How to memorize lots of Scripture

psalm 8 initials

A screen shot of one of my Anki cards

Memorizing Scripture is one of the best Bible studies I ever do. When you memorize Scripture, you have to think about it in a different way than when you read. To help your memory, you have to pay attention to the exact language being used and might find yourself thinking about why a certain word is (or isn’t) used and repeated. And you’ll also need to pay a lot of attention to sentence and paragraph structures — noticing the progression the passage takes and how it transitions from one piece to the next. It forces you to study the Bible inductively.

Pastors: memorizing my sermon text has been the most important part of my sermon preparation. I’ve had to live with the text and notice all its details long before I preach it. And it’s also nice to have the passage freely available in my mind as I go about the week — thinking about it in the car, the shower, waiting in line, etc.

How I used to memorize Scripture

Here’s how I used to memorize Scripture. I’d pick a verse – a small, nice quotable piece – and I’d write it down and rehearse it over and over again until I had it down. If I spent a lot of time working on it, I could memorize six or seven verses in a week. If I wasn’t careful to come back to them, I’d forget them pretty quickly.

How I memorize Scripture now

Then someone shared something that changed my whole approach to Scripture memory. They had me take a larger chunk – a full passage rather than single verse – and turn it into initials. (I’ll show you what I mean below.) I worked on a few verses at a time until I could say the full passage using only the initials as my guide. Then from there, I began to discard the initials and work on full memory.

For some reason, that intermediate step of working from initials made a huge difference. I think it also helped to begin looking at Scripture memory in terms of whole passages rather than single verses. The memorization served a deeper purpose, too, as it opened up the depth of these passages to me in whole new ways. It also helped me to see I could work through pretty large chunks, amounts I didn’t think were possible to memorize.

Step by Step

So here’s what I would suggest you do.

1. Choose a passage.

For a week, I usually set 9 verses as my lower limit and 19 as my upper limit. Less than 9 seems a bit too slow and easy. More than 19 starts to get daunting. Let’s choose Psalm 8 for an example. It’s a beautiful psalm, and one of the most oft-quoted. And it’s just 9 verses. I use the new NIV version, so that’s what you’ll see below.

2. Initial the passage.

See Psalm 8 in NIV here. You might want to have it alongside as you read this.

I take the first letter of each word, and create a card with only those first letters. Here’s how Psalm 8:1-4 looks for me:

Psalm 8 – You made them rulers   [I always title my passages]

Ftdom. Atg. ApoD.   [Yes, I also do the prefaces to the psalms]

1 – L, oL,
hmiyniate!

Yhsyg
ith.
2 – Ttpocai
yheasaye,
tstfata.
3 – WIcyh,
twoyf,
tmats,
wyhsip,
4 – wimtyamot,
hbtycft?

Notice that I preserve all the formatting and punctuation of the passage. That’s important and helps break it up.

3. Break it up into three parts.

If I’m working on something over the course of a week, I spend the first three days on initials, the next three days memorizing the three parts individually, and the final day pulling it all together.

Psalm 8 is nine verses long. I’d break this up into three verses per day, but that leaves a bit of an awkward break at verses 3 and 4. So here, I’d probably break it like this:

Part 1 – verses 1-4
Part 2 – verses 5-8
Part 3 – verse 9 (a nice, light ending)

4. Begin memorizing

On day 1, I learn part 1, using the initials as my aid. I work on the verses for the day until I can do the whole thing by only looking at the initials. Same for days 2 and 3 (reviewing, of course, the previous days).

On day 4, I learn part 1 from memory. I use my initials as an aid until I can quote the section without my initials. Same for days 5 and 6 (reviewing, of course, the previous days). On day 7, I work on quoting the whole passage from memory.

5. Keeping it

The hardest part of memory is the first part – memorizing it in the first place. If you memorize something, then don’t review it to maintain, you’ve done all the hard work for temporary benefit, when a little bit of review could have made it permanent.

If you want a structured way for learning and then reviewing these, I highly recommend Anki software. Download it onto your computer, and then you’ll probably want to watch a quick tutorial video or two to understand how to use it. Anki is the best memory tool I’ve ever seen. I’m using it for Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, a catechism, and Bible memory, and it has been excellent for all. At its core, the principle is to identify things you’re struggling to memorize and show them to you more often, and to show you things increasingly less often as you go — essentially reminding you of it just before you might have forgotten it.

So for a week, I create 7 Anki cards. It doesn’t take much time with some copy and paste work. The first 3 cards show the initials on the front and the full passage on the back. The last 4 cards for the week show only the passage title on the front and the full passage on back. Play with Anki for a while. You’ll get it. And I think you’ll love it.

How about it? Give it a try for a week. Why don’t you start with Psalm 8? I think you’ll be surprised. And I think you’ll get a lot from it. I’d love to hear how you do. Or hear if you have more questions.

See my Facebook Page linked on the side? Click “Like,” and you’ll be able to join some of the discussion there.

ashley zeigler says:

Ahh! That makes so much more sense!! I’m sure most people probably figured that out, but I apparently needed more help lol! Thanks for the clarification!

ashley zeigler says:

Hi Teddy! When you say you memorize the initials are you memorizing each individual letter, or are you memorizing it as if it is a word? For example, in verse 1 where you wrote “hmiyniate” are you memorizing h-m-i-y-n-i-a-t-e or are you thinking of it as a made up word? Sorry if I just misunderstood that part, but wanted to clarify. I have the worst time memorizing anything, so I’d love to try this method! I miss listening to your sermons at church, but enjoy reading your blog!

Teddy Ray says:

Hi Ashley,

Oops! I may not have communicated well what I do. I never memorize the initials. I use the initials as a memory aid. (I’ll edit the post to try to make that more clear.)

So for example, I would have a card in front of me that says “hmiyniate!” and I would say “how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Once I can do the verse with only the initials as aid, I move on to straight memory — with no initials in front of me.

Make sense?