You thought I’d forgotten this series didn’t you! But I don’t quit that easily. You can find the rest of the series I am slowly putting together in a delinquent and disorganized manner by clicking on the “Fear of Man Series” tag on this post. One day it may stand complete.
Let me take a moment to remind us why we should study the fear of man. As I mentioned originally in this post, the raison d’être for my posts on this blog is false spirituality in the church, particularly related to externalism and hypocrisy. Loosely speaking, legalism is the doctrine that you can be saved by obeying the law. However, there are many people we believe to be genuine Christians who seem to act in what we call a legalistic manner, not by putting their faith for salvation in their works, but by considering what they do, particularly how they act externally, to be the primary component of their spirituality. I believe a better name for this is externalism. Since externalism de-emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel and Jesus Christ and is frequently a byproduct of underdeveloped theology and convictions, I am very concerned whenever and wherever I see it. What good are externally good actions unmotivated by correct theological convictions and sincere love for God? We can watch unbelievers conform to these same standards. As this very externalism is often motivated by a fear of man, one strategic way to confront it is to undermine this motivation. I made this clear here. Now let’s turn to the passage.
It can be thoroughly established that fear of man was one of the key underlying factors in national Israel abandoning their God and pursuing idols in His place. This was not a fear of other nations persecuting them for their religious beliefs, but rather a desire to be like the other nations (1 Samuel 8) and a trust in foreign powers instead of God for protection (such as that exemplified at various times in Jehoshaphat, Ahaziah, and Jehoiakim). On a surface level, the book of Jeremiah focuses on rebuking Judah’s idolatry and proclaiming the coming judgment of God. In reality the focuses of the book are more complex, but its emphasis on idolatry means it must discuss the fear of man. YHWH himself does so in chapter 17.
So first, let’s look at verses 5-8 as the kernel of the fear of man teaching in this chapter:
Thus says the LORD,
“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the LORD.
For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD
And who trusts in the LORD.
And whose trust is the LORD.
For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield its fruit.
Two themes familiar to this series immediately arise, that of fear of man including a trust in the strength of man, and that of the fear of man being contrasted with a fear and trust in God. Verse five clearly implies that the person who trusts in the strength of man, whether his own or anyone else’s, has turned away from God. The fear of man is idolatry, underscored by the context of the passage given by verses 1-4:
The sin of Judah is written down with an iron stylus;
With a diamond point it is engraved upon the tablet of their heart
And on the horns of their altars,
As they remember their children,
So they remember their altars and their Asherim
By green trees on the high hills.
O mountain of Mine in the countryside,
I will give over your wealth and all your treasures for booty,
Your high places for sin throughout your borders.
And you will, even of yourself, let go of your inheritance
That I gave you;
And I will make you serve your enemies
in the land which you do not know;
For you have kindled a fire in My anger
Which will burn forever.
That verse five immediately follows this indictment of idolatry emphasizes that the root of Israel’s idolatry was an unbelief in God and His promises, followed by a turning to a trust in man for their protection, that in turn led to blatant idolatry. Not much more needs to be said.
The imagery in verses seven and eight, however, is nearly identical to the first three verses of Psalm 1, which read:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.
There does not seem to be a clear indication of when Psalm 1 was written, though its similarity to Proverbs suggests Solomon may have written it. In either case, the similarities between the passage in Psalms and that in Jeremiah suggest intentionality, connecting the Fear of Man in Jeremiah with the Wickedness in Psalm 1, with similar fates given to each (v. 6 in the Jeremiah passage, vv. 4-6 in the Psalm). Similarly, the strength and endurance of those who put the entirety of their faith and trust in God is promised by both passages.
But Jeremiah 17:9 returns us to the point made by the first verses of the chapter: the doctrine of depravity.
The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick;
Who can understand it?
I, the LORD, search the heart,
I test the mind,
Even to give to each man according to his ways,
According to the results of his deeds.
As verse one spoke of the permanence with which sin had been attached to the hearts and characters of the people of Judah, so does the verse nine return us to the hopelessness of a sinful heart. Desperately sick due to sin within, no man can understand or repair his own heart, and consequently cannot alter his ways. The frequency with which the natural man dwells on sin is rivaled by the frequency with which he thinks of his children; he is totally possessed and deceived. And in context, this is made the consequence of the fear of man. Opening the door to a little fear of man, a little less trust in God, motives slightly askew of Biblical standards, allows for much more sin and corruption to take over the heart in the future. God punishes sin by allowing the sinner to be dominated by his sin.
God of course sees the human heart accurately. He sees through outward actions to their motivations, whether those be rooted in a trust in mankind and the strength of flesh or rather to a faith in Him. Only God can ultimately do so, as those of us stuck in this life are already subject to our corruption. Thus only to God can we turn to salvation from this dilemma.
The practical ramifications of this passage are important. The Jews (Judeans? Judahites? Judahns?) of Jeremiah’s time were not irreligious people; other chapters have talked about their sacrifices and temple worship. But a little fear of man, a little straying from trust in God, a little unbelief led them eventually to Baalism, to a worship of the Asherim, and finally to the child sacrifice to Molech in Manasseh’s reign. Just so in the Christian life. It may seem a small thing to do the right thing (join a service team at church, give a kind word to a fellow believer) without having the right motivations behind it. But wrong motivations (How can I get other people to love and accept me? How can I manipulate this action to my social gain? Is this the nice Christian thing to do?) lead one astray of God and eventually to idolatry. Motivation by fleshly, man centered concerns already displays a distrust of God and a dissatisfaction with Him as the sole source of joy and goodness. No wonder, then, that the fear of man leads to idolatry. No wonder, then, it was a slippery slope for the nation of Israel.
You can call this a slippery slope argument, because it is! That’s how sin works! Deceiving you into thinking that a little sin is okay, or a little unbelief is natural, is how the sick heart leads the sinner astray. And God will not be deceived.