Concerning the Fear of Man, II: A Failed Word Study

When I first wanted to study the concept of the fear of man, I wanted to do a word study in the Bible for phrases like, “Fear of man.”  However, I wasn’t actually sure our English Bibles ever used that particular phrase.  It turns out they do.  Once.  Seriously, I got a pdf of the Not Inspired Version (NIV) and searched for, “Fear of man.”  Same with the Elect Standard Version (ESV).  It returns, in the translation that Paul used (NASB), Proverbs 29:25.

The fear of man brings a snare,
But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.

For contrast, the word, “Fear,” appears 337 times in the Not Inspired Version.  It appears 455 times in the Elect Standard Version. (The difference comes from usage of phrases such as, “Do not be afraid,” instead of, “Fear not,” etc.  I am not trying to seriously call into question the general reliability of the NIV.)  Anyway, if we do a strict word study for, “Fear of Man,” we’re done.  So much for that.  And we learn something obvious: Don’t fear man.  It’s bad for you.

I’m being serious.

The context, though, adds a little bit of clarity.  Here are verses 24 through 26:

He who is a partner with a thief hates his own life;
He hears the oath but tells nothing.
The fear of man brings a snare,
But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.
Many seek the ruler’s favor,
But justice for man comes from the Lord

Verse 24 relates a courtroom-type scenario, in which a partner with a thief is forced to commit perjury.  Verse 26 takes a jab at kissing up and people pleasing.  Verse 25 is right in the middle, and opposed actions such as those described in vv. 24, 26 (actions that stem from a fear of man) as being opposed to the fear of God.  When one fears God, he distances himself from the wicked, and doesn’t testify with them.  When one fears God, he trusts in the Lord to provide justice, and doesn’t expect perfect justice from human government.  He will not be ensnared into sin by his comrades.  He will not be ensnared by the failure of other people, because his trust was always in God.

There really isn’t too much to add here.  For now it is worth focusing on the contrast in verse 25.  “The fear of man brings a snare.”  Fearing what other people will do to you—disapprove of you, judge you, slander you, gossip about you, think poorly of you, physically harm you—can control your actions.  This is an impediment to freedom.  The verse emphasizes that trusting in God and God only brings freedom.  Freedom from worry.  Freedom to do the right thing.  Freedom to be upright, and thus abominable to the wicked (see verse 27).  Which leads us to another passage I think fits into our word study.

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

These are Jesus’ famous words in Matthew 10:28, in which he exhorts his apostles to spread the message He gives them regardless of human opposition.  If we equate, “Those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul,” with, “Man,” as seems to be Jesus’ intention, we have a verse telling us not to fear man!  It also very clearly gives us the same contrast as Proverbs 29:25.  The fear of man stands in contrast with the fear of God.  We’re faced with a choice reminiscent of the words, “No one can serve two masters.”  Pick one.  God or man.

That should be convicting and sobering to us.  Almost every day, you either make a decision, or hear of someone you know making a decision, with thoughts like, “If I do this, then I’ll be known as ‘that guy.’ ”  Or, “I’m going to do this, because then I’ll look more spiritual.”  Admittedly we’re good at disguising that one.  But we still think it deep down very often.  Or perhaps on a more basic level, we struggle with, “I want this person to like me.  So I’m going to do this.”  Now if you think, “But that’s not the same as fearing that they’re going to kill me,” I’d assert the Bible doesn’t treat it differently.  Proverbs has the fear of man put alongside people pleasing (Proverbs 29:26), and obeying God as inviting the disgust of other people (Proverbs 29:27).  At the same time it sets up the same contrast between fearing man and fearing God that Matthew 10:28 does.  I do not believe the actual heart sin is different.  I believe there is a difference in degree of fear, a difference in the outward manifestation.  But it is the same root sin, and it leaves us with the same basic choice.  God or man.  Pick one.

And God gives us better hope.  Look at Matthew 10:26.  Look again at Proverbs 29:25.  God will exalt those who fear him.  Injustices committed against us will come to light.  Remember 1 John 2:1-2.  Jesus intercedes for us even now.  He is our ally and advocate.  Remember the promises that we are co-heirs with Christ, that we are born again with Him, that Ephesians 1 is true.  The choice between God and man should be easy.  We just need to not lose sight of it in our day to day lives.

You may have found the previous paragraphs, when taken together, rather Piper-esque: fight the fear of man with the fear of God, because the fear of God is united with a love of God stemming from the joy He gives us in salvation.  I have no further comment on my line of thinking.  But that leaves it to us to apply.  How do we fight the fear of man with love for God in our daily lives?  For one, we can remind ourselves of His promises.  And to do that requires us to read our Bibles, because that’s where God lists them.  But we can also remind ourselves of His promises by reading Biblical books, listening to Biblical lyrics, and maintaining Biblically centered friendships.  But possibly more importantly, we can actively trust God by praying, which will strengthen our love for God.  Prayer will very effectively help us kill the fear of man.  And so I close this post with a quote by my personal hero Mr. Edwards from A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections:

To instance in the duty of prayer: it is manifest, we are not appointed in this duty, to declare God’s perfections, his majesty, holiness, goodness, and all-sufficiency, and our own meanness, emptiness, dependence, and unworthiness, and our wants and desires, to inform God of these things, or to incline his heart, and prevail with him to be willing to show us mercy; but suitably to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask. And such gestures and manner of external behavior in the worship of God, which custom has made to be significations of humility and reverence, can be of no further use than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others.

Prayer, asserts Edwards, is intended not to change God—this would be a contradiction—or cause Him to do certain things—else our God would be more like a genie in a lamp than the I AM of Israel–but instead to change us.  Prayer causes us to trust God for His answer, thereby growing our humility before Him and ability to worship Him, and thereby combating our fear of things that are not Him, such as man.

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Concerning the Fear of Man, II: A Failed Word Study

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