It would be easy in western culture, with our much prized freedom of speech, to forget the great power and impact of words. Within living memory for some in Russia it would have been impossible to forget; during Stalin’s reign of terror, the words you used were so important that they could be a matter of life or death. When Vasily Grossman finished the manuscript of his great masterpiece, Life and Fate, the KGB turned up and confiscated it. In fact, it was considered so incendiary that they burned the very typewriter ribbons that were used to write it. The words they sought so eagerly to destroy have outlasted the regime which they critiqued.
A few years prior to this the Russian Modernist poet Anna Akhmatova wrote a poem, entitled Requiem, vividly describing life during Stalin’s terror. It’s words were so loaded with meaning, so intensely powerful, so dangerous, that she knew that they couldn’t be written down because she would be exiled to a gulag, if she was lucky, or else just shot against a wall. She and a handful of her followers carried it in their heads, memorising it as though it were a sacred text on the mythos of St. Petersburg. It was written on their heart and carried on their lips. They knew the power of those words.
It was written on their heart and carried on their lips. They knew the power of those words.
I love the romance of a small group of committed people memorising a poem to keep it alive at a time when freedom of expression was a distant dream. It’s decidedly beautiful. They knew they had power, they knew they told a truth that simply had to survive for the next generation. They were committed to the value of those words.
Can you imagine a world where followers of Christ placed as much value upon the bible? Where it was common to have a knowledge of scripture that meant encouraging a friend with it could be done from memory, without the need for our bible to be at hand? What if it was just there, written on minds and hearts?
In Jeremiah 31:33 God makes a covenant, a sacred promise, with His people to write His law on their hearts. It would be possible to read that and think of being forced to swallow a rulebook but the Hebrew concept of Torah is not about a rule book, though rules are included, it is instruction in the faith and encompasses for many the wholeness of their scripture.
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
There is something powerful in remembering, in holding words in your heart because they have meaning. Words were never meant to stay in books, they’re supposed to live in people. It’s why famous quotes from Kipling or Keats stick in the mind, why when faced with beauty Byron starts whispering in my ear, why Shakespeare reverberates so loudly in the national conciousness five centuries on. Words were made to be spoken, to be remembered, and to carry weight.
When we remember passages of scripture we are never without the word of God in our lives. God can use remembered verses to speak straight into circumstances, He can use the power of His word to encourage and strengthen no matter how busy or stressed your day or whether you chose to reach for your bible.
We can’t just relegate the word of God to a book we pick up when we remember but must let the power of it come alive, pray with it, meditate on it and let it truly sink in. You never know when you’ll be in need of strength and the right living words will spring into the memory, when a friend will be struggling and you’ll know exactly what to say. Just as Akhmatova’s friends carried the words of Requiem with in them for their power and truth, we need to carry scripture wherever we go.