Concerning the Fear of Man, III: A Proverbial Word Study

A Proverbial word study is a word study through the book of Proverbs.  Thanks for asking.  Only as we saw last time, an actual word study may not be as effective as a more general concept study.  We already know how the book of Proverbs lands on the issue of the fear of man.  Consider Proverbs 29:25 and Proverbs 1:7:

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

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

With the fear of the Lord and the fear of man being opposites, and the fear of the Lord and foolishness being opposites, we begin to see that Solomon (and more importantly God) is not very sympathetic towards the fear of man.  Let’s see what else Proverbs has to say on the issue. Of course, by our logic, any reference in Proverbs to the benefits of the Fear of the Lord is a reference to the detriments of the fear of man.  But I leave this to another word study. I don’t think it comes as any great surprise that topics related to the fear of man are prevalent in Proverbs.  For example, the first extended example of instruction in the book is peer pressure, described in 1:10-19:

My son, if sinners entice you, Do not consent.We will find all kinds of precious wealth, We will fill our houses with spoil;But they lie in wait for their own blood; They ambush their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who gains by violence; It takes away the life of its possessors.

The appeal of this scheme is the promise of wealth gained through diabolical teamwork.  The peer pressure, the promise of teamwork, the wealth—all these seemingly offer security to the tempted man.  This is an interesting theme we will continue to develop as appropriate; it may shine some light on the root issues surrounding the fear of man.

Many of the Proverbial instructions against sexual immorality are applicable to our current discussion.  Consider the first 10 or so verses of Proverbs 5, referring to the adulteress.  The instruction is to avoid sexual impurities entirely because of the dangers of temptation.  Proverbs 7 teaches the same principle.  This is exactly opposite of what the modern world tells us to do.  Cutting out risqué TV shows or music from our lives is too Victorian and stodgy and conservative and rigid and legalistic and prudish and repressed.  Reasonably normal human beings certainly aren’t doing it.  So many church members won’t as well.  But this worldliness, this rejection of Biblical principles, this apathy and complacency, stems from a fear of man.  Interesting contrast to see the fear of man as the root issue of another sin.

Another example of the fruits of the fear of man is the apparent fruits of people pleasing (or at least trying to avoid social awkwardness) seen in Proverbs 6:1-5.  I don’t think much needs to be said here; I’m pretty sure we’ve all been trapped in unwise or harmful situations by trying to avoid social awkwardness or trying to please everyone we know.  We often laugh at these behaviors when the consequences are harmless, but consider: the heart is the same.  When you do something harmless but humorous because you’re trying to please other people or avoid awkwardness, often your heart shows more fear of man than anything else.  The line between showing preference to others and trying unnecessarily to please them is one of heart motivation, and therefore we should be examining ourselves frequently for the fear of man in such areas.  Our motivations may not be as benign as we’d like to think.  Excusing our actions as some innate personality trait of ours would then not be a very wise or Godly choice of action.

Proverbs 12:9 paints a peculiar picture.  One man has a pristine public image, but doesn’t have any food.  The other is rather ordinary, but has a servant.  Or by some possible translations, serve himself food.  Still better off than the “honored” man without food though.  The difference, of course, stems from image preening.  One man values his public reputation of being rich and noble over food.  Heart issue?  If you come up with a viable option other than fear of man, I’m listening.  Proverbs 13:7 is in the same vein, but with the added scenario of a man who hides his riches, presumably to keep them secure from theft or fraud.

Proverbs 12:25 doesn’t specifically refer to fear of man.  But it definitely addresses anxiety derived from the fear of man (which is more common than I’d like to admit).  Proverbs 12:23 reminds us not to go around being tale bearers.  The fear of man often motivates gossip.  Either we want the person who hears the tale to like us for telling it, or we want the person who hears the tale to think more of us and less of the person in the tale.  Both come from the idolization of security: either we value security so much we lose heart without it (v. 25) or we value the security of our own reputation or social status more than our relationships with other people (v. 23).

The fear of man, it would seem, stems from a corruption of our God given instinct to seek security.  It is, of course, undeniable that God would give us an instinct for self-preservation, and to seek our own benefit.  He uses this to draw us to Himself, for example, when He tells us of the horrors of hell.  John Piper’s ministry is built on how the God given sense of seeking our own good should cause us to seek God.  But fear of man is a perversion of it.  To quote C.S. Lewis:

But pleasure, money, power, and safety  are all, as far as they go, good things.  …  I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good thing in the wrong way.

And this, of course, become why the opposite of the fear of man is the fear of the Lord: because only in God can we truly find security.  Only through YHWH’s salvation can we truly preserve ourselves.  But for now back to Proverbs, but keeping the theme of security in mind.

With this lens I expect you to understand the relevance of the following passages to our topic:  Proverbs 14:7, 15, 20, 21, 31; 19:46, 7, 17.  The first two have to do with whom we seek knowledge of.  If I accept the knowledge of absolutely anyone (v. 15), or if I accept that an enemy of God is constantly speaking into my life (v. 7), how am I fearing God?  And what am I instead pursuing?  Non-awkward relationships with fools.  Security in my social standing in the world.  The verses considering the treatment of the poor first disassociate security in social standing with aiding the poor (or in fact being poor; relevant to the pretension we saw earlier) and then point out that charity honors God.

But before you run out and feed the poor, make sure you do it for the right reasons.  Proverbs 15:8 is in the Bible.  And it teaches us that external obedience is not enough.  External obedience is lethal to the unsaved, because God despises it.  Only external worship is mentioned here, but we are theologically safe in extrapolating to obedience because of other things we know from the Bible.  You may wonder why I bring this up in a “fear of man” discussion.  I bring this up because so many unbelievers in the church, particularly those who grew up in church, continue pretending to be Christians, continue under their own self deception, not because they love God or want to serve Him (else they would obey and become saved), but instead because they’re afraid of the fallout with their Christian church friends.  The fear of man can be damning.

Are we there yet?  No.  We haven’t finished Proverbs.  How about Proverbs 18:24?  The product of people pleasing isn’t pretty.  The second phrase smacks of John 15:14, again reinforcing the contrast between fearing man and fearing God.  How ironic, however, is the end of the people pleaser, of the man of too many friends!  Seeking security and social standing and prosperity all his days, instead he is comes to ruin!  Why?  Because he never turned to God, the only true source of security, prosperity, and blessing.

Are we there yet, Dad?  Certainly not.  So much more Proverbs to cover.  But I’ll let you off the hook and break this word study into multiple parts.  We’ll finish going through the Proverbs in the next post of this series.

Concerning the Fear of Man, III: A Proverbial Word Study

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