Bible references appear at the bottom of each page.  The Church’s hymns can be thought of as poetic commentaries/meditations/prayers based on the Bible, and they make a nutritious addition to any devotional diet.

In addition to hymns, the Small Catechism is another menu item on a well-balanced diet of home devotions.  In it, we find the 4 “food groups” of the faith: Law (Ten Commandments), Gospel (the Creed), Prayer (The Lord’s Prayer), and the Means of Grace (Holy Baptism, Absolution, & the Sacrament of the Altar).  By placing Christ’s work of redemption at the center, the Small Catechism keeps the grace of God before our eyes continually (cf. Deuteronomy 6), encouraging us to repent, confess, believe, and live by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

In light of Deuteronomy 6’s encouragement to impress the Word of God on our hearts, it can be helpful to make use of short, repeated sections of the hymns and catechism in our daily devotions.  This will allow God’s Word to become more firmly fixed in the heart and mind.  The Small Catechism itself demonstrates a preference for quality over quantity.  Where the catechism is prayed daily, it can easily be memorized in a relatively short period of time. [endnote 4]

Outside of the hymnal and catechism, other good devotional resources include CPH’s Treasury of Daily Prayer (and supplemental volumes), For All the Saints: A Prayer Book for and By the Church (Compiled and edited by Frederick J. Schumacher with Dorothy A Zelenko), To Live with Christ (Bo Giertz, tr. by Richard Wood with Bror Erickson), Meditations on Divine Mercy (Burnell Eckardt), and Meditations on Divine Mercy (Johann Gerhard), just to name a few.  Resources like the Treasury of Daily Prayer and For All the Saints are meant to be comprehensive, all-in-one devotional resources.  The works by Giertz, Eckardt, and Gerhard contain short, daily readings that could be used alongside of the resources in Lutheran Service Book.

Sometimes a steady diet of quality home devotions might seem like eating fruits & veggies.  They might not be as tasty as eating bacon all the time, but it’s a lot better for you!  God’s Word is always distasteful to the Old Adam (even more so than healthy food!), who can’t stand to digest God’s Word. [endnote 5]  God’s Law shows us how helpless and needy we are, putting the Old Adam to death (not a pleasant experience!).  Like the menu at fast food restaurants, there are a lot of devotional resources out there that might appeal to the Old Adam’s taste buds, but aren’t very nutritious.  Sometimes they might be the equivalent of candy (empty calories), but if you’re not careful, you might accidentally ingest spiritual poison.

Much as the Church’s liturgy ensures a quality meal for the saints each week in the Divine Service, the hymnal, catechism, and other good devotional writings will, when used properly, make for quality home devotions.  Spiritual health is no less important than physical health.  Faith craves the most nutritious devotional resources available, which, by the grace of God, will impress His Word on our hearts and the hearts of our children.  May the Holy Spirit keep you steadfast in His Word and Grace, that His Word might remain in your thoughts, on your lips, and before your eyes, now and always.


Endnotes —

[1] Pairs of opposites (such as what we find here), or merisms are commonly found in the Old Testament, where opposites are used to express totality.  Here, “sitting and walking” represents all human activity, and “lying and rising” indicates that all time (day, night, and everything in between) is in view.

[2] Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), 441—443.

[3] For example, devotions in my household often consist of the above-mentioned “Daily Prayers for Individuals and Families” or Matins, which my children have been able to learn through repetition despite being too young to read.  After we finish the family devotion, my wife & I dismiss our children and read a selection from a devotional book such as To Live with Christ or the Treasury of Daily Prayer.

[4]  The goal should not be to memorize the catechism as quickly as possible, but to learn it well (“inwardly digest it”), taking a pace that is comfortable.  It can also be helpful to memorize hymns seasonally according to the Church year.  On average, about 5 minutes a day has been enough for my family to learn about one verse (of a 16-measure hymn) per week.

[5] The angel warned St. John that his experience of eating God’s Word would be both bitter and sweet at the same time (Revelation 10:9).  God’s Word is bitter because the Law puts our sinful flesh to death, but sweet because of the new life the Gospel creates.

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