“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Famous words from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural speech. However, Roosevelt wasn’t the first person aware of this. Thoreau is quoted as saying, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” Our psalmist also knows something of this concept.
Fear is a compelling emotion with differing meanings depending on how it is used. Webster states that fear is “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by expectation or awareness of danger.” Fear invokes the fight or flight response in us. Under its influence we may turn around and engage in battle or run for shelter. We may become paralyzed, unable to function, make decisions or even leave our homes. Or we may foolishly strike those whom we believe to be a danger without checking the facts. The person who is fearless is not necessarily brave; they may be foolhardy.
After a series of laments followed by our last two psalms, we encounter another lament before launching into hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Why it is placed in this particular spot in the psaltery is anyone’s guess. Still it is a worthy, short psalm that addresses the concept of fear.
The writer is calling out to God for help, in traditional lament fashion, however he doesn’t ask for protection from his enemies, but protection from fear. “Hear my voice, O God, in my prayers: preserve my life from fear of the enemy.” (1 KJV) Other translations translate fear as dread, indicating an intense emotion. He recognizes what Roosevelt and Thoreau knew—his greatest enemy is fear.
The weapons he is confronting are not actual swords and arrows but words that inflict pain like weapons, “who whet their tongues like swords, who aim bitter words like arrows.” (3) His detractors are fearless in their attacks, “shooting from ambush at the blameless, shooting at him suddenly and without fear.” (4) They are rash, slinging forth words with abandon from their hiding place.
He asks God to give back to them in the manner that they have given out, “But God will shoot his arrow at them; they will be wounded suddenly. Because of their tongue he will bring them to ruin; all who see them will wag their heads.” (7-8) They will become victims of loose tongues just as they have attacked others. They have brought their own ruin on themselves.
The psalmist wishes fear upon them, just as they inflicted him with fear, however in this case it is fear of the Lord, a different form of fear. Webster defines this fear as, “to have reverent awe of.” All are to have this fear which is a reverential fear before our God. “Then all men will fear; they will tell what God has wrought, and ponder what he has done.” (9)
What would a life without fear look like? You don’t have to look far to find reasons for fear. There is the craziness that is the Middle East and a potential face-off between Russia and the US. The reality of cancer is never far as so many people I know have been afflicted by this scourge. Just getting into your car each day can elicit fear as you hear of car accidents that kill or maim people.
What would a life without fear look like? Would we act rashly without thought of the consequences if we didn’t have fear placing a hand of caution upon our shoulders? According to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the word “fear” and its synonyms occur several hundred times in the Old Testament and more than a hundred times in the New Testament. “They are used to render into English more than a score of Hebrew words and their derivatives, and at least three Greek words and their derivatives.” We have one word that conveys a wide realm of meaning.
And so, not all fear is bad. Fear can serve a useful purpose; it can be a friend. Reverence, fear of the Lord, is one of the gifts of the spirit. We need to pray, not for a freedom from all fear, but a freedom from unnecessary fear that pushes us to act rashly or keeps us from acting when we need to act. With the psalmist we are to pray, “preserve my life from fear of the enemy,” whoever that enemy may be for us.
What do you fear? Is your fear friend or foe?
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